“Christ must have been thinking of people like me,” Leah Libresco writes in her new book, Arriving at Amen, “who like and are fed by signs and stories, when he left his death visible on his resurrected body.” Her book is both a conversion story and a guide to learning to pray through seven kinds of prayer: Petition, Confession, the Examen, the Rosary, the Divine Office, Lectio Divina, and finally, Mass. But even more than for its instructive value, Libresco’s book is nourishing in its use of signs and stories to illustrate God’s extravagant mercy at work in prayer.
She introduces the book with an explanation of her adolescent love of Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. The dutiful inspector, bound by his strict understanding of justice, was a role model for young Leah. “I wanted to grow up to be just that tall, stable, ramrod-straight, inviolate, and wholly consecrated to duty,” she recalls. From this beginning, she explains how eventually she moved from belief in an abstract, Stoic morality to a personal one who “just loves me or something” to, finally, the Triune God of Christianity.
To communicate her perspective on prayer, Libresco draws on a vast catalog of images and allusions: legendary men who turn into honey, ballroom dance technique, and the use of the sunk cost fallacy. A particularly moving example is her comparison of the effects of grace in the sacrament of Confession with a Japanese ceramics technique called kintsugi. Potters use this technique to repair broken ceramics with a resin mixed with gold. “After the bond has set,” she writes, “the crack is still visible, but now it resembles a vein of pure gold.” Through the mercy offered in Confession, “God mends the wound of my sin with his grace, and the resulting scar can be beautiful. The shining brand that remains is a gift; a reminder that I depend on God’s mercy, and that his mercy is free for the asking.”
Prayer, then, is the way in which these shining glimpses of God’s mercy reach us. The Memorare is a means of reconciliation through praying with Mary for an enemy; petition is a road to understanding others’ motivations and to see how we can desire good, even for those with whom we have disagreements. St. Augustine wrote in Book VIII of Confessions that, in reflecting upon himself:
I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe.
It is fitting that Libresco chose the Bishop of Hippo for her Confirmation saint. Each of their searches for truth allowed the Holy Spirit to show Himself in signs and stories on their journeys toward Him. The “incommutable light” is visible in prayer and in the glimpses of truth, goodness, and beauty around us.
After examining God’s mercy through the practicalities of prayer, Libresco turns to a closer look at St. Peter in her conclusion. She subverts the popular narrative of Peter’s life, especially in three episodes in the gospels— the storm-tossed boat, the Transfiguration, and before the Last Supper —and uses the apostle as an example of how to be bold in following Christ, rather than a negative example of someone whose faith succumbs to trials. She calls these Peter’s “three contradictions of Christ,” or his overrunning of what Christ actually asks of him. He steps into the waves even though Jesus never asked him to join him. He offers a gift of an earthly shelter in the face of the Transfiguration. He initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet before the Last Supper out of misguided honor. These failures are not based in protecting his own ego, but instead out of his ardent love of Christ.
Her exposition of Peter’s bold failures and reliance on grace unifies the encouragement to pray she gives in each chapter into a rallying cry against perfectionism. I found it personally encouraging, especially in my current stage of life, which is marked by diaper changes interrupting the mysteries of the Rosary and a toddler roaming the aisles during Mass. “It should be reassuring to us that Christ chose a man who struggled in discipleship to lead his Church,” she writes. “A man who started at sainthood would be a strange model for the Church as a whole; the Body of Christ is certainly composed of sinners who follow Christ haltingly, with our hearts often divided.” And it is reassuring that God’s mercy extends even to our halting prayers in every stage of our movement toward Him.
Thus, Peter is the perfect icon to offset Javert’s “ramrod-straight” attention to duty. He is not beholden to the sense of justice that was ultimately Javert’s undoing. Libresco’s embrace of Peter’s “failing in fortissimo” and the affection with which she writes about him is, in itself, a meta-tale of her conversion. “Like Javert,” she writes in the introduction, “I sensed cheating in the Christian story of an infinitely forgiving God.” But through her conclusion and her affection for the “patron saint of general errors,” as she calls Peter, it is clear that she has embraced God’s mercy, not as cheating, but as the way we are meant to live in the first place. Our attempts to pray should be bold and our enjoyment of God’s fingerprints in everything from ballroom dancing to math should be shameless because of His great love that is always there to meet us when we are sinking among the waves.
[Libresco is an editor of this publication]