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Interview by Jon M. Sweeney


Parental Messages

A conversation with Mary Karr.

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You tell the story of your marriage, its troubles, and its eventual end. At one point, you talk about admiring your husband's "cool certainty" versus your own "ragtag intermittently drunken lurching around." Which of those ways would you say you approach God these days?

I wouldn't say my approach to God is at all intermittent. Probably my mass attendance isn't where it should be. But other than that, I talk to God every day, throughout the day. I know that that sounds pious and crazy, but it's true. I'll sometimes walk down the street and pray for a face that walks by. "Lord bless her," I'll say to myself. That sort of thing. On those five blocks between my apartment and my gym, something magical kind of happens. People become very particular. I see their rage. Their desire. They look more real to me. Now is that contact with God? I think so.

Again I pray not from being particularly devoted or righteous, but because I'm particularly desperate. My mind isn't always my friend. God corrects my thought, or spiritual seeking of any kind does—even counting my breaths one to ten in a sort of Zen practice can turn down the volume on my noggin. I also say the St. Francis prayer a lot. I have a lot of prayers. So, intermittent religious practice—no. But ragtag, certainly.

I remember saying to my spiritual director that as soon as I pray and give this to God it is going to be okay and I'm going to feel okay—and that makes me really mad! Why doesn't he just nail me all to the cross and get it over with? Now I talk with God, to Jesus, that way. Really frankly.

When I first got sober, people used to say to me, Everything's going to be all right. But one time a woman said back to me, Well, everything's all right now. I was checking into a mental institution at the time, but she was right, and I heard it, too.

Good days, I have this sense of being who I'm supposed to be in the world. It gets very quiet in my head, and that's the presence of God in my life, of Jesus my brother, and those things keep me coming back, like going to McDonald's for fries. When I'm like that, everything just keeps working.

A Jesuit asked me, when I was getting sober, "What would you write if you weren't afraid of anything?" The answer is, I have no idea. I still don't have an idea. I've been afraid for so much of my life. And I don't work on a long-term plan. I get very simple, parental messages—not lowered on a fishhook from a cloud—but a still voice tells me to take a nap or have a sandwich. Or it tells me that God's greatest joy is when I'm fully alive and who I am—which is something I didn't get as a kid. It is a great sweetness.

Of course, there are times when it's very arid with God. On my bad days, I think of God like he's a tree stump or a subtle bastard. I used to think of God as a more paternal figure. There's a great prayer, Jesus, my lord and savior and my good brother, sprinkle me with the blood of the Lamb. I can sense Christ as my brother. But the past month, maybe, I sense all I don't know and can never know as okay. On good days, I can ask myself in every situation: Where is God in this? Yes, sometimes he's a subtle bastard. But most often, not. I haven't had a drink for 20 years, and that's grace. That's God's good grace.

Jon M. Sweeney's most recent book is Cloister Talks (Brazos Press). He was received into the Roman Catholic Church on October 4, 2009.

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