After finally reading Elizabeth Gilbert's enormously popular 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love, I could write an entire review about any one of these observations:
- The story embodies everything wrong with bourgeois Western spirituality: it's self-centered, consumerist, and privileged without even knowing it.
- Gilbert offers a self-made spirituality, one that encourages readers to "cherry-pick" whatever rituals from various traditions make them feel better, without examining those traditions' history or ways they flat-out contradict each other. For Gilbert, faith is primarily therapeutic, not theistic. And of course, her faith and mine clash on many points.
- If Gilbert talks the way she writes—(lots of parenthetical jokes) and ALL CAPS and italics!—she would exhaust me in about five minutes.
The book (whose film adaptation starring Julia Roberts comes out tomorrow) follows the newly divorced and seriously distraught writer on her trek to Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of psychic healing and spiritual insight. "Eat" takes place in Rome, where the 34-year-old savors the Italian language and an abundance of gelato, margherita pizza, and enough pasta to widen her waistline a couple blessed notches. "Pray" chronicles Gilbert's four-month stay in a secluded ashram in Muktananda, where she gets up at 3 every morning, learns how to chant Sanskrit and meditate for hours, and meets Richard, her "big Texas Yogi" friend, who always has a well-timed word of advice. "Love" follows Gilbert's stay in Bali, Indonesia, where—surprise—she falls for a significantly older, wealthy Brazilian named Felipe who calls her "darling" and makes tender love to her for days upon days.
Gilbert has a hard life.
And it would be easy for me to wax self-righteous and analytical about Eat Pray Love, which has spawned a slew of film-related products: a fragrance line, special tourist packages, a three-day blitz on the Home Shopping Network, even a phone app. Yet I wanted to approach this memoir with as open a mind and heart as possible. I wanted to assume the best about Gilbert, to see the goodness that one friend saw: "[U]nderneath many of Gilbert's Eastern-leaning articulations of theology and worldview is a deeply Christian narrative that involves a fall, a search for God, and an experience of divine grace that is taken not only for the self, but extended to others as well."
Whether Gilbert's memoir echoes the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption is something to be discerned by Christian readers in community. But I think believers, perhaps women in particular, might glean at least one nugget of wisdom from Eat Pray Love:
Simple pleasures point us to God." [America] is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one," writes Gilbert while in Rome. "Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure)." Gilbert observes that even when we aren't working, we are still doing something—and often that something is soul-deadening instead of life-giving, and not even restful.
Gilbert escaped this cycle by moving to a country that more readily embraces cycles of rest—and that clearly celebrates the joy of food and drink. (There's even an Italian phrase for "the beauty of doing nothing": Il bel far niente.) After she and a friend travel to Naples to taste "the best pizza in the world," Gilbert starts thinking about her weight, which has grown steadily on her "No Carb Left Behind" tour. Yet, she writes, "When I look at myself in the mirror … I see a bright-eyed, clear-skinned, happy and healthy face. I haven't seen a face like that on me for a long time." Later she suggests that "the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one's humanity."
We aren't meant to live for pleasure alone; God has given us work to do, and that work will tire us. But, for those trying to swim against the tide of our hurried, desperately restless culture, Gilbert's own Italian Sabbath might help us relax more easily into the Sabbath God has made for us (Mark 2:27). And her no-holds-barred enjoyment of food (one description of "algae-green leaves of spinach, tomatoes so red and bloody they looked like a cow's organs" nearly brought me tears) might help us just enjoy the simple but essential gift of it … Food didn't have to be pleasurable, but in God's grace and design, it is. Instead of scarfing the box of cereal in a moment of stress and hunger—which leaves me feeling gross anyway—I want to eat in a way that recalls the best food God has provided us: "Thou invitest me to Thy feast," Augustine wrote in his Confessions. "Thou willest to give me the heavenly food and bread of angels to eat; none other, in truth, than Thyself, the living bread, which didst descend from heaven; and givest life to the world."
This is what I took away from Eat Pray Love. What about you, Sarah and Laura?