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BOOK REVIEW

A Sampler of Insight on the Life of the Spirit

THE BEST SPIRITUAL WRITING 2000; Edited by Philip Zaleski, Introduction by Thomas Moore; HarperSanFrancisco: $16, 354 pp. paper

February 03, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Spiritual concerns are "hard-wired into the soul," insists Philip Zaleski, editor of "The Best Spiritual Writing 2000," the third in a series of annual anthologies. But an expansive definition of what constitutes spirituality is at work in the essays, poems and miscellaneous musings collected here. One does not have to be counting angels on a pinhead to be regarded as an earnest seeker and to earn a place in the pages of "The Best Spiritual Writing."

"I am suspicious of spiritual writing that goes too plainly and directly for the higher atmospheres," writes Thomas Moore ("Care of the Soul") in his introduction to the book. "The struggle to love and be loved, to make a living and provide for your family, and to keep sufficient sanity to get along in the world is a path toward spirit as sure as a retreat from life in some hothouse of spirituality where the way seems direct and transparent."

That's why, for example, Zaleski includes the work of writers who are well known, but not necessarily for their spiritual writing. John Updike, for example, contributes a poem that first appeared in the New Republic--"We need more worlds," he writes. "This one will fail." An essay by William H. Gass from Harper's celebrates the pleasures and rewards of books and libraries, and a few paragraphs of thinking-out-loud by Pico Iyer from Salon focus on the linkages between nostalgia and "what we call the sacred."

Zaleski is a senior editor of Parabola magazine, an elegant journal that focuses on spiritual traditions around the world and across the ages. And he seems eager to showcase the writing that appears in smaller and more specialized publications. For every piece that first ran in the New York Times Magazine, for example, several more are drawn from less familiar publications, ranging from the Forward ("Twice Woods Hebrew" by Deborah Gorlin) and Shambhala Sun ("The Failure of War" by Wendell Berry and "The Rain and the Temple" by Natalie Goldberg) to Christianity Today ("Surprised by Death" by James Van Tholen).

Perhaps for that reason the book is full of gratifying surprises. An interview with Jimmy Carter by Miller Williams from a publication called Image allows us to eavesdrop on a conversation between two men of letters--"I've always said that El Greco was my favorite artist, and that I liked James Agee's 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men' best of the books I've read"--and to witness how and why a president becomes a poet.

"When I've written poetry," Carter explains, "I've deliberately tried to open thought processes that had been buried in my subconscious because they might have been painful or perhaps embarrassing." Will we ever hear such musings from Bill Clinton or George W. Bush?

My own favorite piece in "Best Spiritual Writing" is "Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God" by Annie Dillard, who describes herself as a humorist but catches and holds our attention with a harrowing account of the death by torture of Rabbi Akiva, a revered Jewish sage of the 2nd century. Writing for Notre Dame magazine, Dillard draws on the ecstatic and mystical traditions of Judaism to illuminate her own experiences in visiting the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem: "Two thousand years of Christianity began here," she observes, "where God emptied himself into man." And she ends her essay, which amounts to a theological tour de force in miniature, with a plea to pay attention to the things of this world.

" 'Spiritual path' is the hilarious popular term for those night-blinded mesas and flayed hills in which people grope, for decades on end, with the goal of knowing the absolute," Dillard writes. "Only by living completely in the world can one learn to believe."

Appropriately enough for a book that celebrates "the best" in spiritual writing, Zaleski offers a bonus in the latest edition--he assembled a panel of judges that came up with the 100 best spiritual books of the 20th century, a diverse list that includes "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres" by Henry Adams and "Autobiography of a Yogi" by Paramahansa Yogananda. There are some surprises here too. M. Scott Peck's "The Road Less Traveled" pops up between P.D. Ouspensky's "In Search of the Miraculous" and Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos." And Zaleski designates his own top 10, which includes Black Elk's "Black Elk Speaks," Martin Buber's "I and Thou," T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets" and Simone Weil's "Waiting for God."

Like any such list, its highest and best use is to inspire us to pick up these works and decide for ourselves. And the same can be said of "The Best Spiritual Writing 2000"--it is a sampler of the writing that appears in journals that many of us have never read, and it allows us to set foot in places we would never otherwise visit.

*

Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."

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