258: Conversation with Cathleen Falsani on “Sin Boldly: Field Guide to Grace”

e’re thrilled today to bring you a Fresh Voice who could very easily become your next good friend along life’s twisting, turning spiritual pilgrimage: Cathleen Falsani.
    Of course, we’ve got quite a few readers in the Chicago area and, for you, Cathleen is an old friend. She’s Religion Columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. (Click on the cover of her book, at right, today to jump to our review of this wise, funny and very practical spiritual memoir.)
    Cathleen travels widely and keeps up the hectic daily pace of journalism—just as we do here at ReadTheSpirit—but we managed to connect via telephone for the following Conversation:

    DAVID: In the opening page of your book you write something pretty remarkable. There are all kinds of books out there today saying that faith is all about love, or all about justice, or all about mysticism. You say on your opening page:
    “Why grace? Because some days, it’s the only thing we have in common. Because it’s the one thing I’m certain is real. … Because it’s the oxygen of religious life, or so says a musician friend of mine, who tells me, ‘Without it, religion will surely suffocate you.’”
    It’s a prophetic insight I think—and a great big piece of good news to a lot of us as readers. So, talk a little bit about what grace means to you.
    CATHLEEN: Well, I think that grace really is what it’s all about—like the Hokey Pokey. I’m a Christian. I’m not very good at being that but I am a Christian. The message of Christ, I think, is different from the messages of other religious traditions because of grace.
    Grace says that there is nothing we can do to redeem ourselves—and nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less. That’s grace.

    As Christians, we believe that what Jesus did in atoning for us was an act of grace and everything about God’s interaction with the world is grace. Grace is the breeze coming in my window right now. Grace is my talking to you right now—and the space between us that we are connecting in this way. Grace is the chimes in my back yard that I can hear right now and that actually are called Amazing Grace. Grace is the ability to write. Grace is the opportunity to tell stories.
    My life and all of our lives are just infused by grace even if we don’t recognize it most of the time.

    DAVID: We’ve recently published some pieces by the writer Christine Gloss, who explores the importance of everyday connections we make with the people who we meet. You write about that throughout your book in these delightful stories you tell.
    But you also talk about the formation of grace-filled friendships. And you write about your friend Bubba. You write that Bubba is your evidence that Billy Crystal is wrong in “When Harry Met Sally,” when Billy says that men and women can never be friends. You insist that they can, indeed, be very good friends—and you tell some great stories about your friend Bubba in the book.
    Tell us a little about Bubba so readers of this interview can get a glimpse of him.
    CATHLEEN: Bubba’s real name is John Michael Pillow. He and I met 20 years ago last week as freshmen at Wheaton College, which was an unlikely place for either one of us to wind up. We couldn’t be different, on paper, if we tried.
    When we met, he was the son of the second-largest cotton plantation owner in Mississippi. He was the first person in his family to live above the Mason-Dixon line. He was a white, sneaker-wearing, guitar-playing guy who liked girls who were the opposite of me. We used to call those girls, “blond bow heads,” because of this style of wearing, you know, a hat with a pony tail tucked out the back of the hat and, at that time, a lot of girls wore bows on the pony tail. So, bow heads.
    And I was definitely not that. I was a Yankee who wore Birkenstocks and often all black. A lot of the time, I looked like a Harlequin from Hell. But Bubba and I bonded in the most unlikely way. The first time we met, we got to talking and stayed up all night talking in the lobby of a dorm at Wheaton.
    He was only there a year. Later, he went to Ole Miss, but we’ve been friends ever since. He is a constant in my life and I am a constant in his life through everything that has come afterward—work and marriages and so many things in life. It’s never been anything more than a deep, deep platonic friendship. He comes from a very large family and his oldest brother Chip is a professional counselor and Chip was reading the sections in the book where I talk about Bubba—and Bubba called me the other day to say, “Chip told me that if anything in those pages had struck a false note, he would have called me on it. But Chip said it all rang true.”

