In his most recent work of art, Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living, Thomas Lynch plummets into the hopes and fears of our daily lives. Lynch writes in a style that manages to be readable, engaging, and transcendent all at the same time; this is a gift which allows him to illuminate vulnerable topics that we encounter every day but only dare to speak about. Whence and Whither calls us to engage with the existential questions that inevitably enter the minds of individuals (33): What happens after I die? What will be eulogized at my funeral? Is there a “God?” If there is, why do innocents die?
This is a book written especially for seminarians, preachers, teachers, and other holy questioners. Lynch invites his reader to ponder life, death, and everything in between in a way that is almost impossibly sacred yet wholly human. He weaves sentences together in a way that would appeal to the most strident of poets, and delves into ontological questions with the clarity of a theological scholar.
While this collection of narratives, essays, and stories appeals most definitely to those who are existentially or theologically inclined, it is written for all: those who are seeking answers, those who have never stepped foot in a cathedral, those who like Lynch can courageously say, “I do not know: I am agnostic on the whence and whither questions” (xiv). Lynch’s inclination to speak to his own personal experiences of heartbreak, loss, grief, love, lust, death, friendship, and faith, allow him to build a circle of intimate sharing to which others are invited.
His style of personal disclosure runs through his book. Lynch has no qualms about naming his personal beliefs, even if they are “at odds” with the view of church and society (49). Although he claims to be an agnostic Catholic, Lynch acts in an utmost faithful way as he calls the church to acknowledge their modern-day shortcomings.
Lynch speaks with eloquence to the ways we remember our dead – whether pious or churchless. His dive into the “pattern” (135) of funerary rights is compelling – but it begs the question, “Why is this pattern important?” He names death as normal, natural, and senseless – all true – but what of our seemingly natural inclination to remember the dead? What compels us to such a movement? This is a question Lynch never quite gets to the heart of – perhaps we have yet to find an answer.
One of the most compelling moments of Whence and Whither is the entirety of chapter 4, “Some Thoughts on Uteri, on Wombs” (61–66). He takes on the weighty task of naming the essence of life—or as he puts it, the “imaginings of Somethingness or Nothingness” (61). Lynch suggests in a scientific and poetic way that life begins within the womb—whatever that womb may look like or be.
He acknowledges the unique and awe-inspiring anatomy of the “female parts” (62). However, he also argues that “we are all, in fact, the same but different, the anatomists’ renderings of our private parts shows that the male member is nothing so much as a vagina turned inside out” (62). This chapter is striking in its simplicity, but one could argue it is also too simplified. There is room for critique of the church’s heteronormative and patriarchal standards; however Lynch does not delve into this. There is a stark contrast between the bluntness of his language use and his choice to not name directly the systemic forces of oppression which are inherent in our religious systems. Lynch’s lack of blunt questioning or critique leaves this section feeling unfinished and unsatisfying.
Within the few pages of this chapter Lynch—whether purposefully or not—articulates the nuances of gender identity that exist within our lives and distinctly within theology. What does it mean to know that we all come from the same darkness of a womb? What does it mean for us preachers, orators, and teachers to say that said womb can reside inside the body of a cisgender or transgender identifying individual? What does it mean for us to know and name that all creation is sacred and loved by God, the Universe, some Higher Power?
Lynch’s writing, like any good sermon or poem, draws us towards truth-telling and inspires tears. Whence and Whither: On Lives and Living is a piece that fits on the bookshelves of a seminary library just as comfortably as it may sit on the coffee table of any professed agnostic. The question the reader must ponder is whether or not Lynch takes a true stand throughout this book or asks any great question of his reader. While it certainly speaks to the shared humanity and life experiences that unite us all: sex, love, death, and all the hope that lies here, there, and in-between, Whence and Whither offers no answers to questions of life & death.
Hannah DeLaine Olson is a hospital chaplain and independent scholar.
Hannah DeLaine Olson
Date Of Review:
September 20, 2021
Thomas Lynch is a funeral director and writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, and Harper’s, among others. He is the author of five collections of poems and four books of essays, including The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2008. He lives in Milford, Michigan, and Moveen, County Clare, Ireland.
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