M. Susan Hundt-Bergan lives in Madison, WI, with her husband Hal. Susan is retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where she was team leader for recycling. She is now a certified Lay Minister for the Diocese of Madison. She serves her parish, Blessed Sacrament, and the diocese in various ways, including coordinating the Catholic ministry at the Dane County Jail, a responsibility that takes her to the jail each Thursday night to worship and pray with incarcerated men and women. She is blessed to be the mother of two and grandmother of three. Another joy and challenge is sharing ownership of a family farm with her ten brothers and sisters.
Faith, Interrupted, A Spiritual Journey
by Eric Lax (Micronesia 1966–68)
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966-68)
IN THIS SPIRITUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Eric Lax writes about his journey from a childhood immersed in the Episcopalian faith of his family, through an adulthood of spiritual drift, to his current uncomfortable agnosticism. On a parallel track, he also tells the story of his college friend, George Packard, who, after a distinguished combat career in Vietnam, became an Episcopalian priest.
The opening scene of the book drew me in. Eric, a boy of eight, is the acolyte for his father, an Episcopalian priest, at an early Sunday morning Holy Communion Service. The service is lovingly and precisely described. The earnest boy and his father the priest obviously adore each other. From that opening scene we enter into the life of this small family — father, mother, son — that revolves around their religious faith. I felt very much at home in the opening chapters of Mr. Lax’s book. I also grew up in a family with faith at the center, although Roman Catholic, and my oldest brother, not my father, is a priest.
From first grade through college (except grades 5 through Eric attended Episcopalian schools, and an active Christian faith was at the heart of his life. Once he entered Hobart College, the courses in philosophy and theology brought him to a new intellectual engagement with his faith, “faith seeking understanding” as St. Anselm wrote in the eleventh century. During his college years he was active in the campus Episcopalian congregation, served as an acolyte, and even considered the priesthood. It was at Hobart that he met George (Skip) Packard, a fellow Episcopalian, who became a life-long friend. Skip Packard’s life, most specifically his faith journey, provides a story within the story, a point of reference, and a contrast, to Lax’s course.
As Eric approached the end of his college years, the shadow of the Vietnam War and the Draft touched everything. Eric’s faith led him to two decisions: to join the Peace Corps, and to apply for conscientious objector (CO) status. Lax was sent to Micronesia, the tiny island of Tsis, where he was a teacher from 1966 to 1968. During that time he occasionally was able to worship at a Catholic church, staffed by a lively Jesuit, on a nearby island.
In the last months of Lax’s Peace Corps service and for several years afterward, his life was taken up with the CO petition. Eventually he was successful, and free to focus fully on his career as a writer, first in New York and then California. Something else was happening in those thirty-something years: his faith began to slip away.
Lax understands how he lost his faith. “It was a course of omission, not commission — of what I happened not to do rather than what I decided to do. I no longer attended services every Sunday and found I didn’t really miss them, so I attended even less often . . .. Fewer and fewer in my circle of friends were devout . . ..” He also began to question the teachings of the book of Common Prayer that previously he had totally accepted. When his father died, Lax realized how much his father had been “the conduit” to his spiritual life. The Nicene Creed became too much to swallow, and he says, “More and more I liked the idea of leading a good life without having to frame it with dogma about original sin, ascension into heaven, and who is sitting at God’s right hand.” With the death of his mother in the mid-1990s (Lax doesn’t provide many dates for the reader.), he no longer felt the need to pretend to be a believer. And, although Lax apparently felt relieved, he also felt the separation from his beloved father widen and deepen.
While telling of his own faith journey, Lax devotes a significant part of the book to his friend, Skip. In danger of being drafted, Skip enlisted in the army and became a distinguished combat leader, training others in ambush techniques. After his Vietnam years, he became an Episcopalian priest and was later raised to the bishopric. Packard and Lax’s friendship had waxed and waned over the years, but the many conversations and the time spent together during the writing of this book brought them very close. The book reveals the strong contrast between their spiritual journeys: Packard persisted, through the vicissitudes of life, on the path of faith that Lax chose to leave.
And yet, the final message that Lax leaves with us is his uncertainty. He says that he envies his friends who have faith and the transcendence it brings to their lives. In his last paragraph, he speaks of how hard it is to find God, and that, regarding the faith he once had, “I miss it.” There is also the curious title of his book, “Faith, Interrupted,” as though his belief in God is merely on pause. What are we to make of this? Does he really yearn for a relationship with God again, to believe, to have faith? Or is it simply a literary flourish?
We know from the lives of great Christian saints that it is common for them to experience a time, called “the dark night of the soul,” when God seems distant and unresponsive. We know from letters and journals published posthumously that Mother Teresa of Calcutta suffered this spiritual loneliness for decades, but yet she continued a life of intense prayer and tireless care of the destitute and dying. Each day she made the choice to believe in the God who was once so close and ardent but seemed to have turned His face from her. Faith requires an act of the will. We know from human relationships how feelings come and go and that we must choose to be faithful to our spouse, respectful and caring for an aging and demented parent, patient with a stubborn and disappointing son or daughter.
It is certainly not unusual for a person to challenge the faith in which he or she was raised. Looking back on my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia (also from 1966 to 68), I am struck at how easily — after 22 years of Catholic formation and education — I was able to slip into a routine with very little formal worship. (I can’t remember what my personal prayer life was like. Rereading my journals and letters home would probably shed some light.) There was no Catholic church in my town, and I felt uncomfortable at the Ethiopian Orthodox churches, where everyone stared at me and I never quite knew what was expected of us foreign women.
After returning to the U.S., I always went to church when I was with my family in Wisconsin. However, there wasn’t much Sunday worship when I was back in Washington, D.C., where I worked immediately after Peace Corps. Yet I was almost always miserable and blue on Sundays. Gradually I came to understand the problem, as St. Augustine (354–430 A.D.) expressed for the ages, “You made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
My adult life has been a growing into that truth: my times of peace and joyfulness are those when I am open to God’s grace and walking mindfully with His Son, Jesus Christ, my Redeemer, Teacher, Friend. I journey in the earthly company of my brothers and sisters in the family we call the Church. Birth, coming of age, marriage, death, each of life’s threshold moments are made transcendent through the sacramental rituals of this institution Christ founded. The daily too becomes sacred because of God’s love for us and our redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Of course, having a human nature — a “fallen” nature — marked by the unending struggle between good and evil, each day I must learn and relearn what it is to be good. These days, as His light grows stronger for me, I like to think it is two steps forward and only one back! (Would you agree, my dear husband??) I can take credit only for an openness to God’s grace and mercy.
On a dewy, sun-kissed summer morning, when I cut salad greens in my garden and listen to the chickadees singing in the tree nearby, or play soccer with my young grandsons, I am grateful to God for the moment of grace and for the hope of the world to come.
Reading this book helped me to see my own faith journey with fresh eyes. I pray that Mr. Lax will indeed seek God with a sincere heart, and that his search will restore to him the gift of life-giving faith he once knew.
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