Gail Godwin


Musings on the Spiritual Life

By Gail Godwin

I had a gardener who saw Christ once. She was working in a garden and she sensed someone behind her and she turned and there he was. After the vision she made changes to her life. She kept on working in gardens because that was her livelihood, but she learned to write icons. That’s how we had met. I had bought her icon of St. George and the dragon at a local gallery. Later I bought a small head of Christ, which looks down on me in my study as I write this.

The nearest I have come to a vision was when I was four years old. I was walking along the sidewalk in front of our house in Weaverville, North Carolina, and looked up and saw an overwhelming cumulus cloud bearing down on me. I knew it was called a cloud but knew nothing of its provenance. I hadn’t yet learned that it was “just” vapor. And what I felt was holy dread. I knew this thing was beyond anything I could control or understand, bigger than anyone could protect me from, and I felt it wanted something from me. I turned and ran for the safety of our house.

My shelves are full of my decades of grapplings toward the holy, yet I have never desired to be one of those who turn around and find themselves face to face with God. I’m not sure I could survive it. I’m definitely in the Jonah camp and must have known it by the time I was four. If something too big comes after you, run for the house.

Yet, paradoxically, I have been a pursuer of that “something” all my life, so here I sit, facing my shelves (so many books on God!), gazed down upon by a Christ evoked by an iconographer who once saw him face to face in a garden.

Some years ago, I became addicted to the Jesus Seminar’s assessments of what Jesus really said and did. Internationally recognized biblical scholars had gotten together and color-coded their collective votes: red for the words and actions most probably his; pink for those that “may have suffered modification in transmission,” gray for “did not originate with him but may reflect his ideas,” and black for “inauthentic.” I would look up the gospel stories that meant most to me in The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus1 and The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus2 and hope I was going to see red or at least pink. My biggest letdown was their consensus for John 21:1-14. (Fishing instructions; breakfast on shore; his third appearance after being raised from the dead.) Not only was the dialogue assigned to Jesus color-coded in black, but it was deemed in an after-note by the scholars to be “the result of the storyteller’s imagination.”

I continued on in this obsession for a while until I realized I was probably committing a form of book abuse. Now the Seminar’s volumes are having a rest on my shelves along with other past engrossments: mysticism and varieties of religious experience, liturgies and patterns of worship, handbooks of contemplation and prayer, saints’ lives, and Jungian psychology.

God, help me. I am going straight to hell.

This I penned at the top of a page in my diary on the morning of May 12, 2009. It was the first time I had committed this prayer to paper. The thing was, I knew, even as I was still writing the words, that it had been taken care of.

Now all I had to do was live with the results of the instant rescue for the remainder of my life: that was going to be the hard part, and it is.

I had tried everything else but desperately addressing God to break a drinking habit begun sixty-one years ago when my eleven-year-old best friend and I sat down at the kitchen table, experimentally polished off a pint of my new stepfather’s Kentucky Tavern and then, infused with a powerful “spirit” new to both of us, flew into a fighting frenzy. I sustained bites and scratches, but I made her head bleed and ripped all the buttons off her blouse. Back at school, we attempted it once more on the playground, without alcohol this time, until the nuns separated us. After that, we became adversaries but remained fascinated with each other to the end. When she was dying of cancer (we were in our fifties by then) we sat in her den putting away the white wine, and I asked her to visit me in dreams after her death. She has done so and our relationship continues to evolve.

The dreadful cloud at age four, from which I fled, and the instant removal, at age seventy-two, of the affliction that was well on its way to destroying my life: these have been my two religious experiences.

But we, who have undertaken God, can never finish.

Nonetheless, being one of those who has undertaken God, I go on composing utterances and collecting the utterances of others that bolster me in this passion.

“I prefer the mystery of what is beyond my ken.” That is C.G. Jung, late in life, replying to a correspondent who is trying to pin him down about his beliefs.

Or a Woodstock priest confiding to his congregation on a Sunday morning: “We just have to accept our inseparability from God.”

Or a diary entry when I was 28: “A polarity in me wants to bestow a blessing on him [a cynical, amoral boyfriend] and let him go his way, but equally to want wholeness, direction, God, for myself. It has nothing to do with my church upbringing or convent school training. It is something built into my system and I am responsible for replenishing it and keeping it intact.”

