The Reluctant Spiritual Autobiographer
Adrian Shirk Didn't Know What Kind of Book She Was Writing Until She Was Half-Way Through
“I was born secular / and inconsolable…”
I never imagined that something like Linda Goodman’s best-selling Love Signs would send me on a serious spiritual quest, but so it goes. There I was sitting on the sofa one quiet night in Brooklyn during my last year of college, reading the introduction of Goodman’s 1978 pop-astrology book and contemplating my own awkward position between the occult and an American Calvinism. Over the years, I had feathered the more horoscopic sections (can a relationship last between a Virgo woman and an Aquarian man?) from over-reading, but I had not, til then, paused on some of the stranger essays and addendums woven in between. For instance, in the introduction, Goodman worries over earth’s annihilation and the deplorable state of human relationships. She hopes that her book will foster reparation, invoking that “gentle Nazarene who asked us only to ‘love one another.’” She signs off with “in the Year of our Lord 1978.” But the next page yawns into more preambles I’d never noticed before: a cryptic foreword about the Universal Source of Knowledge, a series of quotations from the Bible and a 15th century Pope, instructions for astrological birth control, a prediction of Virgo’s true planetary ruler, Vulcan, soon to enter earth’s orbit, and a long, intimate letter to her dead daughter—the letter acting as a sort of flare because Goodman, counter to the autopsy report, believes that Sally is still alive. In all of its strangeness, here was perhaps the most popular astrologer of the 20th century knitting together what I recognized to be, well—a theology.
This is an odd site of discovery, I know—it’s not as though I hadn’t read self-described theology before, nor that I had any special stake in the relationship between the planet Vulcan (did it arrive?) and the Universal Source of Knowledge, and it’s not as though Goodman herself thought of herself as a theologian, or even a prophet. But thinking of this work as modeling a kind of theology freed something in me. At the time, I was in art school, living in, you know, a den of iniquity (dirty dishes, writers, cigarette burns), and going to a Presbyterian church every Sunday in Williamsburg pastored by a friend of Sufjan Stevens (worth mentioning if only because that is how a great deal of its young congregants found themselves in that gothic cathedral above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway). There was a lot fighting it out inside of me: brought up in a proudly progressive secular family and city, I was finding myself, at twenty-one, more and more deeply immersed in a theological world, a world animated by grace and paradox and a loving God who came down here one time, to a place kind of like Brooklyn, or even Williamsburg, to hang out with degenerates and embarrass us with his bottomless generosity, touching untouchable people, etc. This was exciting to me, these things I was learning in this church, but how could I explain it to anyone? I felt alienated from both the “churched” and the “un-churched” world. Plus I was already beginning to sense the limitations of this church in particular, and the church, capital ‘C.’ Though no one at this church had yet said anything directly about homosexuality, women’s roles, or partisan politics, I could already feel the fragility of their unexamined positions in their inability to address them, in their inability to say “We are not that kind of church”. What was I going to do next? I wasn’t sure, but something about the wildness of Linda Goodman’s theology, and the immediacy with which she inserted herself as guide, opened up a line of inquiry it took me still years to figure out.
What do I mean by theology? Literally, the study of the nature of God and the organization of the universe, the development of a set of systems and principles to discern its meaning—the pursuit of knowing God, I guess. In Love Signs, Goodman wasn’t doing theology by pure reason or polemic, she was no Augustine or Aquinas—she was doing it by suggestion, reference, collage, experience. Her own autobiography is all over that book, eking its way into even the descriptions and interpretations of various sun sign pairings—her autobiography is the means by which the theology is transmitted. I thought of the Gospels, the book of Lamentations, the collective autobiographical quality of the Psalms. Hadn’t the whole theological project always had a subject, a narrator, or narrators, piecing it all together with their lives as the interpretive medium?
Men have, for a long time, had the platform to—really, do just about anything. But the spiritual autobiography is, perhaps, one of the first acceptable forms women were able to write in, publish in, be read in. The first known English language text published by a woman was Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century anchoress. Julian first wrote Revelations as a chronicle of sixteen visions under the (delightfully old English) title, Shoeings. The visions came while she was very sick, and begging for God to bring on death. But then, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” is her most well-known quote from the text. For a long time, her name was not attached to the visions, instead reascribed to some monk, and refashioned as a handbook for contemplative life. This seems like it would have been hard to pull off. In her visions, Julian sees God as mother and father, and she sees Christ in labor, giving birth, nursing an infant, mending clothes, doing, well, traditionally women’s work, among other things no doubt beguiling to the Medieval clergy.
