Tuesday, January 1, 2008

On the Bookshelf-Elizabeth Gilbert

For my birthday, my sister mailed me: “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.” I would never have picked out this book for myself. Gilbert’s decision not to have a baby breaks up her six year marriage, leaving her in a spiritual crisis which she claims to have healed through four months of eating pasta in Italy, four months of meditation in an Ashram in India and four months, um, making love? with a fifty-two year old divorcee in Indonesia. I watched Gilbert promote her book on Oprah. Her claim that she was seduced by the supremely romantic line “come into my bed, now” made me throw metaphysical shoes at my TV set. Gilbert’s guest appearance and “the Secret” debacle have made me swear off Oprah for life.

The one advantage of wasting yet another hour of my life arguing with Oprah, was that it upgrade the prayer status of my one true childhood friend. (I’ve moved three times in my childhood, losing all my friends at age six and then again at age fourteen. Emily, the amazing violinist, has stayed friends with me since we were both eighteen months old. At age 23, we both found ourselves in Madison, Wisconsin together and had several deep conversations about Christ. Emily’s grandfather was a Protestant minister & her father had died recently from cancer. The summer before she had help build a Buddhist stupa somewhere out West. Now she had serious doubts of whether Christ was the one road to salvation. Our conversations were mild, pleasant. She envied me for being so certain and comfortable in my faith. Two years later, Emily departed for a THREE year study of Buddhist meditation in India. At the time, I thought it was cool. I had left my Methodist roots to join the Catholic Church. My friend was also a serious seeker and engaged in Buddhism. Same search, all paths lead to union with God.) After watch Gilbert, however, I told my husband- “I think Emily might be in serious trouble.” The whole turning your back on Jesus thing isn’t a recipe for a clean, serene earthly experience.

So I actually read “Eat, Pray, Love” on my birthday because I was curious about my friend. What I found out was helpful. I wouldn’t recommend this read for someone with a shaky spiritual foundation, I would recommend book for to cradle Catholics. It’s R rated due to pre-martial sex. But what it does explain is the horrible “lostness” of this generation. There is a hunger, a loneliness, a spiritual void, and nothing, nothing to fill it. “Our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee.”

This problem is serious for Protestants, because they are fed a slanted version of the true faith. They have baptism, they have Holy Scripture. They don’t have “the church.” So when doubts come, there is no pillar of truth to stand on. So people go on amazing quests, come up with batty answers, work very hard (nothing seemed more difficult than life at the Ashram) all for a shred, A SHRED of the truth we take for granted as Catholics.

I found Gilbert's voice to be typical of those fuzzy spiritual questions launched by my college friends. Gilbert’s spiritual journey actually began long before she started dreaming of buying an airline ticket to Italy. At age 10, she has a full-blown crisis about her own mortality. She describes so clearly how her tenuous ties to a Protestant church did nothing to alleviate her anxiety or give her hope.

“The panic I was feeling at age ten was nothing less than a spontaneous and full-out realization of mortality’s inevitable march and I had no spiritual vocabulary with which to help myself manage it. We were Protestants, and not even devout ones, at that. We said grace only before Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner and went to church sporadically. My dad chose to stay home on Sunday mornings, finding his devotional practice in farming. I sang in the choir because I liked singing; my pretty sister was the angel in the Christmas pageant. My mother used the church as a headquarters from which to organize good works of volunteer service for the community. But even in the church, I don’t remember there being a lot of talking about god. This was New England, after all, and the word God tends to make Yankees nervous. My sense of helplessness was overwhelming. “ (page 152).

It’s hard to understand that someone can be in a Christian church and still not understand to whom their religion is named after. Yet, I can attest, this does happen. Gilbert describes her mixed up feelings and her isolations from practicing, believing, “Orthodox” Catholics who she nicknames “those who speak and think strictly.”

“Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian. I was born a Protestant of the white Anglo-Saxon persuasion. And while I do love that great teacher of peace who was called Jesus, and while I do reserve the right to ask myself in certain trying situations what indeed He would do, I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then I cannot call myself a Christian. Most of the Christians I know accept my feelings on this with grace and open-mindedness. Then again, most of the Christians, I know, don’t’ speak very strictly. Those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings an now excuse myself from their business.” (page 14.)

