On the long drive to and from Montreal, I listened to the audiobook of Marriage and other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist minister who works as a chaplain to the Maine forest service. (You can learn more about her here at her website.)
All I knew about Kate when I started listening to the book was that my friend Cate had quoted her to me on more than one occasion. Kate Braestrup, Cate had told me, offers a response to the question of where to find God when there is tragedy, and that response is: God is in the loving hands which prepare the casserole and deliver it to your door. As a former hospital chaplain, as a rabbi, and simply as a human being, I think that is a pretty wonderful formulation. It made me want to know more about Kate and her work. So I picked up the audiobook and decided to give it a listen while driving north.
I loved it. Full stop. Indeed, I loved it so much that I ordered another of her books from Amazon immediately upon arriving home.
Marriage and Other Acts of Charity interweaves a few different stories into one. Here we have the story of Kate's marriage to her first husband Drew: their young courtship and wedding, the rapid arrival of four children, the tumultuous fights and the marriage counseling, the moment of awakening when everything changed and the anger was replaced with boundless kindness and love. Here is also the story of Drew's death, as a young Maine state trooper, in an auto accident -- which left Kate widowed with four young kids. Here is the story of Kate's religious life, her vocation, and her path into ministry. Here is the story of Kate's work as a chaplain to the Maine Warden Service: conversations in pickup trucks, ministering to the dive teams who recover the bodies of snowmobilers who have broken through thin ice, counseling couples who themselves are preparing to marry -- or to end a marriage. And here is the story of Kate's second courtship which culminates in her marriage to the artist Simon van der Ven.
Having listened to the book, rather than reading it, poses an interesting challenge for me as a book reviewer. I can't rely on my usual technique of underlining favorite passages or scrawling exclamation points in the margins of the actual paper book (to which I can return when I want to find the passages to cite in my review.) Instead I can tell you this: Kate's literary voice is smart, practical, matter-of-fact, poignant and funny. (And her speaking voice is lovely; the audiobook features her reading her own work, which gave me the enjoyable illusion that she was sitting in the passenger seat of my car, telling me stories as I drive.) This book inspires me to try to be a better clergyperson, a better married person, a and a better plain old human being.
To give you a taste of how Kate writes, and how her theology permeates her storytelling, here's a glimpse of another one of her books -- her first work of nonfiction, Here If You Need Me, which I have just purchased and look forward to reading soon:
My children asked me, "Why did Dad die?"
I told them, "It was an accident. There are small accidents, like knocking over your milk at the dinner table. And there are large accidents, like the one your Dad was in. No one meant it to happen. It just happened. And his body was too badly damaged in the accident for his soul to stay in it any more, and so he died.
God does not spill milk. God did not bash the truck into your father's car. Nowhere in scripture does it say, 'God is car accident,' or 'God is death.' God is justice and kindess, mercy, and always - always - love. So if you want to know where God is in this or in anything, look for love."
I am so grateful to have come to know Kate Braestrup's work. I know I will return to it often to enrich and enliven my own relationships and my own rabbinate. Thank you, Kate, for putting your work into the world -- and thank you Cate for bringing that work into my life!
ETA: This book partially inspired this week's poem: Psalm of the sky (for those who dwell in uncertainty).