In the 12th century, there was Germany’s Hildegard von Bingen, who experienced visions all her life, and when she was in her early-fortiess, according to the introduction to Scivias (“Know the Ways”), God commanded her to share her visions, her experiences, her interpretation, which she did, using illustrations and songs as well—and then did again and again in a variety of manuscripts to follow, always drawing from her visions and experiences to interpret things like, say, the words of John the Evangelizer. In 16th century Spain, Theresa de Avila wrote The Interior Castle, also issuing from a vision showing her the path to mystical union with God in the image of architecture—and later, a full-length more direct autobiography because by then, well, the idea of the ‘self’ existed.
And all of these came out of European convents. These early spiritual autobiographers were contemplative nuns or “anchoresses”, nuns who’d elected a life of physical seclusion in stone annexes of churches, which is to say women who didn’t have children, agricultural or industrial jobs, families, husbands, women who’d been provided with an education by the church, women who had a room of their own (plus board). And the spiritual autobiography was a useful vessel, a usable form, in some ways the least objectionable form because it made no claims of objectivity—its modus operandi was the subject, the subjective—and because it was a report from God. There need not be mediators. God is speaking to all of us. And if God is speaking to all of us, then, well—watch out.
The spiritual autobiography becomes a powerful mode for women, again, in the 19th century, during the Second Great Awakening, and also for women freed or escaped from slavery. Like Sojourner Truth’s Narrative and Harriet Jacobs Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl, these texts function at once as a record of their spiritual conversions and transformations, but also as important political and aesthetic contributions that wouldn’t have been given the time of day had they come in any other form. Spiritual autobiography implies something pure, subjective, unmediated. Who can argue with God?
So I know now that the spiritual autobiography is maybe the earliest form of women’s published writing, in the west, and in the modern era—and yet it took me a long time to admit that that’s what I was writing, too. But it seems I have done that, and I have to reckon with what that might mean.
When I moved to Wyoming a couple of years after the night of the deep-dive into Love Signs, I was scribbling away at something I considered to be not much more than a hobby piece about Linda Goodman. I was also going on walks over the Garfield Street footbridge into West Laramie talking with a new friend of mine about how much I wanted to develop a personal nonfiction approach that wasn’t neatly memoir, that wasn’t memoir masquerading as something else; I really did not want to write memoir.
But what was behind that resistance to the form? I didn’t want to suppose I had any special life experience that poised me as, or that poised my own life story as, necessary to tell, in and of itself. I wasn’t even sure what the story was. But surely there was more to it than that—there was internalized sexism, for one. Women are the posterchild of memoir writing—feminine memoir versus the masculine, “objective” autobiography. Memoir invokes an emotional remembering, and like all things “feminized,” the form carried for me a fear of the trivialized, the insignificant, the frivolous, the presumptuous, the decidedly not-universal, especially as such a young woman—what do you even have to say? and Oh, you think your life is so interesting?
I dipped in and out of churches in my new town, each from dramatically different traditions. I was kind of tired out by then by the culture wars of even temperate churches, so I began digging around for figures, women, who startled the same thing in me that Goodman’s writing had: weird theologies, subversive theologies, theologies which irrigated the many thousands of iterations of Christianity in America today. I was moved, still am, by how messy and unstable and full of reinvention the Christian theological project had always been—and I found myself continually drawn to women who had taken it upon themselves to reinterpret the meaning of the resurrection over and over and over again. So I began to write more. And I presumed or pretended, or both, for quite some time, that my presence as a narrator in these writings was incidental, vehicular even, the developing solution as for a photograph, or just a way to get from point A to point B. It wasn’t about me, I’d say.
I didn’t want to write a spiritual autobiography because I didn’t even know what to account for, didn’t know quite what I believed, who or what I was affiliated with, where I had ended up, what I had seen. I had no answers to those kinds of things. I think I started in the project in such a place of spiritual confusion and conflict that I didn’t feel capable of analyzing what had happened thus far, and was not even sure what I thought about religion, about Christianity, so I let the stories of these women’s lives—these various prophetesses—do the thinking for me. (Again, I realize this only now—not then.) But it turned out that the impulse to do that was an aspect of a quest that was already happening, that would continue happening as I wrote and researched and asked questions, and, well, lived.
