The Sacred and the Profane: Praying with Jane Eyre by Vanessa Zoltan

For those, like me, who might be put off by words such as “praying” and “sacred,” first things first: this is not a religious book.


What this book is, is a shockingly intimate series of essays (or as the author calls them, sermons) that dig deep into the novel Jane Eyre to extract meaning and to connect with the text on a deep and interrogative level. The book’s thesis is that by treating a text as sacred (i.e., by engaging with it deeply, with rigour and with trust), one can open oneself up to teachings that can be applied to life in all its messiness.

Penguin Random House, 2022

I am not a religious person, nor do I identify with that buzzword “spiritual.” Been there, done that, been burned by putting my faith in people who offered meaning and community and turned out to be toxic manipulators. Sacredness and prayer give me an eye twitch.

I picked up this book because over the past several months I have listened to and loved Vanessa Zoltan’s podcast Hot and Bothered, in which she and journalist Lauren Sandler do wonderful close readings of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. As anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) will know, I am a sucker for a close reading. And Vanessa and Lauren do it so well. Listening to their conversations made me curious about this book. Vanessa identifies as an atheist chaplain, and I wondered what that looked like.

Well, it looks like this:

This is how I understand my vocation, as the person you can come to when you just want someone to say: That sucks. I don’t think things will be fine and I don’t think everything happens for a reason. If you want someone to sit with you in that space, even when for you it is just a way station, that’s fine. That is what I am here for. I live in that way station.”

— Chapter 12

Praying with Jane Eyre tells stories of Vanessa’s own experiences, of her parents and their way of being in the world, of her grandparents and their traumas in Auschwitz and beyond. There are heartbreaking stories and confessional ones. And they are woven through Vanessa’s musings on topics like fear, kindness, heartbreak, resentment, anger, betrayal, love. These musings are all tied to teachings she has gleaned from her chosen sacred text: Jane Eyre.

I love to think of Vanessa, as a brand-new, baby chaplain in divinity school going on hospital visits with Jane Eyre tucked under her arm instead of the Bible. Her courage and her determination to make meaning and to hold space for others inspire me to no end. So much of what I find problematic about religion and spirituality is addressed in this book, and as I read it I felt wave after wave of fellow feeling.

Destiny, it seems to me, is the belief of the lucky or the desperate…. It is important to me not to believe in destiny as long as there are still girls in basements, men in prison, and trans people being discriminated against for who they are.”

— Chapter 6

Yes and yes and yes. Somebody, please, inscribe I don’t think things will be fine and I don’t think everything happens for a reason on a t-shirt. Or maybe I should get a tattoo. I loved this book because it acknowledges the unfairness of the world and the privilege of those who fall back on a shallow understanding of faith. But where I can get mired in despair over these truths, Vanessa is out there beating a path through these weeds for all of us.

My copy of Praying with Jane Eyre is now filled with my underlinings and marginalia. Most of all the chapter “On Resentment,” which grapples with justified anger and self-protection, and the way that these map against empathy. Although these are things I already think about a lot, this chapter gave me new ways to consider them and my relationship with them.

The word “sacred” still feels uncomfortable to me. But the idea of meaning-making has never stopped holding appeal. And in the chapter “On Betrayal,” the very reasons that I have for resisting sacredness are interrogated. “On Betrayal” is, for me, the most complicated chapter in the book. “Betrayals make us feel as though we cannot trust the world,” Vanessa writes. And also: “It wasn’t the thing I believed in that betrayed me. It was that I lost sight of what I believed in.”

While I work through what it might mean for me to go back, “not to the trauma but to the thing that made me believe,” I read and reread this chapter. I wonder what it might look like to use the “Tool Kit on Sacred Readings” included at the end of the book (which offers practices such as florilegia, PaRDeS, and Lectio Divina) to treat a beloved book as sacred, and if I tried it, which book would I choose? I wonder if it is possible to shift away from feeling cynical and if I have the courage to put my faith into something again.

In the meantime, I take from this book a feeling of kinship and a lot to think about. And I reflect on the image Vanessa paints in that chapter “On Betrayal”: an image of an imaginary photograph of herself and Bertha Mason sitting on a curb outside of a church.

Bertha would be outside because she would know that there is no concept of God that is complete enough to include her in it. And I would sit out there because there is no concept of God that is complete enough to include her in it. She symbolizes everyone and everything for me that is not accounted for in the church. Bertha is sacred to me.”

— Chapter 11

That curb is calling to me, so I’m glad that Vanessa says “if you can’t get back to hope, in the meantime, there is room on the curb with me and Bertha.”

For now, that’s where I’ll be.


Thornfield Hall, on fire.


P.S. If you enjoyed this post you might like A Brontëful Season and “There is always another side, always”: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, both of which were in part inspired by Hot and Bothered’s On Eyre.

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