I first encountered the work of Chris Anderson in the early nineties when visiting my old hometown of Corvallis, Oregon. The local paper ran a feature on Chris’s first book of essays, Edge Effects: Notes from an Oregon Forest. Turns out he was an English professor at Oregon State University, where my father had taught, and that Chris had the same love for the university-owned forest that I had had when growing up. Though the book was written for a general audience, when I read it I noticed a very earnest, spiritual tone. Intrigued, I arranged to have lunch with Chris before I left town. I learned he was a deacon in the local Catholic Church a few blocks from the Conservative Baptist Church in which I had been raised. I remember telling him, as we compared our faith traditions, that wherever two or three evangelicals are gathered together, there is a really exciting speaker in the midst of them. To my surprise, Chris did not laugh. Instead he said, wistfully, “The Catholic Church could use some really exciting speakers.”
Chris Anderson’s latest book, Light When It Comes: Trusting Joy, Facing Darkness, and Seeing God in Everything, sports a foreword by Brian Doyle, arguably the really exciting writer and speaker the Catholic Church has always needed—and one that we all now sorely miss. Chris wrote me recently that when he was last up at the University of Portland chapel he found a mass card with Brian’s picture on one side and this on the other:
Everything else is secondary to tenderness.
“It was like he was speaking to me directly, from the next life, as maybe in fact he was,” said Chris.
That very quality of tenderness—and honesty, and sincerity, and authenticity—is what marks Light When It Comes. The book is arranged in ten short chapters which themselves are broken into what can only be described as pericopes—the kind of fragments of narrative and utterance that make up the scriptures themselves. In one paragraph he is exploring something once said by Augustine, or Ignatius, or Cardinal Newman, or Teresa of Avila, or Mother Teresa, or Pope Francis. In the next he gives you a nugget of personal narrative: what it is like to visit the dying, to assist with the Mass, to ask forgiveness, to suddenly sense the presence of God in a “great soft shoulder of . . . trees and hills, as if something huge and gentle had lain down on the earth.” The ten chapters are themselves arranged in three sections suggested by the subtitle: “Trusting Joy,” “Facing Darkness,” and “Seeing God in Everything.” The longest section is on “Facing Darkness.” This is not a book for the fainthearted.
And yet, it is. The book, for me, is a source of hope. In the words of St. Ignatius he reminds us that God is always calling us, the Spirit is always moving. And in the words of Pope Francis: “God is always a surprise. You never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter.” Chris Anderson, with the help of his many church mothers and fathers and his own experience, helps us along in that process of ongoing spiritual discernment.
And, in a strange way, he brings Jesus back to that Oregon forest we both have roamed: “Jesus didn’t drive an SUV. Jesus didn’t text and Jesus didn’t Skype and Jesus didn’t have a microwave. There were always animals looking through his windows, their eyes like small, brown planets, and there were fields and hills outside his door, and he was always walking in them.”
Paul Willis is a professor of English at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. His most recent collection of poetry is Getting to Gardisky Lake (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2016). Forthcoming is To Build a Trail: Essays on Curiosity, Love, and Wonder (WordFarm, 2018). More at pauljwillis.com.
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