Gilbert starts on a spiritual journey after praying for the first time in her life while crying in her bathroom floor over trouble in her marriage. What I found fascinating as a former divorce lawyer is that she refuses to give any reasons for the death of her marriage. She simply states “the many reasons I don’t want to be a wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here.” (page 12.) Yet the overwhelming pain from her failed marriage is what forces her to start praying to God she doesn’t yet understand. In the midst of her divorce, she begins a new sexual relationship with a man named David. He was utterly wrong for her in every way. Yet post-break-up she inexplicitly retains contact with David's “spiritual teacher,” a female Guru from India. When her divorce if finalized, when her relationship with David is over, her self-imposed recipe for recovery is to give herself one year of world travel. She wants to eat pasta in Italy to learn the art of pleasure, attend an ashram in India “to learn the art of spirituality” and end in Bali “to find balance.”

Reading about the start of her journey in Italy got me hooked into her story. Gilbert writes in clear prose. I felt kinship with her urge to travel. I enjoyed how she kept backing up her Hindi conversion with dramatic quotes from Catholic writers or Italian paintings. Around page 45, I told Jon “my head hurts from reading this.” Reading all the swirling thoughts in Gilbert’s lost head made my own head throb. After reading to the start of her journey to an ashram in India, I put down the book. I said my Te Duce for the end of year indulgence. I got ready to take my family to Midnight Mass on the Holy Day of Obligation. I was so grateful for the safety and security of living inside the Catholic Church at a time of such cultural confusion.

After service, I felt better. I picked up the book and was rewarded for my labor of the ashram with Gilbert happiness over her reunion with an 85 year old palm reader in Bali. Her journey ends in “love” with the auspicious beginning quoted below. (This is R rated, and you may want to skip this quote. I’m including it because you simply cannot make this stuff up. If anything convinces you to keep away from palm-readers and avoid trading the Pope for an Indian Guru is this next passage where Elizabeth happily reports she’s finally found “love” with a fifty-two year old Brazilian.)

“Should we have an affair together, Liz. What do you think?”

“I showed him my hesitation. Which was this-that as much as I might enjoy to have my body and heart folded and unfolded for a while in the expert hands of an expat lover, something else inside me has put in a serious request that I donate the entirety of this year of traveling all to myself. That some vital transformation is happening into my life, and this transformation needs time and room in order to finish this process undisturbed. That basically, I’m the cake that just came out of the oven, and it still needs some more time to cool before it can be frosted. I don’t want to cheat myself out of this precious time, I don’t want to lose control of my life again.” (page 243).

(For us Catholics the whole chastity mandate is utterly clear without the cute cake metaphor. Unfortunately, Liz’s opinions are based on the flimsy insights gained by therapy and meditation. Her thoughts do not stand up to the utterly non-convincing arguments of her future lover.)

“Of course, Felipe said that he understood, and that I should do whatever’s best for me…
Don’t worry-I’m not going to chase you back to New York when you leave here in September. And as for all those reasons you told me a few weeks ago that you didn’t want to take a lover, Well, think of it this way. I don’t care if you shave your legs every day, I already love your body, you’ve already told me your entire life story and you don’t have to worry about birth control-I’ve had a vasectomy.”

Felipe, I said “that’s the most appealing and romantic offer any man has ever made to me!” (page 243).

AHHH! The most appealing, romantic offer ever made to her is from a guy who floats his vasectomy? But what else can you expect as a conclusion to this intense, yet misdirected spiritual quest?

Reading this book clarified some important points for me.

Number one, the whole frantic issue of my generation “should I, or should I not have kids” is completely misdirected. The real problem is that my generation has terrible intimacy issues that prevent women & men from coming together in Holy Matrimony. If you want marriage, the Catholic Church, wisely insists, you must be open to having children. If you don’t want to have children with someone, then you aren’t validly married. Call it “a true spiritual partnership”, flout it on Oprah, it doesn’t matter. Reading Gilbert’s book gave me the insight that all my “kids are great arguments” that I share with on the fence female friends is totally misdirected. Instead, I’m working hard on taming my temper issues and making my marriage of shiny, sterling quality.

