It is fitting that Tony Woodlief's latest book --- indeed, the book of his life --- begins with a nod to Frederick Buechner. Buechner, now in his Eighties, is a man who has spent his whole life trying to understand his childhood home, the inexplicable suicide of his father, and the implications of that for his life and, even more, how that home colors his vision of our final Home. In Somewhere More Holy, Woodlief brings that Buechner way of seeing to his own home, seeing its sacredness, glimpsing Heaven in its rooms.
Somewhere More Holy is an open, authentic, and honest memoir of sin and salvation, of tragic loss, of depression and adultery and unbelief that came in the aftermath of that loss, and yet of the grace that sustained a man, a woman, and a home. It is the story of two people orphaned in the sense that they never knew the semblance of a real home in their own upbringing, and who, once realizing their adoption by God, fumble toward family and home in God's grace, with fits and starts. In its particulars, we find the universals that inevitably work themselves out in our own lives and homes, that remind us of our humanity.
When Woodlief cracks open the door to his heart and home, he doesn't hold back. As he says about this honesty: "One of the things that Celeste and I have learned about building a home is that it will never feel safe until you scare your ghosts out into the open." And scare he does. Sexual abuse and family cover-ups. Serial homes. Death. Divorce. Anger. Adultery. Unbelief. Just to read of the suffering and death of his young daughter is painful enough, and yet the demons he wrestles with in the aftermath are even more frightening. Reading it, you can't help but reflect back on your own life and wonder how you would deal with such loss, with a God who wounds in such a near fatal way.
And yet this isn't just one of those blood on the page memoirs with a litany of horrors endured, barely. Rather, there is a point to all this, a lesson Woodlief gives at the outset and shows working out through the remainder of the book. The lesson is this:
We didn't understand that, however much he may love us, God allows his children to be wounded. We didn't yet see that home is a sacred place, and sacred places must be sanctified by the heart's own suffering. . . . Most importantly, we hadn't yet discovered that beyond these stony truths, grace abounds. A home, we are learning even now, can be built in spite of all that our ghosts and the world itself do to try to stop us. That is what we strive for, and perhaps what you strive for as well.
What greater wound could there be than watching your young daughter suffer and die from a brain tumor? It is a Job-like wounding that pushes Woodlief to the limit, nearly to breaking, and yet as the story unfolds you see that the God whose absence was palpable was never really far away.
And that's just the introduction. After giving us the short version of the story and letting us see the end up front (perhaps so we do not lose hope), he goes on to develop the story via the framework provided by the rooms of his home. Though the subject matter is serious (life is, after all serious business), the author's wit and humor buoys the spirit throughout, like when he writes about what it's like to have dinner with four young boys ("boy animals are the only creatures to transform eating into a spectator sport").
In the end, this is not just a memoir about one man's struggle with great tragedy, but one that shows us what a home is intended to be, a sacred place, "the place that makes us better than we ever could be alone," the place "where we learn grace, where we glimpse heaven." Truly it is somewhere more holy.
I highly recommend Somewhere More Holy. Read it and return to the rooms and corridors of your own home and see them for the hallowed places they really are. And the places they can be by God's grace.