Beautiful Messes: Reviews of Where God Hides Holiness and Flunking Sainthood

The two core principles of the programs we offer at Confirm not Conform are authenticity (presenting our true selves) and intentionality (making conscious decisions). These principles are on full display in Mary E. Koppel and Laurie Brock’s powerful new book Where God Hides Holiness, and far less so in the 2011 book Flunking Sainthood by Jana Riess.

I had high hopes for Flunking Sainthood, subtitled “A year of breaking the Sabbath, forgetting to pray, and still loving my neighbor.” The premise is interesting: the author practices a different spiritual practice each month, accompanied by reading a spiritual classic that corresponds with the practice, then writes up the results. I thought this might be a great companion piece to CnC for Adults in which we ask people to test drive different spiritual practices.

Unfortunately, the results seemed to be half-hearted at best. It wasn’t that she didn’t follow through, but that everything seemed to be met with a big old “eh.” But what really got my goat was her story at the end about going to visit her estranged and dying father, with the message that because of these spiritual practices, she was able to do the “Christian” thing. As a pastor, I read this and thought, “Oh, honey. Who told you that ‘christian’ was an adjective?”

It certainly wasn’t Koppel and Brock (who are not a pair of television cops, though it sounds like it, doesn’t it?). Mary and Laurie are both Episcopal priests who served, at the beginning of the book, at large parishes in the Diocese of Louisiana. And thank God they had each other for support, because they went through enormous amounts of trauma during their tenures there. “Between us,” they write in the introduction, “we experienced three deaths, six miscarriages, a divorce, a failed adoption, abuse at work, and two questionable relationships.” 

I read each of these women’s stories in one fell swoop, absolutely on the edge of my seat much of the time. The premise in each case was that they looked fine, but they weren’t fine. They were, as they call it, “beautiful messes.” And they are honest about the mess. Their authenticity shines through every page. Unlike Riess, who I felt held back, these two women go there, ruthless and yet compassionate about themselves. And in so doing, in their honest examinations, they are able to be intentional in their choices about what to do next. 

Where God Hides Holiness is a wonderful antidote to much of the pablum of religious writing that tries so hard to appear Christian-as-an-adjective that it avoids the beautiful mess of grief and vulnerability. It gives terrific insight into the deep and wounded life of many priests and pastors, and in so doing offers permission for all of us to explore our sorrows and failures. Their story shows that formation happens, not when you follow certain proper steps, but in the hard, heavy work of deep communion: loving God, loving your neighbor, and loving yourself.

[You can read our interview with Mary Koppel hereWhere God Hides Holiness is currently available in Kindle edition, with a paperback edition due out in January.]