Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: Leaving Alexandria

Recently there have been a number of really good spiritual memoirs. Here I think of Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, Mary Karr's Lit, Kate Brakestrup's Here if You Need Me, as well as Kaya Oakes' Radical Reinvention. If you are interested in what I call "hard core spiritual" memoir then these books are a good place to start. What I like about them most is that the author really bares their soul, revealing their dreams as well as their failures, their faults and their foibles together with their joys and sorrows. Some memoirs are just too one sided, especially those written by former pastors or bishops. They become little more than quaint coffee hour anecdotes of their pilgrimages or their talks or books that they wrote. They are big on breadth but little depth. Leaving Alexandria is certainly a deep book.

Richard Holloway's new memoir Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2013) is up their with Mary Karr and Barbara Brown Taylor. He pulls no punches. He tells it like it is. He exposes his joys of ministry as well as the severe problems with it. I found myself stopping at time and trying to find my pen so I could underline passages for further reading.

Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church as well as the former Professor of Divinity and Chairman of the Joint Board of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen.

The memoir follows Holloway's life chronologically. We see glimpses of Holloway at his hometown of Alexandria Scotland just north of Glasgow where he was raised and then to study in an English monastery for the priesthood. It was a hard life at that, chapel services every day, theology classes, homework, projects, papers, all the while living far from home. The title of the book Leaving Alexandria becomes a theme or thread woven through Holloway's life as we see him leaving many Alexandria's; first his hometown, then the monastery school, then the parish, and eventually the Church altogether. It might be shocking for some readers to find out that in the end Holloway struggled very hard with his faith. Many people have a five year old conception of God; a God that just doles out answered prayers like candy. Or even worse they believe in a theology of numbers; one God, Jesus was both God and Man, the three persons of the Trinity, four gospels, and twelve disciples.  Little though or reflection after that. Yet when reading Holloway's story we find that he was a man of intense self reflection and authenticity.

I think what drew me so much to his memoir was that he was extremely authentic. He did not play politics in Church being the nice bishop that everyone wanted him to be. He made tough choices throughout his ministry. One choice was him leaving the UK to come to Boston where he served a parish church for a while.

I found Leaving Alexandria to be refreshing, a breath of fresh air. Here is a man whose entire life was formed and shaped in priestly service. Here was a man who learned and lived theology but at the end walked away from all of it. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic writer and Trappist monk once said that at the end of the day a man must stand alone before God on his own two feet. I find that so true. Whatever you may think of Richard Holloway after reading Alexandria, one thing is certain, he lived according to his heart. His story may not be your story, but it is a good story of one man's deep struggle and journey with God.

To learn more about Richard Holloway's Leaving Alexandria click here