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A Book Review of "Shades of Light"

I commend to our CFDM community the novel Shades of Light written by Sharon Garlough Brown. You may know this author from her Sensible Shoes series. This book is not part of that collection but a few of the characters from those stories are also present here. The main character in this story is Wren Crawford (already I liked her with that last name!) who is a social worker, an artist and a person who has endured anxiety and depression throughout her life. Wren is especially sensitive to the needs of others and to the suffering she sees in the world.


Sharon Garlough Brown has written an honest account of mental health issues which several of the people in this engaging story live with and struggle through. There is recognition that the easy solutions from Christian friends and co-workers often don’t help. Well intentioned phrases- “pray your way out of it”, “memorize more scripture”, “anxiety and depression are all about a lack of faith” hurt more than help. Fortunately Wren has a Pastor who knows how hard her journey is and who walks with her patiently, wisely, and lovingly. She has a good Therapist and ultimately medications which are beneficial.


In the Church we are coming to an increased awareness of mental illness and learning helpful ways of accompaniment. This novel describes how anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and panic attacks affect a person’s life. We see the difficulty of managing these and as we come to know the people in the story our compassion increases. We see the real struggle with darkness, fear and uncertainty as healing is sought from God and from mental health services.


There is a true picture of how families seek to understand and deal with a loved one who is suffering. We can identify with the desire to help and the sadness when we are not able to fix. There is theological wrestling with God in the midst of it: Why would God allow this suffering? Why is God not quick to heal? We see the power of the cross as witness to Jesus, our companion in sorrow.


Wren’s favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh. From an early age she has been inspired by his paintings and loves to read his letters to Theo, his brother. This connection to Van Gogh is a major theme throughout the story. Those of you who have read Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent Van Gogh (A Portrait of the Compassionate Life by Carol A. Berry) will be fully alert to Van Gogh’s influence on Wren. It is a great companion book to this one. Wren reflects on Vincent- “He had been a master at finding beauty in the ordinary, beauty in the suffering, beauty in the broken and the poor, in the wounded and the neglected, in the forgotten and the discarded. Vincent knew how to see.” (pg. 50)


For those of us who are pastors, spiritual directors, leaders in spiritual formation practices, this story has lovely and helpful images of how spiritual practices can be part of everyday life. The Pastor and Spiritual Director use visio divina, imaginative reading of scripture, prayer of examen, breath prayer, the teachings of Julian of Norwich in very natural ways. None of it seems forced but all is explored as pathways to draw closer to God. Scripture and Communion are present as gifts of sustenance and hope.


We read of family dynamics, close friendships, healing from trauma, mother-daughter relationships, art as therapeutic, the hardship of loss and grief. There is darkness and there are shades of light. Sharon Garlough Brown, a Pastor and a Spiritual Director, has written a beautiful story where our humanity and God’s creative love for us are woven together. Not many novels are as rich for us as followers of Christ.


At the conclusion of the book are resources:

For Mental Health

For Grief and Spiritual Formation

For Art and Spiritual Formation

For Vincent Van Gogh


She has also written a sequel, a novella about finding our way to the cross called Remember Me which follows up the story of Wren and Kit (a spiritual director and director of the retreat center). In this brief book Wren paints the stations of the cross and explores with Kit the meaning of Christ’s suffering. It includes the paintings and questions for each station. It is a perfect book for Lent.


Let us know what you think of the book and maybe we can plan on this as one of our new book group discussions.


Email Marilyn Crawford


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