Angelique Pesce & Christine Marie Eberle: An Unfolding Story
I do not consider myself a spiritual person. Well, that’s what I keep telling myself. It’s reflexive, my parents’ influence, and I want to believe it. But then I find myself drawn to, and working with, authors such as Angelique Pesce and Christine Marie Eberle, whose forthcoming books American Pastime and Finding God Abiding respectively, are being released on June 7, 2022 by Woodhall Press, and I wonder if I have it all wrong? Because these authors speak beautifully and earnestly about spirituality, I’m moved by their words, and I’m here for it, and them. What do I do about that? I probably just need to embrace it, but in the interim, I’ll share the following conversation.
Please tell me who you are and what we need to know about your book.
ANGELIQUE: I’m Angelique, a writer, filmmaker, lawyer, former ballet dancer, professor, and Mom! My book, American Pastime, is about American Culture. It touches on topics like Sports, God, Art, and Politics—including pandemics and mass school shootings. How do we change the things we don’t like, and what does a writer and engineer like Adam, the protagonist in my book, want to see in America? How do we build it? Using the analogy of a team in baseball, Adam decides to win the game of life as a group. We have to learn to sit down with each other face-to-face, side-by-side, zoom-to-zoom and have a conversation. A conversation even God would want to sit in on, and God does in the book! Using the vehicle of baseball and its bases—1st, 2nd, 3rd base and home—as an analogy, the book takes us through Adams life in America with God always watching as narrator and ultimately joining in as a character when the two meet at a baseball game to have a conversation about American life. Their penultimate question being— if you knew how your life was going to end, would you play it out the same way all again?
CHRISTINE: I’m Christine Marie Eberle (but you can call me Christine). I’m a freelance writer, inspirational speaker, and retreat facilitator, a former Catholic campus minister (26 years), a lover of Ignatian spirituality, a performer of dramatic interpretations of women in Scripture, and a church cantor. Finding God Abiding contains four weeks of daily meditations based on true stories, organized around the themes of Perceiving, Becoming, Embracing, and Releasing. ("We awaken to the world around us, discover and rediscover our path, practice love in its many forms, and grieve the loss of much that we hold dear.”) Through it all, God abides: the one companion of our endless life (to quote the Hindu poet Tagore, which I do). Each chapter begins with a Scripture verse followed by a true story, segues into a bit of musing on lessons learned, and concludes with questions for personal reflection. Many of the stories are my own, though some I had the privilege to hear during my long career in ministry—and share with permission. My desire is that my recounting of both the memories and the wrestling with what it all meant will spark an aha of recognition in the reader, leading to a deepening of understanding in their own life.
There's so much to follow-up on here, but one key overlap in your responses is your mutual belief that God is always watching, serving as a companion by our side. What do you say to someone who ask how you know, or how they can know? Believing this isn't important to being moved or engaged by your respective books, but I'm still interested in how you respond to skeptics.
ANGELIQUE: To answer your question: I would say it comes down to proof. Today there is a lot of science at institutions like NASA and YALE Divinity School where research exists proving there is communication to an “other” conscious or God. The language of this communication proves that it is not a posthumous being or another human. That’s the science of exegesis or narrative voice. It takes a lot of education, and the research spans as far back as “time.” This communication charting is the same as space exploration—it takes scientists to do and fund the work/research but the work/research exists. Knowing it exists is a difference in how you see, feel and work in the world. It’s just like knowing the number for pie exists…what does knowing that number add to you intellectually? The good thing is you can go on with yourself as usual once you learn this. Knowing pie exists doesn’t have to be life altering—-it’s just a fact. Why not be right about it? Knowing God exists is exactly the same.
P.S. Having a theology degree and an English degree naturally drew me to this research, and it’s pretty cool.
CHRISTINE: Okay, Ben, this time I’m not going to look at Angelique’s answer before writing mine!
If someone asked me, “How do you know, or how do I know,” I would say (in the course of a longer and less didactic conversation than this essay permits), that I don’t know.
More specifically, that “know” is the wrong word here—and we’re both aware how picky I am about choosing the right word!
