Katherine Ozment’s GRACE WITHOUT GOD is a beautifully-written exploration of an increasingly-central American question: what is the meaning of life without the organizing principle of religion? Ozment begins her book standing by the window with her eight year old son, watching a procession of Greek Orthodox worshippers in the street. “What are we?” he asks, and Ozment finds herself at a loss for words. “We’re nothing” feels insufficient, and the paucity of that response sends her on the long journey that results in this book.
GRACE WITHOUT GOD is thoroughly researched. Ozment travels around the country, meeting with a variety of secular organizations, interviews a series of scholars who study these themes, and does deep thinking of her own. She unpacks her personal religious history, describing the ways that the sporadic but evangelical religion of her childhood threads through her adult identity. A scene at the Cloisters in New York, where the long-lost but deeply-known hymns of Ozment’s childhood touch something deep within her particularly reonated.
GRACE WITHOUT GOD’s entirety is beautiful, thoughtful, and elegantly written. My favorite part of the book, however is the end. The epilogue is is a letter to Ozment’s children, trying to summarize what she’s learned about “life and how to live it.” The two chapters that precede this epilogue are similarly powerful. I know and love Ozment (disclosure: we are friends), but I did not fully apprehend how essentially kindred our spirits are.
Ozment begins the book’s final chapter, The God of Here and Now, with a visit to the Upaya Zen Center outside of Santa Fe. She goes to Upaya to attend a weekend workshop with Stephen Batchelor, whose views she describes in a way that made me nod vigorously in agreement: “He believes enlightenment comes not in one big blaze of light but in the most mundane experiences – holding a child’s hand, planting a garden, taking a photograph, or listening to music.” I believe this too.
The chapter goes on to talk about mindfulness, of letting go of our need for certainty, and of the importance of ritual. All of these topics are dear to me. It closes with the luminous description of an afternoon Ozment spent on the Maine coast with her husband and children. They frolic on rocks and build cairns, something I’ve done with Grace and Whit, too.
After all my searching, I still didn’t’ know what the meaning of life was. I sensed that I never would. Still, I felt a new fullness every day. I was learning to embrace the life we were making, not regret the one we hadn’t chosen.
When she watches her children studiously building cairns, Ozment realizes that this, right here, in front of her, is the meaning of life. “This is grace,” she says. And it is. I read this scene with tears rolling down my cheeks. Yes. This is the meaning of life, beautifully, relatably told. I can’t recommend GRACE WITHOUT GOD more highly. It comes out on June 21st and I hope you will read it and share it widely. I know I have, and will.
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