Book notes: Good entertainment, weak spiritual guidance

Book notes: Good entertainment, weak spiritual guidance

By Sr. Linda Bechen R.S.M., c

IT WAS WITH MUCH ANTICIPATION that I finally sat down to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat, Pray, Love (Viking). I have treasured other works dubbed as “spiritual memoirs,” such as Patricia Hampl’s Virgin Time and Mary Swander’s The Desert Pilgrim, which explored the authors’ quests to find God in varied experiences and various places. For me a spiritual memoir offers a personal and honest search for God through the ordinary challenges and sometimes raw realities of life. These can offer hope, learning and reassurance for one’s own life pilgrimage.

Displaced, disenchanted, and discouraged, Gilbert invokes God desperately one evening at the low point of an irretrievable marriage. Up to this moment, God has not been a part of her experience, and spirituality has been reserved for some remote hideaway apart and exclusive from the daily-ness of life. Gilbert’s invocation serves as an epiphany moment, which is confirmed when she is compelled to seek a spiritual guru and is invited by a medicine man to come to Bali so that he can teach her all he knows in exchange for her teaching him English. All of this interfaces in her life, and she finds herself embarking on a year-long journey to “pursue pleasure in Italy, devotion in India, and balance in Indonesia.”

In Italy she immerses herself in the country by learning Italian and indulging in the splendors of the food (she gains 25 pounds in three short months). She compensates by refocusing her life in an ashram in a remote rural Indian village. Here she gets up at 3 in the morning for meditation and service and ends her days at 9 p.m. Lastly she travels to Indonesia, where she enjoins her life to Ketut, a medicine man, who companions, consoles and counsels her on this segment of her journey.

What ensues is Gilbert’s endeavor to claim who she is by exploring her life’s purpose and direction. This effort is cloaked by her desire articulated early in the book: “I want to have a lasting experience of God… I want to be with God all the time. But I don’t want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God” (page 26-27).

From this description, one may be led to believe that this is a handbook of discernment. It is not a book of discernment as much as a book of personal discovery laced with traces of spirituality. It is an enjoyable read, weaving witty stories, noteworthy characters and classic experiences; it offers personal revelation and delight as she finds bits and pieces to satisfy her thirsts and hungers. This is perhaps its attraction, making it a New York Times bestseller for more than a year. As a spiritual memoir, to nurture my own journey, or as a resource for others, it limps and is not one which I would promote in this manner.

From my perspective, it lacks some crucial elements needed by pilgrims who are seeking God and discerning a sense of meaning and purpose. First of all, a firm spiritual grounding is critical for this quest. This does not mean that one does not question or probe, but rather it calls one to be rooted in some spirituality or religion. Early in the book, Gilbert states that she is “culturally though not theologically Christian” (page 14). She dabbles in Buddhist meditation practices and in the rites and customs of the Balinese and has a Christian bent. This eclectic, cafeteria approach may have its benefits and satisfy short-term. Its sustainability over time, however, is questionable. There are many meaningful spiritual paths and practices; a solid grounding roots one in a faith tradition which not only serves as an anchor during one’s searching but also functions as a staff to guide during times of doubt, questioning and disillusionment.

Secondly, related to this need for spiritual grounding, it is apparent that some tools of discernment could have benefited Gilbert. These could have assisted her in reflecting on, responding to and integrating her experiences. Gilbert’s honesty is commendable and challenging. In the darkness of her honesty, the ability to rest in its desolation as she moved toward consolation would have been insightful and wisdom-filled. She acknowledges the darkness. However she lacks the tenacity to remain in this “dark night of the soul” and to trust in the grace which it has to offer. Rooting herself in the works of spiritual writings, especially of John of the Cross and Scripture, could have been helpful.

Thirdly, exploring one’s life purpose is hard work. Tenacity is needed to uncover the answers to two significant life questions aptly posed by Parker Palmer in his book, Let your Life Speak: “To whom do you want to entrust your life?” and “To what do you want to entrust your life?” I think that Gilbert has an ardent desire to entrust her life to God, but in some respects, at times, it feels like she does not entrust it beyond herself. Her focus seems narrow and self-serving. Significant relationships are few, and the extension of herself to the larger community is virtually limited to her time in India when she was required to do service in order to remain living there. This is a time of renewal and revival for her, but it does not call her beyond herself to the larger community.

Lastly, this is a book that has a breadth of experience, yet it lacks the depth of reflection. Gilbert has innumerable encounters with persons and places; however, outside of the medicine man in Bali, she does not have one person with whom she shares this journey on an on-going basis such as a spiritual director or companion. There is no one who calls her to reflect on the patterns of her life, to incorporate the learnings, or to call her to probe the richness of her experience. It is a missed opportunity for her and us.

As I said previously, this is an enjoyable casual read and one which I would recommend as such. However, it lags as a spiritual resource and is missing some critical elements. One can only hope in this world of sequels, that Eat, Pray, Love #2 will incorporate some of the above points filling in those voids and take it from “good” to “great.” It is an opportunity waiting to happen, only if Gilbert seizes the moment.

New Anne Rice novel falls short

Anne Rice, the novelist who established herself with vampire stories and more recently produced two books based on the life of Christ (Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana), writes in Called Out of Darkness (Knopf) about her own faith journey. Her telling is demanding and sometimes painful. She describes her life from very early childhood in Catholic New Orleans, through her loss of faith in college and on into adulthood as a self-proclaimed atheist. Her reconciliation with God and her ultimate return to the church rounds out an what is for readers an exhausting journey. The pace is unbelievably slow; her loss of faith is sudden and very briefly explained. When she finally rounds the corner in returning to faith, we’re back to an almost ethereal world that feels a bit otherworldly and hard to connect with. This book takes on a worthwhile subject but falls short of delivering on its promise. —Sister Pat Kenny, RSM


Sister Linda Bechen, RSM is a Sister of Mercy of the Americas. She was a vocation minister for her community from 1996 to 2002. She now ministers as a pastoral associate in the parishes of St. Catherine, St. Donatus, and St. Joseph, Bellevue south of Dubuque in east central Iowa.


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