    DAVID: I am reminded almost daily of friendship as a sign of grace. I am talking with you today after a very difficult, two-day retreat with interfaith leaders from around the country trying to struggle toward some consensus on the future of interfaith work. And, I have to say, while it was wonderful—it also was challenging and even sometimes very confusing and sometimes bruising, as well.
    Then these two people around the circle told a story I hadn’t heard before. One was a Muslim leader, Victor Begg, and the other was a Jewish peace activist, Brenda Rosenberg. And Victor told this group that was involved in all these high-flown conversations that, for him, this work often comes down to something as simple as the fact that, each morning, his friend Brenda calls him at 9 a.m. Just a short call on a cell phone to check in for the day. Both of them have their own spouses, their own families. This is purely a friendship.
    And you know, the wonderful thing about Victor telling that story was that, each morning since then, when I notice that it’s 9 a.m., I think: somewhere Brenda and Victor are talking for just a moment and they’re starting their day’s work in peacemaking.
    Remembering that simple story reminds me that I am not alone in this work. Other friends are connecting as well.
    CATHLEEN: That’s a beautiful story. Yes, that’s what I’m talking about.
    I have many, many friendships that are all grace to me. Grace in many forms. My friendship with Bubba is my abiding one. He’s the one who can make me laugh harder than anyone else. We always can be honest with each other and there’s never judgment with it. That’s rare.

    We had a book-launching party in Chicago a week ago and I have about 20 friends from college who I hadn’t seen in a lot of years—but we’ve come together on Facebook of all places after a friend of ours was killed in Iraq and we organically have created this community online. There’s one friend in Spain, one in Dubai, a couple in California, one in Hawaii—we’re all over the place physically—but I talk to these friends online a couple of times a day. That cyber relationship is a huge grace in my life.
    Then, when they heard about the party for my new book, a bunch of them just decided to come in person. Having them there in person was just magnificent and we were able to say to each other things that I’m sure back when we were students we wouldn’t have said in this way: I love you. I appreciate you.
    When you experience something like that, you’re just dumbfounded by grace.

    DAVID: We’re talking all about grace and connection—and you’ve got this very provocative title that people may not understand without reading the book. You call the book, “Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace,” and then you really do have to read a good way into the book to find out that “sin boldly” comes from the writings of Martin Luther during the Reformation and you talk about it not only from your perspective, but you’ve got Martin Marty in the book talking about it, too.
    So, in preparing these pieces on your book—this interview and a review of your book—I wanted to try putting into words what I think you’re saying. So let me read my summary of your theme—and tell me if I got it, OK?
    DAVID: I think you’re saying: Live boldly knowing that life is full of our own sinful mistakes—but that it is only in true and vigorous and often messy living with others that we experience the greatest grace. So, don’t be afraid of sinning boldly. Live fully. Live honestly. Take risks. And find God’s grace that is in the lives of all of the people living around us.
    CATHLEEN: Perfect. You hit it on the head.
    DAVID: So, let’s talk finally about the last part of that—the lives of all the people around us. I really like the fact that your book speaks directly to any reader—anyone, anywhere—and says: You can find grace in the very next person you meet and you can build grace-filled friendships that will sustain you even in hard times.
    But you also do something else as people read all the various stories that form your book. You take us around the world. You take us to Graceland with Bubba. You take us to Rome—to the Vatican. You take us to Mississippi, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania.
    You’re really teaching us how to be world citizens in a graceful way. You’re showing us, by knitting these stories together, that our experience of grace may be as close as the next person we’ll meet—but it also may be in the lives of people in a far corner of the world.

