Learning to Tell Stories
An Interview with Walter Wangerin, Jr.
By Joe Krall
Everlasting is the Past
Rabbit Room Press, 2015
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ERB: You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction that has impacted many, many people. In Everlasting is the Past, you chose to tell three inter-connected stories – your story of doubt and finding faith, your story of call, and the story of Grace Lutheran Church. What motivated this memoir, and why did you structure the memoir as you did?
WWJ: Well, I suppose this is something I’ve thought about for a long time, especially the depression that I felt in graduate school, and then that whole episode with the sheep. It seemed to me, by now, a natural thing to present that story, and to make it a kind of a hinge, between what goes before it and the events that follow – parts two and three. But there was not a time when I suddenly said, “Oh! Let me write this.” I think it was always just somewhere in the back of my mind.
ERB: You finished graduate school in part one and started answering to answer a call to pastoral ministry in part two. In between, you got married and started teaching. How did you transition out of the depression you had felt?
WWJ: This isn’t quite to the point, but I tended all my life until these latter years to be melancholy anyway, and that isn’t necessarily depression. I suppose that what drew me out of depression at that time was this freedom that I felt – not to have to perform anything, in graduate school or before the laws of God. I was free not to worry how poorly or well I did anything. But, I think it comes in stages. Yes, to be married or to get married was a piece of coming out of depression. There’s a sort of seesaw life to that, sometimes sinking into a kind of sorrow and sometimes rising from it, and sometimes with no particular event causing either one.
One thing that helped was, when I returned to seminary, after I was done with graduate school, I began to read the mystics: St. John of the Cross, with his Dark Night of the Soul, Kierkegaard with Fear and Trembling, The Cloud of Unknowing by an anonymous author. These books actually put a name to the various feelings that I had, which were undefined and unnamed. I think John of the Cross especially helped me understand that what seems to be a departure from God or God’s abandoning one is actually a stage of a progression that closes into the light. And though I wasn’t always at that last stage, I understood that the earlier stages were not to be damned or called terrible – terrible though they were – because they moved toward the enlightenment. That, to me, was enormously helpful, and I have kept returning and returning to those books ever since. I would put a lot of store by those books.
Ministry itself really worked between two poles. On the one hand, it made me terribly nervous. It was the inner city, it was altogether new to me, and I feared it. On the other hand, it was rewarding, especially the relationships that were built between me and the members of the congregation (and their families). So it went back and forth between those two things, which is stimulating – like making the heart beat faster. And I think that had something to do with the healing that I went through.
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