Raw God, Tiny Nun


Spiritual memoirs have legs, particularly the work of Christian apologists who had the foresight to sin early and often. Witness St. Augustine’s Confessions, in print after 1,600 years, or latter-day volumes by Anne Lamott, C. S. Lewis, and Thomas Merton, among countless others.

Novelist Darcey Steinke enters this arena with the lovely Easter Everywhere, an account of her lifelong religious pilgrimage. Best known as the author of the erotically fraught 1992 novel Suicide Blonde, Steinke helped create a louche literary genre, works featuring self-destructive young women in sexual and emotional free fall. Steinke’s subsequent novels, Jesus Saves and Milk, expanded her range, as otherworldly obsessions flirted with less spiritual ones.

That religious undercurrent becomes a powerful undertow in Easter Everywhere, which opens with Steinke’s minister father building a church in upstate New York from a kit purchased from a magazine ad. Its congregants are employees of the local blue-collar resort. Carnies, waitresses, drunks, denizens of the carnival freak show, the poor and mentally ill: All are welcome at Peace Lutheran, though not everyone finds solace there.

The sacred and profane also met within the Steinke household, despite (or because of) strong religious impulses. Steinke’s paternal grandfather was a Lutheran minister; three of his four sons were ordained, including Darcey’s father. Her mother’s family had ties to the mid-19th-century Millerites, whose adherents climbed hilltops on October 22, 1844, to await the Second Coming, an Apocalyptic no-show that became known as the Great Disappointment.

That term could easily be applied to the thwarted expectations of Darcey Steinke’s sad, anxious mother. A onetime beauty queen, she’d married a man who “promised he’d always have a hundred dollars in his pocket.” Instead, her husband fought to support his family on less than $5,000 a year. After the second of Darcey’s younger brothers was born, their mother’s depression escalated into a full-blown breakdown that led to hospitalization and electroconvulsive therapy.

By now the family had moved to Connecticut, where six-year-old Darcey performs animal funerals and baptizes stray cats that make “eye contact as if they felt the tiny charge that passed between us.” Such details add a surreal edge to her childhood, like the boy who rides his Big Wheel bike off the garage roof in his passion to see heaven, or the image of Darcey furtively wolfing down communion wafers “as if I were eating my after-school snack.”

After a brief, nightmarish sojourn to Harlan, Kentucky, where Darcey’s father hopes to minister to the coal miners, the family fetches up in Roanoke, Virginia. Her parents buy a ranch house; her father works as a mental-health professional, eschewing Sunday services for consciousness- raising group games. “Divinity was changing forms,” as Steinke puts it, “the old variety rushing out of the world with an almost physical sensation, like water draining out of a bathtub.” As the family drifts away from God, Darcey trades her father’s belief system for her mother’s: “Glamour was her religion and . . . she clung to its promise.” The adolescent Darcey finally rids herself of the stutter she’s had since childhood. She lets her hair grow, upgrades her wardrobe, and starts modeling professionally. Beauty and, eventually, literature vie for the altar space formerly occupied by Baby Jesus and communion wafers.

Easter Everywhere is compelling yet oddly unfocused. It’s rather like discovering a stranger’s hoard of snapshots: One recognizes the same figures, and senses the same eye behind the camera, which produces a memorable though sometimes incoherent stream of images. Steinke’s yearning is for a “violent conversion,” like the one she witnesses at a Pentecostal service. The divine is electric: It’s that spark she glimpsed in a cat’s eyes as a child. At the old Limelight, a desanctified church, she sees other club kids as “projections of God . . . a raw God, crude but also beautiful.” She longs for the world to glow like a rosace window, but too often it’s plate glass, and broken glass at that.

Still, by the book’s latter chapters its themes—desire, loss, the drive toward transcendence, something bigger than beauty or sex or even art—finally mesh into a whole. The adult Darcey, now a single mother grappling with depression, continues the spiritual odyssey that has taken her from her grandfather’s rectory in Islip, Long Island, to William Faulkner’s decaying Mississippi mansion, from Graceland to Grace Reformed Church in Flatbush, and, at last, to an Episcopal convent near Columbia University. Here, Steinke finds the spiritual mentor she’s been seeking, a diminutive nun named Sister Leslie whose brisk directives are a far cry from the unruly manifestations of Steinke’s youthful “raw God.” At one point, Sister Leslie bluntly asks, “Do you really want to die in this ditch?” Would that God always spoke in such unmysterious ways.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton cautions his readers, though not against the panoply of sins that caused St. Augustine to pray, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Instead, Merton writes of the “real and constant danger of carelessness and indifference . . . the millions of tepid and dull and sluggish and indifferent Christians who live a life that is still half animal, and who barely put up a struggle to keep the breath of grace alive in their souls.” Darcey Steinke has captured that struggle in painful but luminous detail. She’s earned her measure of grace. And, like Merton before her, she possesses the skill and generosity of spirit to share it with readers.