As a novelist I send out characters as emissaries, to see how they go about making sense of their lives. In some cases, this means discovering how they relate to God. Margaret Bonner, the Episcopal priest in Evensong3, steps outside in the darkness to pray. “What are you, anyway?” she muses aloud. “And yet how close you are.”

Margaret addresses her God at a wary slant. Whereas Mother Suzanne Ravenel, the Catholic headmistress in Unfinished Desires4, teases and argues God down in her daily dialogues. (“Of course, You know best, Lord, but I would never advise my girls to begin a project the way you’re suggesting...”) She always assumes God will be there for their dialogues; until, one day, he isn’t.

I am drawn to those voices in novels that express complex relationships with their God as they go about their soul-making, voices that are comfortable squinting at vistas “beyond their ken.”

Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler confides to a fellow philosopher that what he would miss most in his life, if they were to be taken away, are his “God-adumbrations” in their many daily forms.5

The young narrator of Ranier Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge reflects to himself: “But we, who have undertaken God, can never finish.”6

In a related passage Malte speculates about the passionate inner life of his Aunt Abelone.

“I had sometimes wondered why Abelone did not use the calories of her magnificent feeling on God. I know she yearned to remove from her love all that was transitive, but could her truthful heart be deceived about God’s being only a direction of love, not an object of love? Didn’t she know that she need fear no return from him? Didn’t she know the restraint of this superior beloved, who quietly defers delight in order to let us, slow as we are, accomplish our whole heart?”7

Just now, as I re-visited this passage, I thought: maybe I am one of God’s wary mystics, conscious every day of his restraint while I slowly accomplish my whole heart.

But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore; but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.

In the first chapter of Evensong, Margaret and Adrian, the man she will marry, are visiting Dr. Stroup, a professor at General Theological Seminary. The three of them are discussing a new piece of art acquired by the professor, an acrylic rendering of “Cast your nets,” done in the iconic style by a Staten Island painter.

Out of a dark blue and purple nighttime seascape, some of the disciples were returning to shore with their surprise harvest of fishes. The single area of brightness comes from the glow of the charcoal fire on shore where Jesus, returned from the dead, is cooking their breakfast. All three of us were drawn to the painting and continued to talk about it over lunch, along with the mysterious final chapter of the Fourth Gospel on which it was based.8

Professor Stroup tells them, “There’s an interesting Greek word, kalchaino. Literally it means ‘to search for the purple fish.’ Either of you heard of it?

Adrian, a therapist as well as a priest, says, “No, but I like the idea already.”

“Well, of course you do, dear boy,” says Stroup. “It‘s your favorite element, those waters where the purple fish swims.” The professor explains that the purple fish was a shellfish so highly prized by the Greeks for its rich purple dye that divers went to the bottom of the sea in search of it, and that was how ‘searching for the purple fish’ came to be a Greek expression for plumbing the depths of one’s mind. When Stroup had asked the artist, of Greek descent, if he had known this, the artist tells him that is why he made his sea predominantly purple, and why the fish Jesus is now cooking are the purplest of all.

“That makes sense,” is Adrian’s comment, “because in the language of the unconscious, when the dreamer is about to eat something, it’s often a signal that there is submerged content ready to be assimilated.”

The professor then asks Margaret for her thoughts on the painting, and when she admits to being most moved by “Someone returning from the dead to give advice and sustenance to loved ones when they are most in need of it,” Stroup tells her: “My dear, you provide the crucial third element of this luncheon triad. I’m the old academic. Adrian is the deep-sea diver, but you remind us what it’s all about in the first place.”

“And what’s that?” Adrian asks Professor Stroup, who had been his teacher.

“Love, old fellow, love. He’s out there cooking their breakfast because he loved them, and they knew it.”

A walk with an old nun

She had been my eighth grade teacher and we became friends for life. I sent her Mother’s Day cards because I considered her my spiritual mother. Her given name was Kathleen, the same as my mother’s. Later she became close friends with my mother and the two Kathleens would go out to lunch and argue theology. (“I can’t go along with women priests,” says my mother. “Didn’t Jesus himself come to us as a man?” “But, Kathleen,” the other Kathleen protests, “he couldn’t very well have come as both.”)

On the day of that walk I’m remembering, it’s suddenly chilly and I insist she wear my black wool cape. She was then eighty-three to my fifty-nine. “I don’t see how you can be so sure God loves you,” I say. We are climbing a hill. “Well, you have to love yourself first, Gail,” she says, hugging the cape closer. “Because if you don’t, you’ll never be able to accept that God loves you.”

