A Beautiful Disaster by Marlena Graves: A Book Review
From time to time, everyone walks through desert-days. The sustaining dream has fizzled and the bud of the new one has yet to form; the approving eyes of those-who-matter have focused elsewhere; the taken-for-granted vitality which makes all things possible has evaporated, replaced by pain, discouragement, drought. The prophet Isaiah has written lyrics for when the scorching comes:
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your soul in drought,
And strengthen your bones;
You shall be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.
Isaiah 58:11 could hang as a banner over Marlena Graves’ journey. Her “God-bathed wilderness experiences” have informed every aspect of her life today and infused beyond-her-years maturity into the life of the thirty-six year old author.
Through captivating use of story, Graves takes us behind Moses’ eyes to view his self-inflicted desert days; lowers us through the roof with the paralytic of Mark 2; and drums her fingers on the waiting-table with Abraham, looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. The result?
Clarity! In the Biblical accounts, no one emerged from the wilderness unchanged.
Moses found grace to become the most humble man on earth.
The paralytic discovered what is was to be seen, welcomed, forgiven, healed.
Abraham, the father of finagling, submitted to the plan of God and became the father of nations.
My appreciation for A Beautiful Disaster was enhanced by my reading of Dennis Okholm’s Monk Habits for Everyday People. In an attempt to blast fellow Protestants out of six hundred years of smugness (“See, we were right to protest!”), Okholm examines the spirituality of Benedictine monks; i.e. communities who emphasized a deeply rooted spiritual life that would take them through the desert. When Marlena advises us to slow down and attend to the days and the minutes of a waiting time, she is encouraging the practice of stability — paying attention to the people and the lessons of the present moment. When she urges us to keep silence and to embrace solitude as holy things, we are being pushed toward the first words of Benedict’s rule: “Listen carefully, my son, to the Master’s instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart.”
Far and away, my favorite chapter was number seven: “Waiting around for God.” I have stood beside Marlena Graves countless times in my life, straining to see around the billowing daytime cloud and the nocturnal pillar of fire, impatient and insistent that they were blocking my view of the road ahead. Perhaps she, too, has read wise counsel from Elisabeth Elliot for times of waiting and wondering: “Do the next thing.” In the economy of the wilderness life, the gift of waiting becomes a fasting from the need for control.
Marlena Graves weaves her own desert tale with the lessons of humility, adoration of God, and the deep sense of His adequacy. She emerges with her childlike curiosity restored, an unshakeable trust in God’s love for her, and a heightened ability to attend to and minister to the needs of others.
Her invitation to the reader through the pages of A Beautiful Disaster comes through in elegant prose:
Bloom in the desert.
Be healthier, humbler, more compassionate as a result of the lessons learned in the desert; go forward “like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.”