When Anne Lamott found herself, at age 31, a self-loathing drug and alcohol addict, it was the idea of “radical self-love,” as expressed by Henri Nouwen and writers like him, that allowed her to turn a corner on her life, the 62-year-old American writer told a Toronto audience last week.
“Little by little by little, I started being a resurrection story, and…it was self-love,” Lamott said. “I found out who I was, the Beloved…It loved me back to life.”
Lamott, author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction including the New York Times bestsellers Grace (Eventually) and Plan B, was speaking at a talk, “Henri & Me,” presented by the Henri Nouwen Society Friday, May 13.
Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, was born in the Netherlands but lived much of his adult life in the U.S. and Canada. A professor and author of 39 books, he often wrote openly of his loneliness and other inner struggles. He was also, like his friend Jean Vanier, involved in L’Arche, a network of communities for disabled people.
In her talk, Lamott, whose non-fiction often deals with her own life struggles and spiritual life in a frank, humourous way, delivered, in somewhat stream-of-consciousness fashion, a loose spiritual and psychological autobiography of her earlier years, with a liberal mixture of often-dark wit that drew frequent laughter and, ultimately, a standing ovation from her audience.
From the beginning, Lamott said, she and her siblings faced the challenge of being born to mismatched parents.
“I had parents who never should have gotten married. They were married 27 years-they would have been better off raising orchids,” she quipped. “They didn’t love each other; what were they going to teach us?”
She and her siblings grew up “starving” to be loved for who they were, she said.
She developed her wit as a child, Lamott said, as a way of trying to hold the family together. “I got funny early on because it made everybody happy. It made my mum and dad laugh, and you’ve got to keep the parents alive-you’ve got to keep the ship afloat or you’re going to go down.”
Her parents were atheists, she said, and she was taught that religion and everything associated with it was stupid. “Spirit was just very suspicious,” she said.
Her mother and father filled the home with poetry, literature, jazz, classical music and gourmet food, but did not have “anything to fill a God-shaped hole,” Lamott said. They placed high demands on their children; growing up, Lamott was taught to see B+ as a bad grade.
Her parents, she said, were also alcoholics-but she felt she could not recognize their misery openly. As a child of alcoholics, she said, “you agree not to see what’s going on, because it makes your parents so miserable for you to notice how they treat each other, how they quibble, how contemptuous they feel toward each other.”
At age five, she said, she started to get migraine headaches; at 14, she began to be addicted to drugs; at 23, when her father was diagnosed with brain cancer, she developed bulimia.
Meanwhile, she was on a spiritual quest. She began associating with the family of a Christian Scientist friend, and secretly praying. But her search was fraught by the suspicion, planted in her by her parents, that she might not be lovable.
“I kind of, sort of, believed God loved me, but I also had this heavier message,” she said. “It’s hard to find God when you basically believe that your parents are mortified…by who you actually are.”
Alcohol and drugs-including cocaine and methamphetamines-actually gave her a taste of the spiritual, she said, in that they represented a wider reality than that of her troubled family.
At 31, a Jesuit friend told her that Americans are taught to feel shame if they can’t convincingly pretend there’s nothing wrong with them. It made her realize the fundamental loneliness of herself and those around her, and changed her life.
“That is what broke me open and gave me life…that we were all on the same boat, and were coming back from a very, very long distance away, in total isolation, separated not just from life and God, but from ourselves,” she said.
She realized the importance of seeking help-something that had been very difficult for her before-and began to ask for it. Friends began to suggest books to her, including those of Henri Nouwen.
Nouwen’s honesty about his own inner struggles and his conviction that we are all loved by God more than we can imagine helped her begin a new life, she said.
“He wrote about despair, and it was ‘me too,’ and he wrote about self-loathing and it was ‘me too,’ and it was about what life was like before he realized the truth of his spiritual identity.
“He was so honest about what a mess he was. It gives you life, for someone that you love to say ‘me too’…That’s what I understand Jesus’ message to be-‘me too.’ ”
She realized, also, that the success she had already enjoyed as a writer had not brought her happiness-this, she discovered, could only be the result of an inner transformation.
“The only thing that will work is Spirit, the universal donor,” she said. “It was all going to be an inside job…It was recognizing my truth, the truth of who I am. Not who I am, but whose I am.”
Nouwen’s admirers include Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who says he has almost every book Nouwen wrote, and likes to bring them with him on retreat.
Nouwen’s importance, Hiltz says, lies in his exploration of what it means to be fully human and to be fully alive, both to God and to other people-and in his openness.
“Nouwen wrote extensively about his own vulnerability, to depression and so on, and he speaks out of experience,” Hiltz said. “He knows of what he speaks, and he helps people realize that they can come through this, that there’s hope.
“I’m a great believer in Jean Vanier and a great believer in Henri Nouwen, and I really, really believe that anyone-anyone-in our church who is seeking ordination must know their writings.”
Lamott’s talk is not the only event planned this summer by the Henri Nouwen Society. From June 9-11, the society will hold an international conference, in Mississauga, Ont. Speakers will include author and activist Shane Claiborne, Anglican author Esther de Waal and Sister Sue Mosteller, one-time leader of the International Federation of L’Arche.