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States of Grace : ORDINARY TIME: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal, By Nancy Mairs (Beacon Press: $20; 238 pp.)

July 11, 1993|Michelle Huneven | Huneven is a fiction writer, a restaurant critic and a graduate student at the Claremont School of Theology

Essayist Nancy Mairs is clearly astonished and delighted by at least one plot twist in the story of her own life. "I did not set out to be either a Catholic or a feminist, let alone both at once," she writes in her new book, "Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal." A Congregationalist in childhood, an Episcopalian in young adulthood, she still can't fully embrace the full paradox of her present condition. "A Catholic feminist? Dear God," she exclaims, "couldn't I please be something else?"

Known for her extreme, even controversial candor, Mairs has written in "Plaintext" and "Remembering the Bone House" about her own suicide attempts, her crippling depressions, extramarital affairs and ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis. "Ordinary Time," a parallel narrative to these works, is another pass through her life, this time as seen through the twin lenses of Catholicism and feminism.

Little in Mairs' theology will be new or revelatory to those who've read Rosemary Reuther, Elisabeth Schlusser-Fiorenza, Matthew Fox or Mary Daly. Mairs serves up the staples of feminist theology: She calls for the re-imaging and de-/re-gendering of God, the breakdown of hierarchical thinking, the affirmation of God's imminence, etc.

What Mairs gives that these theologians do not are concrete, vivid examples of imminence, God's presence in her life--and it's never what you'd expect. Grace wells up following a devastating disclosure by her husband, George. God's love is glimpsed within the guilt-ridden relationship with her son Matthew. Charity loses its condescending edge through Mairs' own increasing need for physical assistance.

Lest one think that this is a book of quaint, religiously instructive tales, it should be said that reading Mairs is like living next door to an extremely intelligent woman who breezes into your kitchen, sits down, tells you the most shocking and personal facts about her life, dissects and analyzes these facts with such an honesty and intensity that you are left breathless and exhausted and haunted long after she has breezed back out the door.

"Ordinary Time" opens with a characteristically Mairsian jolt: On the eve of tests that will reveal a recurrence of life-threatening cancer, Mairs' saintly husband George, who has stuck with her through depressions and agoraphobia, multiple sclerosis and extramarital affairs, announces that he had an affair with another woman. The relationship, now ended, was, he says, "a kind of marriage."

The subject of this essay is not adultery, but grace, which Mairs stumbled into even as she raged and wept and revised the past to accommodate this terrible dose of truth. She locates her own capacity to forgive George as her God has forgiven her; peremptorily, before the fact. "Grace here, among these lies and shattered vows, sleepless nights, remorse, recriminations? Yes, precisely, here: Grace."

How Mairs emerged from a non-contemplative Congregational childhood to become a woman who detects God's grace in the gut punch of adulterous betrayal is recounted in three of the book's most engaging essays which, taken together, form what we in seminary call a "faith journey."

Mairs' father died tragically when she was 4 1/2. Her mother remarried and the repaired family presented a placid, unblemished face to their small town in Massachusetts. As a girl, Mairs was active in her church's choir, Sunday school, youth groups. While Congregationalism's "brisk, no-nonsense, take-charge attitude toward religious practice" provided her no mythos or structure to contain the enormous loss of her father or her biochemical propensity toward depression, Mairs says that it's probably good that she was not given a Catholic girlhood, for even within the relative austerity of Protestant religious practices, she managed enough excessive religiosity to alarm her mother.

In college, distanced from the church of her childhood, Mairs gradually turned away from belief in God the father, but soon seeded new connections to religion by way of aesthetic interests and a growing social conscience. As she married and entered the adult world, Mairs encountered both poor people and individuals committed to social justice. "This is how conversion begins--not with bodiless principles . . . but with a face, a real one, the kind you can take between your two hands and look at long and with love."

Human encounters would also vanquish Mairs' long-held preconceptions and class prejudice concerning Catholicism. In Tucson, after graduate school, she took a teaching job at a Catholic high school. "I didn't expect sisters in tennis shoes," she writes. "I didn't expect sisters who spent their summer vacations with the farmworkers, in the fields, in the camps, in the jails. I didn't expect sisters to run for the state legislature.

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