Memoir as Sacred Witness
At its heart, memoir as a genre is when someone honestly and generously grapples with the truest truths of their lives with all the strength they can muster. I found this quality on every page of Matthew Wickman’s Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, a triumph of a book rendered with love, rigor, and nuance. And it is unmistakably, beautifully, a memoir.
Wickman recounts his journey through vivid snapshots: the moment he decided to serve a mission, the day he bought Nietzsche at a local bookstore, painful moments of faith transition, the academic conference where he bravely decided to talk about spirituality, the moment when he first met his wife, the sound of his daughters’ footsteps, and windswept scenes from Scotland where he reckoned with one of the most difficult personal and professional decisions of his life. Through these portraits, we see the interconnectedness of his spiritual and literary paths told with humor, self-deprecation, and dimension. As he puts it, “I took up the serious study of literature because it seemed like a continuation of my spiritual odyssey” (5). Literature, in turn, taught him “to read [life] a little more deeply, appreciate it a little more fully” (7).
As a student of literature—including as a former student of Wickman—I appreciate the way he closes the distance between academia and spirituality. A decade ago, I didn’t have the language to articulate that seeming divide, but I do remember listening to professors like Wickman speak with a passion, excitement, and enthusiasm that made me think, “This person is brilliant. They could teach anywhere. Why here (Brigham Young University)? What does shuffling into sacrament meeting feel like to them? With such an active mind, what are the contours of their deepest held beliefs? And how did they arrive there?”
In examining that perceived divide, Wickman discusses the similar language used to describe experiences with the Holy Ghost and literature, how both “inform each other” and are “practically born from the same impulse” (66). Spiritual sensitivity, like literature, “stimulates the mind and stirs the heart, fostering greater empathy and thus increasing our capacity to feel and perceive” (24). Literature, in turn, he sees as “a natural vehicle of spiritual experience” (32).
Wickman describes some of the ways God speaks with him in fresh, curious ways: in fragments, in wondrously strange or subtle or kinetic ways, with gentle irony, with patience and poignancy, through “beguiling and enchanting and breathtaking” impressions (76), with rigor and defamiliarization, in silences and gaps, and with “divine shadow” (81).
This resonates with me, as a lifelong student of words who has felt at home with books but sometimes not as at home within the spiritual frameworks I grew up with. But this book is not only for people interested in literature, but for those who crave a new language to describe and understand spirituality—language that feels expansive and more inclusive.
For me, chapter 8 is the tour de force. Here, Wickman weaves together scenes of the early death of his brother and, much later, the death of a friend, with a reflection about Mr. Ramsey from Virginia’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. He writes,
I felt myself falling. I did not doubt that God existed, but I now knew I did not understand a God who permitted such things to happen—a God who took vitality and promise and twisted it into complexity, into (something like) literature, into (something like) elegy. I did not wish to live in a novel like Woolf’s. . . . [I was] not so much praying as gazing in God’s direction, incredulous. (132)
Wickman does not flinch away from the hardest parts of the human condition, learning of “God’s abiding presence in my sorrow, of his silence alongside my mourning, almost a form of solidarity” (134–35). He is unafraid of questions and familiar with the existential.
Wickman also illuminates how spiritual journeys, like memoirs, come in an infinite array of shapes. He writes, “we as a religious culture could probably be a little more diverse, more discerning, in how we discuss spiritual experience” (22). Life to the Whole Being makes space for exactly that. It resists didactic, flat, binary portraiture and does instead what true memoir does best: describes experience without rejecting what Wickman calls “the awkwardness of religion,” something he thinks is a crucial element, rather than a reason to dismiss it (53). Wickman identifies as a pilgrim and a seeker. “Rightness is loud and has all the answers,” he says, where “truth speaks quietly, a virtual whisper across the wind and waves” (116). Wickman honors God as a poet, someone who has “always managed to convert the emptiness” of his own experience into something meaningful (70).
After reading this book, I am left with a renewed reverence for memoir. In a culture that often emphasizes what “we” believe, there is, paradoxically, a humble yet astonishing power found in the limits of the lone “I.” To me, writing a memoir feels like a sacred process, and reading it feels like witnessing—another spiritual act. What if we all told the truest truth of our own lives with such candor and courage? Though solitary soul-work in its inception, Wickman shows that the act of genuine truth-sharing can elevate us all.
Rachel Rueckert is the award-winning author of East Winds and the Editor in Chief of Exponent II.
Art by Denise Gasser.