To Horror and Back

“This would be a cathedral of shut your mouth and listen.”
Bill Henderson Lily Henderson

Bill Henderson
Pushcart, $22

On a hill overlooking the sea, in Sedgwick, Me., Bill Henderson decided to build a cathedral. Though inspired by his visit to the Chartres Cathedral in France as a young man, this one would come out of his own imagination and spiritual journey; it would be borne of “my idea of holy.”

Mr. Henderson’s “Cathedral: An Illness and a Healing” tells the story of building this unusual structure, and also of his own kind of spirituality: There would be a lot of silence, the singing of hymns, unscripted prayers, using no single book. “This would be a cathedral of shut your mouth and listen.”

Choosing the rocks from the surrounding landscape was in itself a meditative process. He had no experience with such construction, but carried it out with no hurry with his daughter Holly and his constant canine companion, Lulu. The stones would be in honor or in memory of his saints — friends, neighbors, and family members whom we meet along the way.

The work was encumbered by persistent bad weather and other problems, and in the course of the project we see his searching for God, with its questioning, doubting, and probing. He wrestles with his “silent but devoted” Presbyterian upbringing, yet is always drawn back to an unadorned God of love, nature, simplicity, and wonder.

But in the middle of the project he is diagnosed with cancer, breast cancer at that, and it turns his life upside down. As it happened, he had a couple more cancer diagnoses over a few years, and even lost Lulu to a similar disease.

“I was caught between despair and the name of Jesus. That is all that remained of my faith. One word. No song. No hymn. A friend who had been to horror and back. Jesus.”

At one point during the “Cancer Years,” the style of writing changes abruptly from lyrical prose to very short and jagged incomplete sentences, with a brutal honesty. This is jarring and disconcerting, as it is meant to be, and it is a vivid, unvarnished account of his experience that many will relate to. Mr. Henderson says, “Journal entries recount the next years more precisely and more harshly than I can remember, for indeed many of those days I would like to forget, and have forgotten. A glowing prose would only create a gloss on the deep down horror.”

Eventually there is a healing, in the broad sense of the word — his own resurrection of sorts — and it takes place quietly and unexpectedly in a church in Springs that he intermittently attends.

Musing about atheists, he says what may be a good summary of his theology: “I don’t know enough about God to be an atheist.”

And yes, after standing incomplete and untouched for some time, the cathedral is finally finished, though in a somewhat downsized version of his original plan. It is a wonderful moment.

Mr. Henderson’s writing is beautiful, lyrical, and sometimes poetic. Before each chapter is a quote from the likes of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Chief Seattle, and Wendell Berry. The book has an appealing and easy-to-read layout, with short chapters, good use of white space, and expressive choices of type fonts that draw the reader in. There are a handful of small black-and-white photos, but if they were larger and clearer it would greatly enhance their overall effect.

In this inspiring spiritual memoir, Mr. Henderson gives us a lot to reflect on about life, death, love, relationships, small-town Maine, illness, despair, healing, and faith. It is moving and poignant, yet it is an easy read. Although I read the book in a fairly short time, I thought that I might like to reread a short chapter or two a day for reflection.

For those who are followers of Mr. Henderson’s, it is interesting that there is some overlap in timeline or subject matter between “Cathedral” and several of his other books: “Tower: Faith, Vertigo, and Amateur Construction,” “All My Dogs: A Life,” and “Simple Gifts: One Man’s Search for Grace.”

Bill Henderson of Springs is founder of the Pushcart Press and editor of the Pushcart Prize.