By Karen Thoms, Main Library
Can a novel deliver entertainment and promise spiritual enlightenment? It can when served up by West Michigan pastor and spiritual director Sharon Garlough Brown. Packed inside her engaging story, Sensible Shoes, is a small non-fiction work on incorporating ancient spiritual disciplines into life. This 2013 Midwest Publishing Awards Show Honorable Mention book chronicles the friendship between four women who meet at a spiritual disciplines class, a class none of them initially wanted to attend.
The back cover of the book describes the women this way:
- Hannah, a pastor who doesn’t realize how exhausted she is
- Meg, a widow and recent empty-nester who is haunted by her past
- Mara, a woman who has bounced from relationship to relationship and who is trying to navigate a difficult marriage
- Charissa, a hard-working graduate student who wants to get things right
The book is structured around the development of the friendships, how the women are responding to the Saturday morning lessons given over three months, and what the practice of each discipline is dredging up from their pasts. Key to the development of the story and spiritual growth of the women is the seminar leader, Katherine Rhodes, and Charissa’s professor, Dr. Nathan Allen. The reader is set up to understand the conflict in the story by Brown’s effective use of short flashbacks.
Most chapters begin with the handout the women received at the start of a session, followed by the leader walking the women through the new discipline. Brown makes smooth transitions from the seminar to the lives of each woman, which she separates within the chapters. The story flows just like a typical novel.
Do not be deceived. Even if you skip reading the handout page or the explanation of the discipline you will not be able to escape the spirituality because the women share it with you, with either the personal reflection going on in their heads or in dialogue with each other.
At times, the dialogue itself will make the reader feel as if they are sitting with their own spiritual director. Take these examples:
“He (professor) placed his elbows on his desk, still clasping his hands together. ‘Your desire for control is keeping you from entrusting yourself to Christ, Charissa. And your desire for perfection is preventing you from receiving grace. You’re stumbling over the cross by trying to be good, by trying so hard to be perfect.’”
In the session on praying with imagination, the leader, Katherine refers back to the story of Bartimaeus asking for sight: “That’s a courageous thing to ask for, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s easier to remain in our darkness and blindness. But Bartimaeus wants to see.”
In the session about establishing a rule of life, Katherine gives an analogy: “Rules of life are like trellises … helping branches grow in the right direction and providing support and structure.”
Other practices Brown successfully weaves into her story include: Walking a Labyrinth as a Journey of Prayer, Lectio Divina, Praying the Examen, Wilderness Prayer, and Self-Examination and Confession.
Although I believe this book will find only a small audience in readers from West Michigan, readers of Christian fiction, and readers of Christian spiritual growth books, my hope is that others will pick up this gem and be as pleasantly surprised as I was.