The very act of having faith implies a lack of knowledge, and to believe in something is to make a calculated leap over the chasm of doubt. We don’t “believe" in gravity, Oreos, or the death-defying vacillations of squirrels; we know they are real. There may be some poor soul who has never tasted an Oreo, or some lucky driver who has never almost flattened a squirrel while screaming “DECIDE!”—or even, someday, a person born and raised weightless in a spaceship. Nevertheless, there is obtainable evidence about gravity, sandwich cookies, and the behavior of panic-stricken rodents.
When it comes to the sense of God’s presence and engagement, however, we’re on different ground—shifting sands, to use my idiom of terrains. Certainly, we have thousands of years of testimony to lean on: “evidence" in the form of oral history, Scripture, Midrash, the writings of the mystics, etc. Surrounded by what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “so great a cloud of witnesses,” we cast our lot with them. That’s one form of belief.
Yet I think you are asking about something deeper than Pascal’s wager. In my book, I use phrases like “knowing herself so powerfully accompanied” and “God’s compassionate abiding.” Clearly, there’s an experience that people of faith have, beyond the mere decision to suspend disbelief: an experience which believers believe signifies the presence and activity of God in our lives.
And there’s the rub. Believers believe. I believe that the ongoing, daily conversation I call prayer is more than just the grownup version of having fun with an imaginary friend. When I’m moved to tears by an experience of truth or beauty; when I’m confronted with the reality that I have once again missed the mark but that I am welcomed—compelled—to get up and try again tomorrow, I believe that’s of God. When the thing that pops into my head with startling clarity isn’t remotely something I usually say, I believe that's God weighing in. When I gather in the building we call church with the delightful, messy, broken, striving people who are church, I believe we are all caught up in the mystery and wonder that is God—moved by a love that decides, to paraphrase Pedro Arrupe, SJ, “what will get us out of bed in the morning, how we spend our weekends, what we read, who we know, what breaks our heart, and what amazes us with joy and gratitude."
To those who would say “prove it,” all I can say is, “come and see.”
Or, as I write in the introduction to Finding God Abiding: “If this companioning God feels to you like wishful thinking or a pleasant projection at best, I hope that you will peruse these pages with an open mind. Perhaps something you read here will bring the one Companion of your endless life more clearly into view” (p. xvi).
Or, to borrow Rilke: learn to love the questions.
Can I get an Amen?
First, you both get an amen, everyone gets an amen, and second, I may be stretching a bit here, but in terms of belief, there are a lot of people who believe they have something to say and believe they ought to write a book (or books), but even having that belief, they don't. You both did. Why did you believe you could or should write the books you've written?
ANGELIQUE: You're right, there are a lot of people who believe they have something to say and believe they ought to write a book but don't. For me, while I believed I had something to write, the task of writing in the first place was what made me not abandon the ideas that I wrote about. I always wanted to write a book or two or three. Book writing was always a job for me, not the other way around. I always look for what to write a book about, not wait for the idea to come to inspire me to write. I have a legal theory based book, quasi textbook, with progressive and forward thinking legal theories being drafted now. The other book I am currently in the thick of is Yemen Love Story, a socio-political story about falling in love under the burqa.
CHRISTINE: Many years ago, a ministry friend of mine became the acquisitions editor of a Catholic press which shall remain nameless. After coaxing me to write a few articles for their magazine, Ron said “I know you have a book in you. What is it?” I asked him to give me the weekend to think about it, and on Monday proposed the book that became—almost ten years later—Finding God in Ordinary Time. That first book (and my second, Finding God Abiding) was the fruit of a decade’s experience crafting homilies (sermons) for daily Masses at the campus ministry center where I worked, thanks to the collaborative preaching style of my priest colleague, Father Sam. A good homily starts with an interesting story, draws out a spiritual lesson, and invites hearers to make the connection to their own lives. I’d been figuring out how to make that happen for our congregation five days a week for ten years; doing it for my readers—and not on the fly—has been a delight. Despite Ron’s invitation and Fr. Sam’s “practice sessions,” my books would have stayed in my head if it weren’t for the good folks at When Words Count, a writer’s retreat in Vermont. Ron had changed jobs abruptly when I was only nine chapters into my book, and his successor “couldn’t figure out how to market this thing.” Lacking her support, I tucked the book away for almost nine years. But in 2017 I spent four nights at WWC (on the strength of a Facebook sweepstakes!) and received both affirmation from fellow writers and an invitation from Steve Eisner to join the upcoming Pitch Week competition. That got me an editor, a cover designer, and a deadline—and, eventually, a publisher. In short: I believed I could write my books because I’ve been a writer all my life and this topic is dear to my heart, personally and professionally. But it was the faith that others had in me that enabled me to change that belief into a reality.
