Carolyn Weber had just endured a turbulent season of life. Everything that had governed her daily activities was turned upside down. She was taking a sabbatical from her job as an English professor; her young daughter and even younger twins were demanding every spare moment; her colleagues in the academy told her that her recently-published spiritual memoir (Surprised by Oxford) was "career suicide." In her latest memoir, Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present, Weber reflects on how she emerged from that traumatic period with a deeper trust in God, rooted in a renewed appreciation for the ordinary things of life. "We are all punctuating steps in the dance of the story," she writes, "we are all readers of our skies, learning from burnout, growing in relationship with God and with each other, seeking and being open to the holy in the dailiness of things." Writer Laura Turner spoke with Weber about finding the holy in the mundane.
Why was this the book you chose to write after Surprised by Oxford?
A book sometimes comes and taps you on the shoulder and asks to be written. This book kept tapping. Prior to Surprised, I had always been an academic writer, devoted to what I was researching. Surprised by Oxford was a genre leap, and it opened up for me how I wanted to do more faith-based writing.
I resisted it at first. I had my own version of the Jonah dilemma, wanting to run back to what I knew, the research and the writing. I had other projects on my mind, but God kept tugging on my heart. My editor at InterVarsity Press told me to "write the book that begs to be written," and that gave me permission to listen to what I was being called to write as a form of trusting.
You can't ignore the tapping.
You have worked in universities for a number of years now. How, in your experience, is faith perceived in the academy?
I was given explicit advice when I was going up for tenure from people in academia not to share my faith. Christianity has this taboo quality within the academy, and some of that cultural antagonism is due to Christians being their own worst enemy. But the problem of God in a secular environment is very real. There is a persecution and subtle bias that can lead to a great sense of loneliness at times. I get a lot of emails from other Christian professors in academia about that subtle coercion.
Faith is a line in the sand—people either got it or were freaked out by it. No other name gets people as riled up, or curious, or drawn in as Jesus.
In the face of so much pressure to be extraordinary, it is easy to lose focus on how God is present in our daily lives—in the ordinary. You turn this phenomenon on its head when you talk about the importance of Carpe Deum—seizing God's presence—as opposed to Carpe Diem. How do you think about this dichotomy between the ordinary and extraordinary?
Before I was a Christian, Christian clichés made me really nervous. People often say things that they mean to be authentic, but come across as canned. As a literary thinker, I am wary of thinking in trite ways.
I have, though, come to admire every type of faith—they all glorify God. All of them have ways of being authentic. Clichés have power for a reason; they have become cliché in the best sense of the term because there is a stream of truth at the bottom of them. We are called to be extraordinary, in some ways, as Christians. In other ways, we must be ordinary.
I must confess that I draw inspiration from the writer Annie Dillard on this topic. In much of life, particularly when you're a follower of Christ, we're told obedience is more important than sacrifice. We must work to force our hearts to check our words, stopping the pride that is in us from parading into our words. We can give genuine grace and compassion to say to other people, "I've been there too and I understand where you're coming from."
So, speaking of clichés, how do you navigate the space of being real or honest in your relationship with God when you just don't feel him nearby?
God veers in and out of my vision. There are moments when I get it, I taste that holiness; and longer periods of time when I don't. Sometimes, when I am in crisis—like the experience of giving birth to my twins that I wrote about—I experience his presence, and sometimes things are going well and I don't have an ounce of gratitude I can muster. This is our post-fall state; we yearn for equilibrium. That's what led me to think about living in the present.
Frederick Buechner wrote about this, the notion that the kingdom of God was at hand, but the disciples and everyone else in the early church were looking for signs of God in these big ways. Everyone was looking for something great, but Buchner's writing hit me like an electric volt, and I saw that if I just changed my vision and opened my eyes, I could see that the kingdom of God is right here. It is on some level a spiritual practice for me now—opening my eyes this way. It may have clichéd roots, but it is a very valuable thing. And that's the thing that slows you down. You can put the kingdom of God before yourself, and it allows you to see the sheer joy of every moment with God.
Sometimes it is difficult to be drawn into an awareness of God's presence, and you have to muster it up by practice or obedience. But if you knock, you will not be ignored.
You also talk in the book about the idea of a calling that comes in two phases—a first calling to follow Christ that "breaks us in as believers," and a "second calling" that pushes us further. How do you understand the idea of a second calling, and how do we receive it from God and live it out?
The second calling isn't necessarily a calling to professional acumen or great success. As Christians we've been given the tools and a way of seeing differently, and that can't be undone. We're given the gift of renewing this grace.
The first chapter of the book is about the trauma of giving birth to my second twin boy. The first delivery went smoothly, but the second one progressed slowly. His body was stuck, and it didn't take long for the delivery team to see that he was not getting the oxygen he needed. Very quickly, the doctor made the call to take me in for an emergency C-Section, and at the moment the delivery room became an operating room, the doctor yelled "CONVERT!" It was a medical term, of course, but even in my pain I held onto that word. I was being taken deeper, and that's really what a second calling is. It is about being taken deeper in our journeys with Christ.
I had the gift of an adult conversion. I was able to understand the call of faith from both the outside and the inside. I knew that we're all called to discipleship. For some of us, the calling is very subtle. Some of us are hit on the head with it. Either way, we grow to realize God really does love us, that there is no path that could take that away from us. There's a way in which the trust that defines our faith leads us into a deeper faith.
You talked about the places you have lived—Ontario, Canada, and Santa Barbara, California, during your time at Westmont College. How do places shape us as we become holy?
Nothing is accidental in the sense of what God can redeem for good. The places where we've been shape us. I arrived at Westmont so battered—personally, from academia, and living an intellectual life as a Christian. I have been traditionally at Jesuit institutions, which overall have been wonderful. There was some of the same push and pull as secular institutions, but there were great Christian traditions too. I hadn't been at a great Christian campus per se. To the outside, unbelieving world, these places can seem insular.
To me, though, I had never seen a campus so vibrantly live both its faith and intellectualism together. I felt a great amount of personal support—I could have a great philosophical conversation with anyone at any time, but I could also stop and ask them for prayer. There was a real way of working at living out Christ, in a spirit of something larger than just the goal of learning. Real, genuine wisdom lived there, and it really filled my well. Some places give us perspective and fill our well for the next place.
I always ached for a home. When the real biblical truth hit me—that notion that "I have prepared a place for you," and "In my house are many rooms"—I knew that there really was a perfect home for me. This is not a placebo; this is a real promise. What we ache for sometimes is at the heart of what we most need to trust about.
Knowing there is a perfect place for us can physically and emotionally remove the anxiety we have about our home, about our place in the world. Reading that passage about home is when I began to see the power that Scripture really has and what good perspective can really do for us. The very places we have been shape us in that way, helping to expose us to different communities and people, and helping us in our walk with God.
Nothing is ever lost on the journey.