While I was in grad school, I realized on accident that I have a real interest in the genre of spiritual memoir.

This surprised me for a number of reasons. First, I am inclined toward extreme skepticism of anything that labels itself spiritual or religious. Second, I am critical of over-spiritualization, which I identify as some people’s habit of attributing all natural events and coincidences to spiritual powers.  (“And then God provided me with a parking space right up at the front of the store!” or “Satan was really testing me with that cold.”) Third, I really don’t care for “testimonies” of people’s faith, and I initially thought that spiritual memoirs would just be a written version of those testimonies. I thought it would be on par with devotional writing, which has its purpose, but is not something I would choose to read for literary merit.

What I learned, though, is that I love reading people’s well-written accounts of spiritual experiences. I don’t care what religion those experiences are rooted in, or whether they eventually lead to the writer’s strengthened or weakened faith. I just want the story. I want the beautifully written exploration of the transcendental experience.

Here are some of my best recommendations in the literary spiritual memoir genre.

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In the Wilderness by Kim Barnes

This is a stunning book. It is probably one of my favorite works of creative nonfiction, even though Barnes is a originally a poet and not a memoirist. I love this book, especially because it so perfectly captures a spiritually oppressive environment without creating caricatures of its key players. One of the things I most appreciated about this book was the way that Barnes depicted the intensity of her relationship with the young man who caused her the most complex and difficult feelings in her young life.

Amazon description:

Poet Kim Barnes grew up in northern Idaho, in the isolated camps where her father worked as a logger and her mother made a modest but comfortable home for her husband and two children. Their lives were short on material wealth, but long on the riches of family and friendship, and the great sheltering power of the wilderness. But in the mid-1960′s, as automation and a declining economy drove more and more loggers out of the wilderness and into despair, Kim’s father dug in and determined to stay. It was then the family turned fervently toward Pentecostalism. It was then things changed.

In the Wilderness is the poet’s own account of a journey toward adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed and moving account of a young woman’s coming of terms with her family, her homeland, her spirituality, and herself.

In presenting Kim Barnes the 1995 PENJerard Fund Award for a work-in-progress by an emerging female writer, the panel of judges wrote that “In the Wilderness is far more than a personal memoir,” adding that it stands “almost as a cautionary example of the power of good prose to distinguish whatever it touches.” Indeed, In the Wilderness is an extraordinary work, courageous, candid, and exquisitely written.

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Jesus Land by Julia Scheeres

Julia Scheeres’s book A Thousand Lives is my favorite book of the past few years, but her first book, Jesus Land, is excellent on its own. It was a little bit unsettling to realize how physically close my life has been to hers–we are both from Indiana, my alma mater plays a role in her life, and I have known many people who have worked for the organization at which she suffered extensive psychological and spiritual abuse. The only bad thing I can say about this book is that it is really upsetting. The racism of Scheeres’s parents and peers, the mistreatment she and her brother suffered at the hands of “spiritual leaders,” and the tragic ending to the story are really hard to get through. It’s an important story, though, and one I hope is read by many.

Amazon description:

Julia and her adopted brother, David, are sixteen-years-old. Julia is white. David is black. It is the mid-1980s and their family has just moved to rural Indiana, a landscape of cottonwood trees, trailer parks, and an all-encompassing racism. At home are a distant mother—more involved with her church’s missionaries than her own children—and a violent father. In this riveting and heartrending memoir Julia Scheeres takes us from the Midwest to a place beyond imagining: surrounded by natural beauty, the Escuela Caribe—a religious reform school in the Dominican Republic—is characterized by a disciplinary regime that extracts repentance from its students by any means necessary. Julia and David strive to make it through these ordeals and their tale is relayed here with startling immediacy, extreme candor, and wry humor.

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Through the Narrow Gate by Karen Armstrong

Ahhh, Karen Armstrong. I love when I hear her on NPR or see her on TV, and I have a few of her books set aside to read, you know, soon. I use videos of interviews she has given in my classroom for a variety of purposes. Before she was a confident, respected expert on world religions, though, she was a quiet, sixteen-year-old novice nun, and things didn’t go well for her there. This book has shaped my understanding of what many current nuns experienced as they pursued their callings, especially those old enough to have been Armstrong’s peers. The book is not fast-paced, but it is a solid read.

