Hallelujah Anyway: Anne Lamott’s Latest on Rediscovering Mercy

I have loved Anne Lamott since I read her first memoir, Traveling Mercies, when I was […]

Carrie Willard / 4.5.17

I have loved Anne Lamott since I read her first memoir, Traveling Mercies, when I was in law school. In a world where I was, quite literally, surrounded by law, I heard grace in her words, and it was the drink I didn’t even know I was thirsty for. Later, Lamott’s Operating Instructions, her memoir about her son’s first year, prepared me for motherhood in a way that all of the What to Expect books failed to do.

Naturally, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for my favorite lay theologian with my friends, some of whom scoffed at Lamott’s personal history: how could they relate to a recovering addict with questionable life choices? (I suppose I didn’t see her questionable life choices any differently than anyone else’s, except maybe a lot more interesting than mine.) Wasn’t I scared off by her account of her son’s first year, when she was so raw and honest about her struggles as a single mother? (I figured, if she could do it, and even write about it, alone and in recovery, I could maybe pull it off with a husband and without an addiction. And I did, but barely.) When Lamott dipped her toe into political ranting in her later nonfiction works, my friends and family wondered again what I liked so much about her writing. (I wondered sometimes, too. But then I came to realize that those rants were more about her own struggles with humanity than with any particular political viewpoint.)

I once called in to a local radio show to speak to her when she was in town for a book signing, and, just short of gushing, I told her how much her writing about bringing her son to church influenced my bringing my own sons to church. She was gracious and lovely and wise.

And so, I accidentally became an Anne Lamott apologist, in the same way that other Christians have come to the defense of St. Paul, and C.S. Lewis, and Jesus himself. Like St. Paul and C.S. Lewis did before her, Lamott struggles with the issues of her time and her place on the planet, and if we see her work through that lens, I think we can see how much she has to offer.

Lamott’s latest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, was released yesterday, just in time to read before Easter. This book requires no apology, and it might be my favorite of hers so far. It is taking some serious self-control (which, let’s face it, I’m short on) not to just quote the entire book, but I’ll try to restrain myself.

I have to begin with her definition of mercy, which echoes the Mockingbird definition of grace:

Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves forgiving the debt, absolving the unabsolvable.

She describes her difficulty with this mercy, in a way that many of us will relate to:

want to want this softening, this surrender, this happiness. Can I get partial credit for that? The problem is, I love to be, and so often am, right. It’s mood-altering, and it covers up a multitude of sins.

She later calls it for what it is, for those of us who long for control and rightness and righteousness from our own rightness: “This is such bad news for those of us who would like to even the score at some point.” Whoa. And yes.

Perhaps one of her best observations comes from her Jewish rabbi friend, who describes a prayer said on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

The Kol Nidre prayer, the declaration with which the Yom Kippur service begins, anticipates that we will keep falling short no matter our best intentions. It says, to paraphrase, ‘You know all those promises and commitments I make to You and am about to make? Well, forget it. Don’t get Your hopes up. And don’t blame me. It hasn’t gone well and is not going to go well; I think we know that already.’ But love and mercy are sovereign, if often in disguise as ordinary people, and as inescapable as sturdy pediatric nurses. Over and over, in spite of our awfulness and having squandered our funds, the ticket-taker at the venue waves us on through. Forgiven and included, when we experience this, that we are in this with one another, flailing and starting over in the awful beauty of being humans together, we are saved.

Of course, as Christians, we believe that the ticket-taker at the venue is Jesus on the cross. Lamott recognizes this for the upside-down, inside-out puzzle that it is: “What’s the catch? The catch is that there is no catch. This is so subversive.” Isn’t it, though? And don’t we all need to hear that again and again?

Lamott shares the trademark Mockingbird low anthropology: “We are all gigantically flawed, such screwups. Everyone is broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together.”  Why yes, Anne, we agree. We are all, quite simply, the worst.

Lamott artfully weaves together wisdom from the Dalai Lama, St. Paul, Rilke, Orson Welles, Anthony de Mello, Julian of Norwich, Carl Jung, Kurt Vonnegut, St. Augustine, New Yorker cartoons, Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, Frederick Buechner, poets, Jesuits, rabbis, and musicians. She does this weaving in such a way that you might feel like you’re sitting next to her as she teaches her young Sunday School students about Jonah, or maybe sitting across from her at an AA meeting when she tells you about her brothers, and all in her trademark style of honesty and humor.

What most makes me want to tuck this book into friends’ hands, though, is her poetic non-answer to the question of suffering, and the question of why anyone believes in Jesus or God in a world of suffering:

How — if we are to believe that there is meaning in our brief time here on earth, that mercy is the ground of our being, and love is sovereign — do we explain childhood cancer, earthquakes, addiction? Where is mercy in a beloved’s suicide? In the Christian tradition, we say that Christ continues to be crucified, in tsunamis, sick children, political prisoners, and that we must respond.

This is what I believe, so I show up and get water for people, real people, which is to say, annoying people. Mother Teresa cradling strangers at dawn is very romantic, but in life, there’s also your thirsty bigoted father, your lying sister, the whole human race, living and dying and rising with Christ.

In the rabbinical tradition, there is great insight in the notion that when we see suffering, we remember that this is only the sixth day. We’re not done here. The good news is that God isn’t, either. God is searching with us for a cure for cancer. God rejoiced at the cure for smallpox.

Mercy. Mercy indeed. I adore this little book, and I plan to carry it around with me to struggle through hard questions, even if we never have the answers. I am beyond grateful for Anne Lamott and her witness about grace and mercy.