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Soul Man : Thomas Moore's bestselling books speak to an age hungry for simpler living. : CARE OF THE SOUL: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, By Thomas Moore (HarperCollins: $22.50; 312 pp.) : SOUL MATES: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship, By Thomas Moore (HarperCollins: $25; 267 pp.)

March 27, 1994|Michael S. Kimmel | Michael S. Kimmel, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the author of the forthcoming "Manhood: The American Quest" (HarperCollins)

Thomas Moore rides the crest of the New Age's second wave. There's nothing glamorous or seductive in his books, no channelers with crystals counting up past lives, no mythopoeic male drummers off bonding in the woods, no Birkenstock-footed purveyors of herbal elixirs as conduits to cosmic consciousness.

Moore promises less--much less. His books may tap into that same hunger for meaning, but his table is set with much simpler fare. His recipe for soul food offers contemporary seekers a turn inward, a groping toward something deeper and more authentic, a way to ground experience in ways less tangible and material, and yet deeply fulfilling and satisfying.

And he has certainly struck a chord with the American book-buying public. "Care of the Soul," which dispensed such everyday wisdom, has spent half a year on the bestseller list, and sold a quarter-million hardcover copies; the just-published "Soul Mates" offers a steadier focus on relationships. If, as Hillary Rodham Clinton observed, America "suffers from sleeping sickness of the soul," Moore wants to be our national wake-up call.

A scholar, therapist and theologian--he spent several years in a Catholic monastery, leaving just before taking vows--Moore answers a difficult call, to minister to the loss of soul in contemporary life (he calls this "the greatest malady of the 20th Century") and to do it in a style that is immediately accessible for mass readers, and instantly usable in everyday life.

But then the soul isn't all that complicated. It "has a strong desire and need for intimacy, and it loves vernacular life--the particular place, family, friends, and neighborhood that are part of our daily lives," he writes. "The soul doesn't thrive on grand schemes of salvation or on smooth, uncluttered principles." And soul doesn't need elaborate choreography. It's the "small things," the "ordinary things," those quotidian moments of intimacy and of deep, nurturing solitude that feed a hunger Wolfgang Puck can never satisfy.

What the soul does thrive on is connection. Drawing on Jungian archetypes, ancient mythologies and folksy philosophy, Moore's books are prose-poems of compassion and tenderness. His soothingly graceful prose is a balm for egos battered by hostile takeovers, anguished divorces and do-it-to-them-before-they-do-it-to-you public philosophy.

So forget those Reaganomic adages about looking out for No. 1 and having the most toys when you die. Soul needs other people. Deeply. Self versus others is a false polarity to the soul, Moore wisely insists. To Moore, the only form of self-help is the self-acceptance that comes from engaging more deeply in the details of everyday life.

There is a kindness in Moore's books that is sorely lacking in public policy and interpersonal relations. Who could be so callously critical of books that speak to our deeply human needs to belong, to feel heard, to be loved, to love? It's something like being in favor of child abuse.

And yet there is something facile about Moore's revitalization of the soul, something about this search for depth that only skims the surface. Moore offers neither the promise nor the peril of psychoanalysis, confronting the darkest and murkiest parts of the unconscious. Instead, his is a practical guide to a subcutaneous layer of experience, the realm of self-acceptance and self-esteem without the hard work that some of us believe is necessary to clear away the layers of defensive armor.

Moore shares this problem with the entire genre (especially Robert Fulghum and M. Scott Peck). Practical spirituality almost invariably sounds trivial, especially when the search for the cosmic is scaled back to paying attention to everyday detail. Want to make contact with the soul, you might ask? Take a walk, listen to music, keep a diary. Write a letter. "Letters offer the opportunity to express our feelings," Moore offers in "Soul Mates." (How about E-mail?) Talk with a friend. "To the soul, there is hardly anything more healing than friendship." Remember birthdays and anniversaries.

At times, caring for the soul sounds a lot like having good manners, especially when it comes to the family, that seat of soul, its literal and symbolic home base. Moore enumerates ways to "honor and celebrate" the family--"parties, conversations, cards and letters, visits to grave sites, journeys to see family members, honoring family homesteads and possessions, handing furniture and clothing down from generation to generation." This is soul work for the "Little House on the Prairie" crowd. I wonder if my younger sister will be moved to read that wearing my outgrown overalls was an index of soulful connection.

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