Hope for the Wilderness Wanderer: Book Review of Marlena Graves’ A Beautiful Disaster
“God uses the desert of the soul – our suffering and difficulties, our pain, our dark nights (call them what you will) – to form us, to make us beautiful souls.” – Marlena Graves
In my little office I have a few bookshelves reserved for books that are ‘keepers,’ the ones I’ve read and keep, knowing I’ll read them again and again. These timeless books are literature for life offering insight, beauty and encouragement. Marlena Graves’ first book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness, now has a home on one of those shelves, alongside works from C.S. Lewis, Brennan Manning, and Madeleine L’Engle among several others.
When hiking rough terrain, you want a guide skilled at maneuvering the pitfalls and potential dangers. In the spiritual wilderness of life, Graves is just such a guide. She didn’t come to this skill easily, but through a lifetime of experiences in the wilderness. Walking through the broken times is something with which Graves is well acquainted, as she shares with raw honesty throughout the book. From growing up as a young child living amidst poverty, mental illness, addiction, and much loss, along with dealings as an adult with some of those same issues and others, Graves’ experiences have honed her sensibilities and given her a voice to speak to fellow sojourners. Interweaved throughout the book, along with her personal stories are those of the monastics, the early church, and the Bible.
A Beautiful Disaster is a book to be savored. Graves is a gifted writer and expresses her thoughts beautifully. She offers readers much to reflect upon in a voice that is humble, modest, and gentle, but also astute and full of wisdom.
I was eager to read her book having read others on the subject of suffering and I wasn’t disappointed. This book isn’t an easy answer book. It’s not a self-help book offering a twelve-step method or five quick points on how to get from ‘here to there.’ Unlike other books dealing with suffering from a spiritual perspective, it doesn’t offer pat answers, but refreshingly, offers honesty and compassion by acknowledging the pain of difficulties and the ensuing problems. Both the pain itself and the resulting issues that stem from it are handled in a way that doesn’t celebrate the pain, but leaves you, as a reader, feeling as if you’ve lingered over coffee with a friend, opened your heart, spilled your pain and received understanding and wisdom, rather than empty answers and spiritual clichés.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One is titled, “This Wilderness Life,” followed by Part Two, “Wilderness Gifts.” Some of the themes in the book include the importance of true community and how God uses that community to provide us grace; seasons of pruning; times of waiting; the paradox of fear and adoration; and living fully alive.
There are so many pearls of wisdom shared throughout A Beautiful Disaster. One particular topic in the book resonated deeply with me. Graves talks about our tendency to become “skilled at living with scarcity” when we’ve suffered for an extended period of time. “Something happens when we’ve suffered long enough: suffering is all we learn to expect, and it becomes next to impossible to pry it out of our hands to receive from God. It can malform us so that we live with evil foreboding.”
As someone who’s a part of the sandwich generation, helping coordinate the care of my elderly mother with Alzheimer’s, while raising my young daughter with special needs and teenage son, the challenges that arise often seem neverending. And the pull to live with “foreboding” can, at times, be great. Graves’ words are a good reminder that to live fully it is essential for us to “relearn the process of accepting the hospitality and generosity of God.” From her own experiences, she urges us to remember that God is good and “ever and always has our flourishing in mind.”
As a fellow sojourner through the wilderness, I appreciate Graves’ honesty and her generous, gentle and beautiful words. She is a thoughtful companion to the brokenhearted and a gifted writer with much wisdom in her contemplative offering of A Beautiful Disaster. Her voice is one that the contemporary church needs and will undoubtedly benefit from, as will anyone hiking the spiritual wilderness.
A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness is available at Amazon.com.
Marlena Graves received her Master of Divinity from Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, New York. Graves is a by-lined writer for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics Blog, Gifted For Leadership Blog, and Missio Alliance. You can also read her writing at marlenagraves.com.