by Richard Lischer
Alfred A. Knopf, New York City. 248 pages.
reviewed by Leslie A. Klingensmith
One usually uses words like “gripping” or phrases like “couldn’t put it down” about thrillers or espionage tales. “Stations of the Heart” is neither, but the words still apply. Why is the book so compelling? We already know the ending. The title gives away the outcome, even for readers who are not familiar with the loss that the Lischers endured.
The author and his wife lost their son Adam to an aggressive melanoma in 2005. As a graduate of Duke Divinity School, where Dr. Lischer is a highly respected and much beloved professor, I remember hearing about Adam’s illness through the alumnae network. Even before Adam died, many of us were stricken by the hopeless nature of his cancer and the cruel irony of his body wasting away during what should have been a gloriously happy time — Richard’s wife Jenny’s pregnancy. The Duke community mourned with the Lischer family when Adam died 12 days before the birth of their daughter.
Given the lack of suspense, you would not think that a reflection like “Stations of the Heart” would be the kind of book one reads in a couple of long sittings. Yet it is. It is also the kind of book that you return to and read certain sections over and over again. And nod your head in agreement. And shake your head with wonder. Then weep. Repeat. What Lischer has done that draws the reader in so persistently is to show, again and again, the intertwined natures of tragedy and grace, of desperation and resilience, of absence and presence, of joy and sorrow, of isolation and community, of resignation and hope. We know at some intellectual level that life is made up of all of these elements, that if we live long enough we cannot avoid sorrow and loss. However, within these situations that we would never choose, we also glimpse instances of God’s presence that we would otherwise have missed. Lischer also reminds us that, for those of us who baptize our children, we do ultimately entrust them to God. Adam’s illness showed the Lischers how little control any of us has over the fate of the people whom we love the most. It is an act of graciousness on his part that he shares that wisdom with us, with all its potential to frighten and awe us.
But Lischer also takes us through the excruciating process of grief to the “other side.” It’s not that the grief ever goes away, but we learn to make it part of ourselves, to be grateful for the time we had with the person, and to find hope in the God who calls us home. His reflections on how Holy Communion has taken on added meaning since Adam’s death are among the most moving and powerful of the book.
Anyone who has grieved a loss and searched for solace in the faith that we so often pay lip service to, but are rarely prepared to cling to in such a raw and desperate way, should read this book. Over and over again.
Leslie A. Klingensmith is pastor of St. Matthew’s Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.