    CATHLEEN: I’m glad you saw that thread running through the book. That’s a good phrase: world citizen. What does it mean to be a world citizen?
    First of all, I have to say: I don’t know how to live any other way.
    I was raised in Connecticut but my parents had lived all over the world before they were married and had children. Even though I grew up in one of the whitest places in the world, my home was filled with literature and objects and art from Japan and Libya and Morocco. There were ideas in my home that showed me the world didn’t end at the end of Dogwood Place in Milford, Connecticut.
    I guess I always had a long vision that way. I’ve always been curious about the world. I’ve always had terrible wanderlust. But I don’t travel to check off places on a list. I want to have experiences, not just see things passively. I travel to meet people. And, even if I’m only able to stay a couple of days, I want to learn something about what it means to be a person living in Belfast or Zanzibar.
    As I grew in faith and started to connect the dots in my life, I think that does shape my understanding of God and our place as Christians as the Body of Christ in the world. Everyone I meet is my brother and sister. I try not to be a tourist in someone else’s misery. Every encounter in my life with another human being is a sacred encounter.
    It may take time to reflect on what happened. At the moment I may be having an encounter with an obnoxious Tanzanian guide, and at that moment I may not be consciously aware it’s a moment of grace. But, when I come away from my encounters and experiences, I realize that’s what all of them are.
    Being a citizen of the world means being open and aware of the sacred connections—the grace—everywhere we go.
    DAVID: Your voice in the book as you talked about these ideas was like a drink of cool water at the moment I was reading some of these passages. I was in the midst of this often-frustrating dialogue on the future of interfaith work, for example, and I had morning coffee with a Christian clergyman. And, you know, when you’re just two people and you share something like a Christian background, you tend to talk about this same family base that you share.
    He was trying to encourage me—like people in your book encourage you at various points—and he said to me, “It’s good you do this work, David.”
    He meant it as a compassionate and friendly word of encouragement. But, as he said it, I thought: What an odd thing to say. I couldn’t stop doing this work. I couldn’t stay away from the table of men and women from different faith traditions. It’s our table. I have to be there. When I wake up, this isn’t work I choose to do—this is my life.

    CATHLEEN: Yes. That’s it. People will talk about ministry as a certain work they do. As journalists writing about religion, we’ve both heard the way people talk about that, saying things like, “My ministry is to work in a soup kitchen.” But our ministry is our life. There aren’t marks for us to win over. That’s what grace is about.
    Everyone we meet is not only our equal—they’re someone who has something to teach us. This is what keeps us humble.
    DAVID: And that’s why I love something you did in the middle of your book. You shared a recipe for Watermelon Gazpacho. There’s a whole story in your book about how you were down in Mississippi writing about hurricane effects on people’s lives and you tasted this delightful, cool soup. When you tell the story—you give us the recipe to make the soup. You almost could market this book as the world’s best fruit-gazpacho recipe—with some wonderful stories wrapped around it as a bonus.
    I’m just kidding about that, but the attention to the recipe is important. We can talk about all sorts of high-flown themes related to faith. We can talk about the transcendent meaning of friendship. But sometimes the grace in our relationships comes down to something as tangible as sharing a good bite to eat.
    CATHLEEN: Yes, adding the recipe to the book in itself was an experience of grace, because as you know it’s often difficult to get permission from a chef to publish his or her recipe. To his credit, when I wrote to Ric Orlando and explained to him how I wanted to use this in telling this important story—he dug what I was doing right away and he gave it to me to publish for readers. Now, I’m hearing from people who already have tried the recipe themselves.
    You know, for the book party, it was very hot here in Chicago. The city felt very much like the weather in Mississippi when I was down there. We had the caterer for the book party make the Watermelon Gazpacho for everyone to taste that day.
    And it tasted so good.
    It was so cool on a hot day.
    It was a visceral reminder of the surprisingly refreshing taste of grace.

    We’ve featured many spiritual memoirists in the pages of our online magazine. If you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Cathleen, you might be interested in Phyllis Tickle, Cindy LaFerle, Judy Gruen or Dinah Berland.

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   (Originally published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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