She’s not among the characters in my nun-populated novel Unfinished Desires. Her solidity in my life is not easily broken up into fictional fragments. She comes across better in memoir-type offerings, essays like this.

Writing as a form of prayer

When you write as much as I do, and when you have been “undertaking God” for as long as I have, there is no way that writing can escape becoming a form of prayer. You get used to struggling with words to sneak up on the unknown. The more you develop and play with your craft, the more things you didn’t know you knew find their way into the material. The act of writing faithfully allows answers to slip through.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I see now that my “purple fish” scene in Evensong, in which Margaret and Adrian and Professor Stroup pool their thoughts on an iconic painting of “Cast Your Nets,” allowed me to explore in fictional safety, and at several removes (the painting itself and three different characters approaching it from different angles) my emotional longing for that scene in John’s gospel to have “really happened.” Approaching something from an unexpected angle can suddenly reveal its life to you. Recall those elementary drawing classes in which you were instructed not to draw the chair but to draw the spaces around the chair.

The dreadful tumble of infinity

For me, the worst hour of the non-drinking life is five p.m., or thereabouts. In winter, “thereabouts” can start as early as three in the afternoon, and in high summer it can last until after dark.

Five p.m., or thereabouts, has always meant for me that the day’s work is over. The work part of it has not changed. Work always has been my main protection.

But then comes the sunset hour when, with a companion and then later without one, you unstop the bottle or open a new one and let it assist you in parachuting gently to earth. You revel in all you have done during the day, you let go of all that has been left undone, and, sip by sip, you sink gently into oblivion’s welcoming container.

But when there is no container to count on at the close of a working day, what then?

In early childhood I ran from the cloud. This spring I caught myself hurriedly exiting the terrace on the first beautiful March evening, driven inside by—what? Too much time and space? Too much consciousness? It seemed as though I was being threatened by the sheer tumble of infinity.

Threatened how? What might it ask of me? What could it do to me? And whatever it did, so what? I’d had a life, hadn’t I?

Nevertheless, I fled the terrace. The angle of the hill on which this terrace is set makes it seem eye-level with the sky. The sky was all around me, it was in my face. I was right back in my four year old dread.

Now we are almost into May and the sky stays lighter longer and I’m still having trouble with sticking it out on the terrace. After a few minutes of forced sitting, (covering myself with a blanket helps) something drives me inside. It’s too much. Too much what? What would happen if I stayed? Would I be enveloped by infinity, lost in something too big to imagine?

In one of those surprising zig-zags the mind is capable of, I suddenly find myself being offered a form of containment through the example of one of my own characters. “Being offered,” I say, because I haven’t taken her up on it yet.

Toward the end of Unfinished Desires, a young teacher and the school infirmarian at Mount St. Gabriel’s Academy are reflecting on their vocations as nuns. The infirmarian was formerly a nurse until the day she decided not to turn on the radio while driving to the hospital and “the connection with God was made in that first silence.” She has just asked the teacher if she will mind very much if she has to be transferred back to Boston because of suspected heart disease.

“I had known, from the day I put on my ring, that my ‘minding’ something was going to be beside the point for the rest of my life, and that I had chosen this,” the young nun tells the infirmarian. “The practice closest to me now, the practice I find central to everything I do, is living every day and night as fully as I can in consultancy with God. The questions I ask and the insights that come out of the listening—I’m not saying this very well—but the more I live this way, the more I want to—to—pray my life rather than stumble through it.”9

What would happen if I sat on, out there on the terrace, under the blanket, totally and soberly conscious, until dark? Would I become one of those who discovers she is praying her life rather than stumbling through it? Or, like the young nun in my novel, would I die that very night?

What would the chances of my survival be? What do I even mean by “survival”? Where is the line between “my survival” and “my eternal life”?

And what difference does it make, the exact hour of my death, if, at that hour, I am living in consultancy with God?

That’s the sort of question in which you may at last find some respite, after musing for decades on the spiritual life.

This essay was published in A Spiritual Life: Perspectives from Poets, Prophets, and Preachers, edited by Allan Hugh Cole Jr., Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.


  1. Macmillan, 1993
  2. HarperCollins, 1998
  3. Ballantine, 1999
  4. Random House, 2010
  5. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 236-7
  6. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, W.W. Norton & Co., trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 199
  7. The Notebooks, p. 208-9
  8. Evensong, p. 27-8
  9. Unfinished Desires, p.305