Leah Libresco’s Arriving at Amen is out

Leah Libresco’s Arriving at Amen is out April 22, 2015

Subtitled “Seven Prayers That Even I Can Pray” it is a fascinating, geeky Librescan look at prayer that is completely unique. I love it. Here’s the foreword I as honored to write for it:

This may sound strange, but when atheist Leah Libresco announced that she was entering the Catholic Church, I felt vaguely let down that atheism would no longer have Leah around to (as she sunnily puts it) “pick fights” on behalf of the No God crew.  I knew the online conversation would again subside into the normal boring round of Flying Spaghetti Monster chatter and “If God created everything, then who created God?” high school sophomore philosophy that Libresco-less atheism tended to be.  I would miss her Turing tests (in which she tried to get believers and non-believers to really do their level best to get into each other’s heads instead of simply caricature each other’s positions).  I would miss her “geek orthodox” analogies from gamer culture, math, and sci-fi/fantasy.  I would miss her cheery, non-hostile confidence that the Truth would not lie to her and her willingness to really follow an argument wherever it led.  I would miss her ability to call out intellectual laziness (mine as much as anybody else’s) in atheist/believer arguments.  In short, I would miss her old school belief that the purpose of arguing was not to win, but to clarify.

I am happy, however, to report that I didn’t wind up missing any of this for long, since Leah brought all that with her into the Church, verifying once again St. Thomas’ conviction that grace perfects, not destroys, nature.  It is in Leah’s nature to be a highly original thinker–and therefore to restate old truth (and all truth is old) in fresh ways, whether as an atheist or a believer.  You hold in your hands the proof of this.

Leah’s great gift is that she really really trusts the Truth.  She trusts not only that (in the words of the X Files) the Truth is Out There (sometimes Way Out There, as the astonishing truth of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God Almighty demonstrate), but that the Truth is also In Here: in our intimate communion via the Holy Spirit with the Immanent God, who speaks to us through our personal struggles, questions, confusions, and crazy intuitions as we examine them in light of apostolic tradition.

So she is, rather like the apostles were, not afraid to ask weird questions and say, “I don’t get it”  and propose her questions and judgments about life, the universe and everything to Jesus and his Church.  In all this, she is not rude or defiant or impious. She is, rather, a wrestler like our father Jacob. She is, very simply, clear-headed and says things that a lot of the rest of us were too timid to say–resulting in answers from Christ the rest of us are too timid to get.  After all, who hasn’t thought “Why am I asking God for stuff he already knows I need?” or “Isn’t it silly to demand that Justice be meted out to bad guys but I get Mercy for me?”  Leah is willing to tough it out and really stay with those kinds of questions until she gets an answer from the Tradition that satisfies–that does not bend or mutilate either the Tradition, or her own apprehensions of Truth, Mercy, and Justice put into our hearts by God.  She believes–really believes–that we shall know the Truth, and the Truth will make us free.

The originality–and in a funny way, charity–of Leah’s thought is nowhere more on display than in the opening of this book, wherein she makes the case for one of the most unlikeable characters in all of world literature: the entirely uncharitable Inspector Javert of Les Miserables.  Seeing him through Leah’s eyes, we see how this creature of rules and regulations, of self-sufficiency and inflexible merciless rectitude is attempting (as we all do) to reach a good end, but by bad and ultimately self-destructive ends.  More than this, we see this merciless man through the eyes of God’s (and Leah’s) mercy.  Who but Leah Libresco would begin a book on prayer by referring us to so unyielding and unsupplicant a character–and find her way through him to the God of mercy, of grace and, yes, of answer to prayer who has found us?  Who but Leah Libresco could formulate the completely original yet old-as-the-gospel discovery that “I guess morality just loves me or something” and her realization that “Morality wasn’t just a rulebook, but some kind of agent” who had leapt the chasm to her that she could not cross herself.  She may not have known it when she first said it, but that is as serviceable a restatement of John 1:1-14 as you could ask for.  It is characteristic of her sense of intellectual freedom–a deeply Catholic sense–that she would do this.  This is somebody who, under the grace of the Holy Spirit, really thinks, and therefore does her level best to think with the mind of Christ, who is the Power and Wisdom of God.

Most of all though, what I appreciate about Leah’s work in this book is how deeply humane and full of charity she is.  As much as she appreciates the finest qualities of even a merciless Javert, she also approaches even her enemies with the mercy of Christ–and is paradoxically merciless with her own falsities, charades, self-flatteries, flummery, and balderdash as she does so.  For as she herself came to realize, we are all in Javert’s boat, only not quite so stony in our refusals of grace.  Here, it seems to me, her own atheist past, under the guidance of God’s strange grace, taught her well.  She grew up as a sort of stoic: wanting to do and think and say the right and the true and the good, not for the sake of reward, but for its own sake.  Where most people fear lack of popularity, she feared flattery and being told what she wanted to hear.  In consequence, when she did hear the Good News, she really heard it and took it in, not because it promised her health or wealth or fame or power or honor or pie in the sky when she dies by and by, but because Jesus is Goodness, Reality, and Beauty or, as he himself put it, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Not, of course, that she doesn’t struggle.  This book is a chronicle of struggles, questions, confusions–and spiritual progress under grace.  Indeed, one of its greatest merits, I think, is that Leah, by her own free admission, does not have it together when it comes to prayer. She struggles to get to Amen. But then, so do we.  As St. Paul notes in Romans 8:26, “we do not know how to pray as we ought”, and this fact marks Leah’s experience of prayer as well. So she both relies on and struggles with the many helps and graces Christ gives to us through his teaching, his inspired word in Scripture, his Church, the liturgy, the saints, and the abundance of other ways his Spirit pours out grace on us.  In this book, Leah does us the great favor of not being a spiritual master, but rather of being a fellow kindergartner with us and jumping up excitedly when she finds something new and  beautiful.  Join her on her journey into prayer and you will find yourself kindled anew as well.