Robust Theology, Pastoral Sensitivity

Lights for the Path
By Madeleine Davies
SPCK Publishing, pp. 160, $15.

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Review by Todd FitzGerald

Madeleine Davies’s Lights for the Path is a soothing balm for young people experiencing the death of a loved one and navigating the turbulent waters of grief. Immediately, the author establishes her authority as a fellow traveler and wise guide, so vital for anyone trying to connect with teenagers. With an authentic voice, Davies shares her own journey through her mother’s cancer diagnosis, her mother’s death when the author was 12, and her experience of the vicissitudes of the grief landscape.

With a vulnerable and honest tone, Davies includes her own story as a thread holding the chapters together. Throughout the book, her returns to her story are well-timed and germane to each successive theme, whether anticipatory grief, theodicy, or remembering. Authors, ministers, historians, counselors, poets, doctors, and teachers, when these experts’ ideas are in Davies’s hands, add depth to her treatment of the subject. The voices of others who have suffered, with which the author concludes 10 of the chapters, broaden the appeal and efficacy of the book. The reader benefits from Davies’s personal story of loss, but the inclusion of the interviewees’ stories expand the narrative to include many other circumstances, such as suicide, automobile crash, or substance abuse, under which people face death and grief.

As regular church attendance continues to decline in the United States (and even more severe in Davies’s United Kingdom) and moral therapeutic deism spreads among youth in the West, the most valuable elements of Lights for the Path are the author’s robust theological analysis and extraordinary pastoral sensitivity. At a time when more people lack any belief structure or regular practices with which to navigate life’s ups and downs, Davies’s contribution to literature for teenagers navigating grief is sorely needed.

Without being preachy or dogmatic, Davies invites teens to situate their tragic experience, with all their questions and emotions and confusion, in the midst of the Christian story. Resurrection hope, for example, is thoroughly treated with scriptural evidence and a pastoral insight that will resonate with those familiar with the Bible and those who are not.

The author manages to weave together biblical exegesis and theological insights that are substantial yet appropriate for an adolescent audience. Psychologist and priest Joanna Collicutt, for example, enhances the author’s exploration of the fear of death and the Christian claim that believers are liberated from death and the fear of it. Additional theological insights from poet and priest Malcolm Guite, and New Testament scholar Tom Wright deepen Davies’s exploration of God’s providence and Christian eschatology, respectively.

Davies’s pastoral attentiveness is a clear note that sounds throughout the book. She begins and ends the book with a prayer that the reader will experience light during the darkness of their grief. The vulnerability of Davies’s writing provides a point of shared contact with the reader’s experience. In vivid detail, that vulnerability is surely reassuring to the teens who will read the pages in which Davies shares the dread of repeatedly waking up to her mother’s diagnosis as “aftershocks,” and the confession that she found her mother’s funeral “disturbing.”

The author’s sensitivity for the age and reading level of the reader influences the entire book, but it is specifically on display when Davies defines terms like “aneurysm,” or when she tells the reader to re-read a comforting line “as many times as you need to.” In many different forms and places throughout the book, the author’s reassurance that God “walks with us through whatever we face” will be comfort to readers’ broken hearts.

As an Episcopal priest and a school chaplain for more than two decades, I have tried to be a “faithful pastor to all whom I am called to serve” and in doing so commit to “laboring … to build up the family of God” (BCP, Ordination of Priest). As a pastor who is called to walk alongside bereaved teenagers, I neglect the fullness of pastoral ministry if I acquiesce to the more commonly accepted therapeutic care instead of a faithful witness to the presence of the Good Shepherd, who is always caring for the sheep.

I have been challenged and encouraged by Pope Francis’ “art of accompaniment” as a corrective to a compassionate but incomplete pastoral care. As he states in Evangelli Gaudium, when we accompany another person, we are “to make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze…[and] to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG, 169). Davies’s book is not only a healing gift to teens, it will be reassurance for the pastoral ministry of those who accompany teens in order “to make present the fragrance of Christ’s closeness and his personal gaze.”

Certainly, I expect Lights for the Path to be a gift I might give to students facing loss as I walk alongside them. In addition to using the book in this way, I also anticipate giving it to other adults I know who are providing support and comfort for teens, including parents, coaches, school counselors, and advisors. Due to Davies’s thorough research, wide-ranging interviews, and her own theological insights and those of her mentors, Lights for the Path is a gift to all who have the great privilege to accompany teenagers with faith, hope, and love through their turbulent adolescent years.

The Rev. Todd FitzGerald is chaplain of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Austin, Texas.


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