You both seem to embody the adage "write what you know" as well as anyone I've spoken to recently. I'm interested in what you see as the benefits and limitations of this approach to writing, and whether you even agree with my take on your work at all.
CHRISTINE: When I began working on my masters in pastoral ministry at age twenty-four, I did a concentration in pastoral care and counseling because the concentration I really wanted—spirituality—wasn’t available to anyone under thirty. At the time, it felt like reverse age discrimination, but now I see the wisdom. Any spiritual writing needs to be grounded in experience in order to be trustworthy. As I share my “four weeks of daily meditations based on true stories,” readers know that what they hold in their hands comes from real life—my own, or that of the people I’ve been privileged to accompany. I wrote the first nine chapters of my first book almost a decade before the other nineteen. While I put it in a drawer for reasons having nothing to do with the acquisition of understanding, I’m conscious that the book is more powerful and relatable because of all the things that happened to me in the interim—including the deaths of my parents, grandmother, forty-six-year-old cousin and nineteen-year-old cat. Bottom line: there is no substitute for—or shortcut to—wisdom. And yet, there is more than one way for a story to be “true.” If not, the fiction shelves in bookstores would be pretty thin! For example, my good friend David W. Burns has written a marvelous book called Heart of Stone that’s in the Pitch Week competition at When Words Count next month. His protagonist is a modern-day Medusa, making a living as a hit woman for hire in Chicago. Now, Dave has never met a Gorgon or protected a blind teenager from mythic assassins while fleeing for his life. But the emotional core of the story—the conflict his protagonist feels between the way she has always thought of herself and the better person she hopes (doubts? fears?) she could become: that’s real. On some level, a good novel is always a true story.
But I digress.
If the benefit of “writing what I know” is authenticity, a corresponding limitation is that I can’t tweak the stories I tell just to make a point. I can choose which details to include and omit, but I can’t have a “character” make an entirely different decision just so I can tie a neat spiritual bow on the chapter. The other limitation—which actually is a great gift—is that I can’t decide I’m going to be exclusively a writer, taking to my couch to start cranking out books. My writing is always in dialogue with my retreat work, as well as with all the other ways I engage the world as a person of faith, such as cantoring for funerals at my church. Each discipline—each conversation partner—informs and enriches the others.
ANGELIQUE: Writing what you know has a strong sense of giving back to the community what you have learned. I never want to deprive others who just have not had a teacher with my knowledge yet in their lives, although there are many of me in the world and I have learned from them. They were awesome teachers, professors, businesses, scientists, legislators, philosophers, librarians, artists, writers, theologists, doctors, parents, grandparents, creators, and lovers alike. Does it have limitations? Sure. It’s the difference between an echo and an invention. But the grand feeling is writing what you know gives back what you’ve learned. Once you share that with an audience, the good news is in the next book you can probably begin to invent, and erode the idea that there is any limitation. Together audience and author can give way to progress in art. And limitlessness, as you appropriately mention, can be achieved.
Now I'm interested in your takes on other people writing what they know, which is to say in terms of other writers and books, which are your favorite (and least favorite, should you want to go there) literary encounters with God, be that fiction or nonfiction?
ANGELIQUE: Favorite: Toni Morrison's Sula was a book about genetic science before fingerprinting, blood and DNA testing, and saliva swabbing even existed; and like the authors documenting Noah, Moses, King, and Ghandi, Professor Morrison of Princeton University was right. A blue eye. A brown skin. Why discuss this when that is still 99.9% the same skin, the same eye. Before her, Sojourner Truth changed her name (Pilgrimage for Truth) to embody the error of incorrect “definitions” as far back as the 1800s. We inherited those errors and we work to fix them and it shows. Anyone who works against that also shows. And times are exciting for our children and their future because we can say with legal and scientific certainty that they are wrong.
