Sara Miles spent many years developing her vocation to feed people and has been deeply involved in ministering to the physical bodies we inhabit. Her previous books chart this journey, but in her new offering, ‘City of God’ we find a different dynamic at work. Moving outside the Church, Sara and a team from St Gregory of Nyssa Church in Mission district, San Francisco spent a day reminding people that they are dust and to dust they will return.
She writes with an eye to detail and has a knack of finding beauty in the grimmest situations. I didn’t honestly think it was possible to write an entire book about the imposition of ashes until I read this one. And of course the book isn’t just about that; it’s about encounter with people’s deepest longings – and with that taboo subject, death, our own insistent mortality.
Because Miles focuses exclusively on Ash Wednesday, there are many pages to fill with the account of just one day. We get a lot of her back story and the reader may find the minutiae a little tedious at times, for example a quick inventory of her fridge contents, an exchange of texts between herself and her Vicar. But as she allows us to visit on a day in her life (which is candid about her lack of Christlikeness at times, and her fraught humanity), she challenges us about putting the microscope to our own.
Miles also introduces us to her city and her district and provides a neighbourhood audit worthy of mention. She highlights the value of getting embedded in community and the sharing of life together; she usually avoids making value judgements about her neighbours, but occasionally shares how her attitudes have been changed as God’s light has shone into a particular situation.
Those in chaplaincy, or indeed anyone wishing to find a way to bring the Christian story into our everyday life, may find this provides a helpful example and checklist. It also reminds us that in the life of a Christian minister, lay or ordained, there are often times when we have to go off-plan in order to serve the wider purposes of the Kingdom of God. The actual delivery of ashes, when it happens, may seem like a bit of an anti-climax – it’s something many of us who have imposed them in hospitals, schools or other communities would recognise. But perhaps the point is that it is infused with a sense of connectedness to and love of the immediate community. The action gains momentum and urgency and Miles concludes, ‘in each moment of encounter – brief, intense, unpredictable – God’s presence flared out, as if my hand and a stranger’s face became, together, the tent of meeting.’
The book certainly contains some alternative theology. Some might view it as being ‘Christ-lite’. From the stories it contains, we may conclude that Sara Miles does not actually know any ordinary folk, and that it’s all very well to use such whacky and unusual methods in Mission, San Fran, but perhaps not in our own neighbourhoods! Or perhaps this is just a wake-up call to remind us that all God’s created people are extraordinary and to pray to see both them and the opportunities we have with new eyes. ‘City of God’ gives us a sense of God’s Kingdom continuing to transform our lives and world, and is more focused on this than simply finding the happy ending.
Review by Reverend Canon Joss Walker.