Coming to God, reluctantly, with a tin cup in hand

“Maybe saints turn to God to exalt him, from innate righteousness. The rest of us tend to show up holding out a tin cup,” Mary Karr wrote in an essay entitled “Facing Altars: Poetry and Prayer.”

Included in her 2005 book of poems, “Sinners Welcome,” the brief essay summarizes much of the story of how that cup is filled as does in her new memoir, “Lit.” It’s a journey that begins with her reliance on Jack Daniels whiskey, leads to praying “with belligerence” to stay sober, and then to indifferently visiting different churches to please her son. (She often brought a book to read during services.) The next step, to her surprise, is feeling like she’s found a home in a Catholic parish.

“Prayer has yielded comfort and direction — all well and good. But imagine my horror when I began to have experiences of joy,” she writes about surrendering her intellectual and emotional resistance to belief.

Among the poems in “Sinners Welcome” is one about Walt Mink, who is fleshed out in “Lit” as the gentle psychology professor whose first kindness to Karr, then a student with limited funds, is getting gloves for her when he sees her wearing socks to protect her hands from the cold. He remained a mentor, and when he is near death she tells him, “You’re one of the big reasons I believe in God.”

“You see the irony, he says, for his father had been a minister, and he was a rationalist to his core.” But, he tells Karr, “You give Christianity a good name.”

Although Karr is devoted to the Prayer of St. Francis and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, readers should know her memoirs contain profanity reflective of the hard experiences she’s lived through. She acknowledges doubts, and she once said in an interview that she feels that she’s “either moving closer to God or further away minute by minute.”

But, she says, she prays for the same reason she writes poetry: “to be able to see my brothers and sisters despite my own (often petty) agonies, to partake of the majesty that’s every sinner’s birthright.”

Mary Karr will speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia (Central Library, 1901 Vine Street) on Thursday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m. For information call 215-686-5322 or go to www.library.phila.gov

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