Least Favorite: J.D. Salinger—Cather In The Rye. Why? Because of heaviness on judgment and largeness on stalking those he judges…who quite frankly may be ignorant out of bliss and may need more help than the narrator's hate. I remember my HS teacher, Ms. Robataccio, handing me the book while I was heavy on love for Machiavelli—The Prince, Chaucer— The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare— Romeo and Juliet, and she said—-“Angelique you’re not going to like this one.” I laughed because I felt loved that she knew me so literally well. After I read it I felt understood—no one should feel as hateful as Holden Caulfield sounded. After that book ended up in the hands of the murderer of the late John Lennon who sang about peace, it became clear to me that my teachers knew I knew what I was reading. Gratitude set in.
Because of my HS Teacher’s observations of me and Toni Morrison’s books Sula and The Bluest Eye, their work made me promise that if I could be a writer—I would.
Then there is nonfiction like Gordon Parks—A Weapon of Choice, 27 Hours Between a Rock and A Hard Place—Aaron Ralston, Into the Wild—John Krakauer, The Panda’s Thumb—Stephen Jay Gould, The New Genetics—Roger Lincoln Shinn, The Lives To Come—Philip Kitcher, and The Human Rights Declaration from the UN, Helen Keller—The Story of My Life, Anne Frank—The Diary of Anne Frank, Eli Wiesel—Night and all the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.
CHRISTINE: Several of my favorite books have as a central theme their characters’ wrestling with ideas of God and faith. I’m thinking of Gail Godwin’s Father Melancholy’s Daughter and Evensong, and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God.
Godwin’s wonderful novels immerse us in the life of Margaret, motherless daughter of a loving but depressed Anglican pastor (hence the fond nickname). While I can’t share anything about the second book that wouldn’t require a total spoiler alert for the first, I can say that what I find profoundly satisfying about both is that they provide a fictionalized yet utterly true glimpse into the spiritual musings of someone for whom faith, prayer, and religious practice are normal, ordinary aspects of life. In each book, Margaret provides a thoughtful and utterly sympathetic foil to zealots of both the religious and secular variety. She is such a believable character; I wish I could pick up the phone and call her during my own dark nights. My brother refers to Doria Russell’s novels as “Jesuits in Space,” though my preferred subtitle would be “When Bad Things Happen to Good Interplanetary Missionaries.”
These books are not for everyone. If you can’t muster the suspension of disbelief required to appreciate the science behind how four Jesuit priests and an equal number of lay people might travel to another planet because the SETI listening post in Arecibo picked up music from outer space, then never mind. If you cannot hack violence in a novel—there’s some pretty brutal stuff here, sexual and otherwise—take a pass. But OH MY GOODNESS, this author brings an exquisite ear to the language of the spirit—the doubt that dwells in the midst of faith, the despair that wrestles with hope, and the crisis that comes when the only possible response to tragedy seems to be either blaming God or blaming yourself. Godwin’s religious characters are all over the place: saintly (or possibly insane), visionary and profane. Her secular voyagers, on the other hand, while mostly eschewing religious vocabulary, are consistently committed to the high virtues of love, loyalty, wisdom, friendship, and truth.
Interestingly, one of my least favorite books also has to do with interplanetary missionaries: Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Part of my annoyance stems from the fact that this book is not interesting enough to be as long as it is (almost 600 pages), but my primary frustration is with how unappealing the main character’s Christianity is. One particularly hostile Goodreads reviewer referred to Faber’s “brain-curdling religious platitudes” and “unrelenting, banal Christian rhetoric.” Pastor Peter, it seems, has a cookie-cutter idea of God that he is eager to stamp onto the alien beings to whom he’s been sent. By contrast, here’s how the Jesuits in Sparrow articulate the reason for their mission: God has other children. We have to know them. I’ll take that level of reverence and nuance any day.
I'm taken with the idea of reading something and feeling understood, as well as reading someone's work and feeling the reverence and nuance of their craft, and so, while these ideas are not entirely connected, how conscious were you about crafting books where readers would feel understood, as well as seeking to reflect reverence and nuance in your work?
ANGELIQUE: Reading something that helps a person identify themselves while feeling understood is important to me because I have studied how many errors in law made people feel ostracized. Writing a scientifically and legally accurate account is a matter of truth and health. So, yes, I was overly conscious about crafting books where readers would feel understood. They are honored in my writing—their lives, their genetics, and all the disrespectful ideas they had to fight over the years, incorrect ideas that were all just false propaganda—there is reverence in that being the point of the work. They are more than understood, they are right. Being understood is a must.