Amazon description:

Through the Narrow Gate is Karen Armstrong’s intimate memoir of life inside a Catholic convent. With refreshing honesty and clarity, the book takes readers on a revelatory adventure that begins with Armstrong’s decision in the course of her spiritual training offers a fascinating view into a shrouded religious life, and a vivid, moving account of the spiritual coming age of one of our most loved and respected interpreters of religious. (sic)

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So Late, So Soon by D’Arcy Fallon

This is a quick little read. It can be extremely tricky to communicate moments of spiritual significance–especially if you later come to doubt those experiences. Fallon does an incredible job of staying in the moment she is describing, honoring both the experience and the doubt she will later feel. This should be required reading for anyone who loves someone who gets involved with a Christian cult–especially a cult that isn’t as controlling or obvious as something like Jonestown, but one that nonetheless controls and shapes its members’ lives. Fallon does a commendable job of demonstrating how a smart, independent, thoughtful person can get taken in by a group that seems outrageous to the outside observer.

Amazon description:

D’Arcy Fallon offers an irreverent, fly-on-the-wall view of the Lighthouse Ranch, a Christian commune she called home for three years in the mid-1970s. At 18 years old, when life’s questions overwhelmed her and reconciling her family past with her future seemed impossible, she accidentally came upon the Ranch during a hitchhike gone awry. Perched on a windswept bluff in Loleta, a dozen miles from anywhere in Northern California, this community of lost and found twenty-somethings lured her in with promises of abounding love, spiritual serenity, and a hardy, pioneer existence. What she didn’t count on was the fog. After living communally with more than a dozen “sisters”, marrying before she was ready, and doing domestic chores to keep the ranch afloat, Fallon’s life and religious idealism begin to unravel. Through a series of harrowing and heartbreaking decisions, she begins the process that will lead her away from the ranch and into her own life one step at a time.

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Blankets by Craig Thompson

My introduction to Blankets was in church. Our pastor, Matt, projected a few images from the end of the book onto a screen as part of a sermon illustration. This was several years ago, when the book was new and I had never before read a graphic novel. (Now I own dozens.) The images caught my attention, but I didn’t seek the book out until my grad school course in spiritual memoir. This is a perfect portrait of the evangelical youth subculture, and the solitude that can come from being a part of it. It deals with big subjects like abuse and love and sex and faith and doubt and family, without feeling overly heavy. (Well, it’s physically heavy, I guess.)

Publishers Weekly description (from Amazon):

Revisiting the themes of deep friendship and separation Thompson surveyed in Goodbye Chunky Rice, his acclaimed and touching debut, this sensitive memoir recreates the confusion, emotional pain and isolation of the author’s rigidly fundamentalist Christian upbringing, along with the trepidation of growing into maturity. Skinny, naive and spiritually vulnerable, Thompson and his younger brother manage to survive their parents’ overbearing discipline (the brothers are sometimes forced to sleep in “the cubby-hole,” a forbidding and claustrophobic storage chamber) through flights of childhood fancy and a mutual love of drawing. But escapist reveries can’t protect them from the cruel schoolmates who make their lives miserable. Thompson’s grimly pious parents and religious community dismiss his budding talent for drawing; they view his creative efforts as sinful and relentlessly hector the boys about scripture. By high school, Thompson’s a lost, socially battered and confused soul-until he meets Raina and her clique of amiable misfits at a religious camp. Beautiful, open, flexibly spiritual and even popular (something incomprehensible to young Thompson), Raina introduces him to her own less-than-perfect family; to a new teen community and to a broader sense of himself and his future. The two eventually fall in love and the experience ushers Thompson into the beginnings of an adult, independent life. Thompson manages to explore adolescent social yearnings, the power of young love and the complexities of sexual attraction with a rare combination of sincerity, pictorial lyricism and taste. His exceptional b&w drawings balance representational precision with a bold and wonderfully expressive line for pages of ingenious, inventively composed and poignant imagery.

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