Number two; I have nothing in common with people who specialize in “spirituality.” We talk about similar things: meditation, truth, virtues, etc. But we are using similar tools to climb totally different mountains. The truth of Gilbert’s quest is laid out in plain English. She ends up having a lot of non-life-giving sex with a fifty-two year old man and calls it “finding love.” And she self-imposes amazing efforts- she scrubs temple steps, she eats all vegetarian food, she memorizes 182 versus of Sanskrit. Yet all this spiritual accomplishment falls apart as soon as she hits a rough patch. In the end, Gilbert tells a major lie to her closest friend in Bali. Her ethical framework falls apart. Her house is built on sand. “Tell the truth” quotes in the opening pages of her story “except when attempting to solve emergency Balinese real estate transactions, such as described in Book 3.”

Reading Gilbert made me tired. And then it made me run out and buy a shiny New Revised Standard Bible and the complete works of our Holy Father. I’m so grateful that have access to the truth each week at Mass and even at my neighborhood Barnes and Noble.

To conclude, I wish to share one more quote. This sums up the intense effort that non-Christians can put into the spiritual quest, which the rest of us freely have handed to us through religion.

While on a bicycle ride in Bali, Gilbert states the following: “I keep remembering one of my Guru’s teachings about happiness. She says that people universally tend to thing that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will maybe descend upon you like fine weather if you’re fortunate enough. But that’s not how happiness works. Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it, you must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay a float on top of it.” (Page 260).

“A mighty effort,” "happiness is the consequence of personal effort," "participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings." Those words dovetail seemlessly into ideas of Yankee ingenuity, the Protestant reformation, individual spiritual quests. Our words as Catholic are subtly different. "Grace rather than individaul merit." Joy. Hope. Love. Chastity. Obedience to Authority. These words, along with the indescribable, mystical union with Jesus happen during the Mass everyday. Let us not take the gift of our faith lightly. Let us pray fervently for the union of all humanity like chicks gathered for protection under Christ’s hen-like wings from the approaching storm.


  1. Thanks for the detailed commentary on this book. I keep seeing this book on amazon and was curious what it was about. I appreciated & enjoyed your insights.

  2. YIKES!! Danger Will Robinson, danger!!!! You know, I’ve always felt Oprah is smarmy and yet she is so wildly popular and some many people follow her suggestions. I’m sure her endorsement encouraged a lot of people to goofy read this book.

    So have you contacted your friend? I always encourage people to read CS Lewis Mere Christianity when they are searching but lost.

    BTW. What’s a Te Duce for the end of year indulgence? I’ve never heard of that.

  3. OK, That's so many people, not some many people, and read this goofy book, not goofy read this book.


  4. Wow! This was a fascinating read. Thank you for posting this -- I just can't handle reading books like that, so it's helpful and interesting to read your summary. So much to think about.

    I feel so bad for people who are lost in "spirituality" culture. I was recently on a mom's email list where about 99% of the women were atheist / agnostic / pagan, and it was just so painful to read of how they struggled with *everything* from raising their kids to being happy at home to death of loved-ones to relationships, etc. etc. The angst on the list was palpable. It was just so sad to see the state the their belief systems left them in.

  5. Anne Marie, we just finished watching "Lost in Space" over the New Years Holiday!

    The public recitation of Te Deum on Dec 31, and Veni, Creator on Jan1 by the faithful can both gain two plenary indulgences.( I found English translations of both latin prayers on the internet.) The regular rules about going to Confession w/in 8 days, praying for the Pope's intentions, etc. also apply to make this (and all other indulgences) valid.