CHRISTINE: It’s essential that my readers feel understood; otherwise they wouldn’t keep reading! Part of what I need to do is focus on the emotional core of my stories—shared elements not dependent on shared circumstances. For example, in Finding God Abiding, most people can relate to receiving an unexpected kindness, or grieving a loved one, or not knowing how to feel about their body or socioeconomic status. They don’t have to have had my exact experiences to feel like I “get” them. I also try to be transparent about mistakes and vulnerabilities, as that’s something we all endure. Each chapter starts with a true story then segues into a bit of musing on lessons learned; hopefully the musing accomplishes that emotional connection, but I also include reflection questions to coax out the connection. In my final chapter, for example (no spoilers here), I write “X was such a shocking turn of events that I really can’t say, Has anything like this ever happened to you? So instead, I’ll ask, What space has grief carved out in you? In that space, who or what is God inviting you to love?” The space carved out by grief will be a different shape for everyone, but anyone who has lost a loved one will be able to recognize the hole in their gut where a beloved used to be. As to reverence and nuance, I do my level best never to tie a tidy bow on anyone’s experience—especially their painful or unresolved experience. I say what I’ve seen and the insights I’ve gleaned, then invite the reader to ponder their own story through that lens.
In terms of pondering your own stories, what's next, and please answer that as broadly or narrowly as you like?
ANGELIQUE: What’s next is 1) Yemen Love Story, a book about falling in love under the burqa. 2) The Paradox Hunter, a book about the unique paradoxes that exist in our world today. 3) The New Legal Theories, a book that takes creative license with legislative efforts not yet in place but could be. 4) The Sleepy Hollow Chronicles, a trilogy about a haunting from Washington Irving’s famous past reset in 2024. 5) I Love You, a children’s book that educates on the value of love towards people versus material things. 6) Ali and Me, a book about how a 1st generation American Mother worked to educate herself to make sense of a life rooted, for the first time, in freedom, and how to make that count in the life of her 2nd generation American daughter.
In addition to the above, I continue to work in film and law, encourage donations to the nonprofit EsteembyDesign, work with God (wink), and most importantly—be with my two incredible kids—Jakob and Benjamin—my best job ever!
CHRISTINE: On October 2 (God and COVID willing), I will board a flight to Spain and spend the next 30+ days as a pilgrim walking the Ignatian Camino. This is not the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) made famous by the Martin Sheen movie; it’s the route St. Ignatius took from his hometown of Loyola to Montserrat, Manresa, and Barcelona, following his initial conversion experience. I’ll be walking in the company of two dozen others affiliated with the Ignatian Volunteer Corps, and we will be praying with material from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises as we go. The experience promises to be profound and potentially life-changing, but how? I won’t know until I go. But I do hope that my next book will emerge from what happens; tentative title is Finding God Along the Way: Lessons from the Ignatian Camino for Life at Home.
I’m also percolating on a book called Finding God in Grief and Grace, in which I will share the fruits of my conversations with people who have experienced tragedy and emerged with faith (whether original, discovered, or reconstructed). Life’s more devastating events often push people away from God; I’m intensely curious about what factors draw us close instead. And, of course, my unfolding story is about more than my writing. In this (relatively) new freelance existence of mine, I hope to continue exploring what it looks like to live meaningfully, generously, intentionally, and gratefully in this world—building a life, not just an encore career!
Finally, what did I fail to ask you and/or what do you want to be sure people know about you, the book or your work in general?
CHRISTINE: Only this: In Genesis, God created the world with a word (Let there be light, etc.). You don’t have to be a creationist to be inspired by the notion of God speaking order out of chaos. As co-creators with God, we have the power to shape worlds with our words as well. Let us take that awesome responsibility seriously, and use our words wisely.
ANGELIQUE: You didn’t! But what do I want people to know about me, the book or my work in general? That I studied 29 years about law, science, and God just so I could give back what I learned. So there is much more to come thanks to that research. Just too good not to share. ONE LOVE. Also, that everyone should clearly thank you for your incredible work Ben—could not have done this without you!
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