Many of the women I write about used the form of the autobiographical narrative: Eddy’s texts are full of autobiographical proofs; Sojourner Truth’s Narrative, as a means to spread the gospel and the abolition of slavery; Aimee Semple McPherson made use of the autobiographical narrative in her sermons, and one might even say autobiography (through performances, photographs, news stories) were the primary medium of her message; Eliza Snow’s poems charted her own revelations as she moved west; Flannery O’Connor’s habit of letters account for one of the most thorough spiritual autobiographies I’ve ever seen; Linda Goodman, of course, not just in Love Signs, actually writes a sort of surrealist spiritual autobiography later called Gooberz. A spiritual autobiography does not simply account for one’s life, but one’s life dictated by, or framed by a series of spiritual discoveries, or revelations, or miracles—how did you come to know God? When did God say your name? Thus, a spiritual autobiography is full of gaps. It is not linear, things do not happen in a straight line, and some things do not seem important or connected until much later. (Even all of those nuns had to write things down and return to them later, with new insight, recording or pausing on aspects that hadn’t seemed as important at the beginning. Even Julian of Norwich had to re-write and re-interpret her original Shoeings.)
But still I resisted: the project was social history, it was lyric essay, it was hybrid creative nonfiction. But it didn’t matter what I said—the book unfolded and wrote itself while I was living, and so long as I kept inserting myself, the book was going to track that living, and the discovering and learning and interpreting that is a part of living. A lot happened. I started teaching creative writing and women’s studies; I found a radical church in the Bronx I couldn’t have dreamed up; my father-in-law got really sick, and my husband and I became de facto caretakers; my grandmother, who I was very close to, died suddenly; the election happened. I name all of these experiences in particular because of how profoundly they aided in the thinking, making of this book, and in helping me understand what it was that mattered to me about these figures, and the project of engaging with religion. And the material would not have meant as much without it.
The reality is that I made use of the oldest ways of female public contribution, to do something, actually, very well-worn. But I didn’t know that. I had no overarching vision. I had no agenda. I wrote my way into an agenda. It didn’t begin as a feminist reading of Christianity, though I would have loved to write or read such a thing. I didn’t know what I wanted to prove, save that American religion is messy, unstable, and the women I found myself interested in embodied those realities. I didn’t have a platform, but I wrote myself into one. To use a turn of phrase from the preeminent Julian of Norwich scholar Denys Turner, the book read me. I was being read by the narratives I was writing.
This past winter, I went to a lecture at Columbia as part of their Lumen Christi series where Denys Turner was giving a talk on Revelations of Divine Love. The talk was held in a palatial hall hosted by the Department of Religion, containing a single giant square table with a big open center surrounded by scholars of religious history. We read a section of Julian’s visions, one of which began with, in her characteristic frankness, “How the chosen soul was never dead in the sight of God, and how she wondered about this, and three things which emboldened her to ask God to explain it to her.” The center of Turner’s talk was about Julian’s use of the word “behovely” in the interpretation of her visions, as a way to account for the existence of sin, or more directly, the existence of evil. “Behovely”—meaning something along the lines of incidental. “Behovely,” he described, is connective tissue of a narrative, not a logical proof. So for Julian, evil is “behovely.” I think this is what he meant. This is what I have in my notes.
If the world could be perfect, why isn’t it? This is one of the big questions Julian brings to her visions, hoped her visions could account for. And her idea that sin is “behovely” comes through in more ways than one. Turner talked about how she composed the visions so that narratival and spiral sequences are formed. In her explication of the visions, “the spiral makes meaning as it goes along.” For Julian, he said, there is an answer, a solution, but it is far far off, and “all we possess is a narrative fragment of the story of the world.” When Turner described her process, her theological method, what she was modeling, he said, “She is being read by the narratives she’s writing.”
I thought, huh—that sounds extremely familiar.
Turner continued on Julian, on how she was showing that one must “do your theology from within the narrative—we’re on the inside of the story as we are narrating it, it’s narrating us.”
I don’t mean to suggest that I’m existing in the lineage of these women, or someone like Julian—only that my impulse is indebted to them, that my impulse has a history, a history which I was resistant to understand.
But I couldn’t have written a spiritual autobiography if I had set out to write one. The naming of such a project would have squashed any real discovery because I would have been inevitably on the lookout for something particular, and I would have missed everything else.
Instead, I often “found” myself places: at churches, at colonies, in ceremonies, in rooms full of ghosts, at lectures, in front of memorial statues. And it was useful to be a none-the-wiser narrator, because it could guarantee, to the extent that I was able, an openness to whatever came forth.
Adrian Shirk’s And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy is available August 22 from Counterpoint.