  6. Great post Abigail! I could have a whole post in commentary! First, your point about Protestants especially being susceptible to Eastern Mysticism relgions is true- and I think because the Protestant tradition is fairly weak on the mystical life. There are no St. Teresas, St. John of the Cross, St. Therese, St. Ignatious, etc... for them to have as guides in the mystical life that is so attractive.
    Also, the big difference between Christian mysticism and Eastern mysticism (as found in Father Thomas Dubay's works on prayer) is that one is focused outwards towards union with a PERSON(S)- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- as opposed to being focused inwards upon oneself and achieving a state where you literally cease to be (one with universal "All"). Some of the statements and practices sound similar and look similar- but the movement of the hearts and minds involved are going to two very different directions...
    Finally, her comments on Christ and Christianity show her (and her "Christain" friends) weepingly sad understanding of the religion. It's a classic mistake- trying to accept Christ without accepting his own teachings and actions. They treat Jesus as a person he never claimed to be: "teacher of peace". He taught that He WAS peace! They fail to understand that He claimed Divinity- the summation and source of ALL things- exactly that "strict and narrow" thinking of Orthodox Catholics. It's true- we accept that one truth- Jesus is Lord- and it IS a narrow and strict Fact which opens up the entire expanse of Eternity- in which even the Universe is a small thing in our vision of life!

  7. Wow! Joshie, this comment is fantastic! The whole inward meditation vs. outward meditation on the Holy Trinity- is so true. Something that I felt but couldn't articulate. Jesus down-graded as a "teacher of peace" versus the "way to peace".

    I'd like to encourage more people to talk about their take on this issue.

  8. I'm so glad you did this post! I just read this book last week (someone gave it to Ruth) and I felt disturbed by it as well. I thought about doing a post on it, but felt to tired. Now you did an even better one!

    Two quick points: As much as I think Oprah really has good intentions in helping people, I think she has done serious harm to the spiritual well-being on many women in America. This is not the first book promoted on her show that has very serious spiritual dangers, veiled nice, fuzzy language. As they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions!

    Secondly, as interesting as I found the book from a kind of spiritual sociological point of view, overall I regret the time I spent reading it. I saw why in the past the Church banned the reading of certain books. Reading the book left me feeling vaguely disturbed for several days, did not actually do much to promote my own spiritual growth, and opened me up to unconciously imbibing dangerous emotional/spiritual ideas or even just feelings. I've never really felt this way about reading a book from "the other side" but it was a very different experience this time. Not sure why - maybe because she is a very talented writer? Hmmm...

    Anyway, fabulous post!

  9. Abigail,

    Thanks for the post on the book. I feel like I've read it.

    So many folks I know have read it... folks hoping that it might unlock a secret or two about the spiritual pursuit.

    But I think the appeal is more like the appeal of travel writing. We admire her adventure... we get to live vicariously through her pursuit of the highest and noblest aims of life.

    But you're right. Where she arrives in the end, after all that work, is pretty sad.

    I've just learned that self-made spiritual journeys appeal to the "self-made man" myth in America. But the end up being expansive, yet shallow. I even found the same things, ultimately, in Kerouac. But that's another story.

    Hope we might stay in touch...

  10. Can you please email me? How long are you going to be in Pittsburgh? You might want to stop at the Carnegie Museum complex.....the dinosaurs are back!

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  12. Thanks for the Post. I am glad that I read it before buying the book. I am floored with her talk which is put up on YouTube and decided to buy her book. Well to give my perspective on westerners seeking God, spirituality in India is load of baloney.. What I can say about Ashrams is a congregation of sex starved people who can't find a decent person on their own and seeking guidence from social rejects and petty criminals turned into Sadhus. This is true 99% of the time. Just go thru the history of these people from birth up to sanyasi/Yogi state.

    She spoke well on creativity though. I can give her credit for that...
    Well thanks again for the detailed post. It saved my time, hard earned money and most importantly precious time I spend with my Kids on a weekend. I guess I should check with you before I spend a week end on reading any book!!!
    Are you on Linkedin?? There you can have a list of books that you read and recommendations. It's a great feature!!


  13. Logically, I agree

  14. )))))))))) I to you cannot believe :)