By Dr. Steve McSwain
It made little sense to me why my wife would hide Eat, Pray, Love in the nightstand beside our bed. So, when I decided to see what all the fuss was about, I reasoned, “No need to buy a copy since there’s a perfectly good one in the nightstand beside our bed.”
You’d have thought I just made off with the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.
I promised to protect it, to handle it with as much care as a paleographer would an ancient text–no bending of the edges, no underlining, circling, or writing in the margins–things I typically do with my own books.
Negotiations failed, however. “Put it back,” she ordered, “and get your own.”
So, I did. Wasn’t expecting much, either. “What could Eat, Pray, Love contain,” I asked myself, “that would cause her to guard it like it was the Holy Grail?”
I barely arrived at the first scene, however–the one where Gilbert is sleepless, sprawled across a cold bathroom floor at 2AM–and I was hooked. In a failed marriage, she cries out to God, the first of many conversations the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, has with God. From there, she acts as a guide on a journey the two of you take through Italy, then India and Indonesia, in search of her soul, in search of a life that matters. There’s no pretense with Gilbert, which is why I like her. You’re invited to peer into her soul, and your own as well.
Sitting in a corner cafe; sipping the finest wine made of the Sangiovese grape; sharing secrets and disappointments, readers feel like they’re best friends with Gilbert. That’s because it’s easy to believe in her. When she describes her marital failings, not those of her spouse, she’s brutally transparent. When she talks about her love affair with David, even before her own divorce is final, she hides nothing. It is this honesty that makes what she says about faith, about God, just as believable.
In an era of religious dishonesty, corruption, and cover-up, where the morning news is likely to reveal the latest religious scandal as it does the political or economic ones, it is understandable why westerners are weary of the dishonesty in much of organized religion today.
Weary enough to leave, that is. According to the American Religious Survey, thirty-four million Americans want nothing to do with religion, a system that has repeatedly demonstrated a far greater interest in saving itself than in saving the world.
Still, there are many spiritual seekers. All they really want is an uncomplicated relationship with Transcendence. What you call God is irrelevant to them. So are the doctrines and distinctions that divide instead of unite people.
What’s most amazing is that religious leaders still don’t get it. Instead of softening their rhetoric, their endless dogmas, doctrines, and distinctions, they become more fixed, rigid, separated and exclusivist. Meanwhile, scores are leaving this insanity, perhaps to protect what little remains. In exchange, they read Eat, Pray, Love, where insanity meets sanity, where respect and inclusiveness is actually practiced, where they can relax, take off their shoes, enjoy themselves, others, and God.
That’s why this book, now a major motion picture, is so popular. In the end, it matters not whose religion is right, especially if it doesn’t guide you to live in this world, or with yourself, or help you to get along with others.
It is away from akind of religious madness that seekers of the Sacred are walking. Today, their paths are taking them toward something real, toward that which connects them to others and to God, and away from the labels and differences that have divided people for eons. To many, Gilbert and writers like her have become unique spiritual gurus, on this path toward what I think of as “the sacred art of knowing God.”
Jesus said, “The way to life is narrow…and few there will be who find it.” If that’s true, Eat, Pray, Love is the quintessential promise that seekers of the Sacred will find the narrow way–even though it’s off the beaten path.
Dr. Steve McSwain is author of The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God.