There's a term in the academy to describe the space that exists between identities. It refers to that place we find ourselves when the structures, institutions and traditions we've always put our faith in, built our identities upon, fall or are stripped away, and we are left … in transition. If you've ever lived that doubt on the other side of faith, you know what I'm talking about.
Academics call it "liminal space." In her new book, Still, Lauren Winner simply calls it "the Middle."
Largely thanks to her own writings, Winner's entire Christian experience has been well-chronicled. Both a beloved author and a professor at Duke Divinity school, Winner describes herself among other things as a "professional Christian" (yes, with the appropriate amount of self-awareness).
Recently, Winner's mother died and shortly after, she and her husband of five years divorced. Both events shook Winner to her core and she found herself in a liminal space, a Middle, she was not prepared to face. Surrounded by doubts, beset by a sense of failure, Winner's faith shifted beneath her. In her own words, the Middle is a place where:
“The assumptions and habits that sustained you in your faith life in earlier years no longer seem to hold you. … This book is about the time when the things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living.”
With this, Winner invites us into this middle of her spiritual journey. We walk through her Middle with her, experiencing both her disillusionment with her faith and the salvation she finds in the Church.
If that sounds peculiar, it's probably because many of our Church traditions don't focus too heavily on what happens after we choose to follow Jesus.
“In the American church, we have a long tradition of telling spiritual stories that culminate in conversion, in the narrator’s joining the church, getting dunked in the waters of baptism, getting saved. But … the baptism, the conversion, is just the beginning, and what follows is a middle, and the middle may be long, and it may have little to do with whatever it was that got you to the font.”
Winner's Middle is a terrifying place, if only because there's no rhyme or reason to it. None of the practices she'd found comfort in—prayer, reading the Scriptures, liturgy—offer her any succor.
The God she knew and loved seems silent and absent. Instead of all the joy and contentment we so often associate with the faith-filled life, Winner faces loneliness and worry as often as not.
Still grasps for faith in a Middle space and discovers a stranger, bigger and more faithful God than we expected.
Winner finds solace in the larger Christian community, in the brothers and sisters who have walked this journey before her, who have navigated their own Middles. When Winner confesses her fear of loneliness to her friend Ruth, for instance:
“What Ruth says is: Maybe I should try to stay in the loneliness, just for five minutes, just for 10 minutes. Maybe the loneliness has something for me. Maybe I should see what that something is.”
As Winner has grown and changed, so too must her faith. She needs a faith that actually applies to the life she's living, to her here-and-now world. Rather than flee from her life, she must embrace it:
“You cannot fast if you have not first noticed that you are hungry … It seems to me that Ruth is saying much the same thing when she tells me to sit with the loneliness.”
Less a narrative story of her Middle than a collection of thoughts, insights and questions, the book is made to pour over again and again. You'll fill the pages with underlines, the margins with notes. Each short chapter is loaded with insights that don't so much build on one another as weave a rich tapestry of possibilities in the midst of a spiritual desert.
In Still, Winner invites us into that place beyond Conversion we don't like to talk about: the Middle where the Faith that got us started doesn't sustain us. The practices we once found so meaningful seem empty. The God once so close seems distant, if not absent.
The Middle becomes the End for many, who give up their Faith here. But Winner dares us to hope that our Faith hasn't fallen away, but rather opened up.
Our Middles are the places we grow up. Where we take responsibility for our own faith. The space in which we take off the training wheels and figure out our faith for ourselves. The Middle is rife with opportunity. The desert holds a surprising variety of life. To borrow Winner's chess metaphor:
“There is a standard repertoire of openings in chess, only so many plausible ways to start a game—the Queen’s Gambit, the Ruy Lopez. But in the middle game, very little is scripted. The middle game is where creativity begins, where tactical daring and subtlety take over. In the middle game, everything is open.”
Honest and authentic, Winner's story isn't exactly a guide for those lost in the desert, but it is a wonderful oasis. Whether you're in a liminal space or you know someone living a Middle of their own, Still makes an excellent traveling companion.
Bottom line: Still inspires us to make the most of each moment of our spiritual journey, and challenges us to take responsibility for our own faith.