'The twists and turns of the inner life'

Edited by Philip Zaleski
Published by Houghton Mifflin, $28

In his introduction to this annual anthology, editor Philip Zaleski asks a variation of the oft-posed question: Is it possible to be a spiritual writer without being a religious writer? His answer: Yes, but it’s not easy.

“The reason is that spiritual openness -- a willingness to stand in front of the great questions of the universe ... leads, as if in conformity to a cosmic law, to awe, and awe to devotion, and devotion to worship.”

This is why, he continues, almost all great spiritual writers, from Augustine to Rumi to Merton, “work within traditional religious structures, using the rich and supple vocabulary and grammar of these structures to record the twists and turns of the inner life.”

Spiritual writing, too, is always “sacrament,” that is “a medium for contemplating, via the things of the flesh, the things of the spirit.” This sacramental flavor is much in evidence in this year’s crop, as it almost always is in this series.

For example, poet Christian Wiman describes falling in love in the midst of a period of writer’s block: “The closer I came to reality, the more I longed for divinity -- or more accurately, perhaps, the more divinity seemed so obviously a part of reality.”

It’s an accurate statement on the nature of “sacrament.”

“Sabbaths 2005,” a long poem by Wendell Berry, contains breathtaking descriptions of the natural world braided together with warnings about the consequences of choosing consumer goods over a life lived fully and thoughtfully.

“One never knows quite when,/the waxwings suddenly appear,/numerous and quiet, not there/it seems until one looks,/as though called forth, like angels,/by one’s willingness for them to be.”

Later in the same poem, he writes, “If we have become a people incapable/of thought, then the brute-thought/of mere power and mere greed/will think for us.”

In one of the most fascinating pieces in the anthology, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about Clive Wearing, a British musicologist who in his mid-40s was struck by a brain infection affecting especially the parts of his brain concerned with memory. Left with a memory span of only a few seconds, his was the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded. His entire past was unavailable to him.

“He was acutely, continually, agonizingly conscious that something bizarre, something awful, was the matter,” Sacks writes. “His constantly repeated complaint, however, was not of a faulty memory but of being deprived, in some uncanny and terrible way, of all experience, deprived of consciousness and life itself.”

Sacks doesn’t focus on the sensational aspect of Wearing’s illness but rather on the opportunity to learn something about the place of memory in human experience. For example, Wearing’s musical abilities were unaffected, leading Sacks to conclude that “remembering music is not, in the usual sense, remembering at all. Remembering music, listening to it, playing it, is wholly in the present.”

In “The Closest to Love We Ever Get,” Heather King describes the crowded, noisy Los Angeles neighborhood, Koreatown, she’s lived in for 11 years. Someone from back East asked King once: How can you be spiritual in L.A.?

“As a car alarm blared, a leaf blower blasted, and I looked out my window at the children hanging out the windows of the six-story apartment building across the street and screaming, I thought, How can you deal with this ceaselessly pulsing aorta of life with anything but spirituality?” King writes.

Similarly, in “Meeting the Chinese in St. Paul,” Natalie Goldberg writes about her study of Zen koans, those enigmatic spiritual riddles from Asia, while living in a Minnesota city. These riddles, and meditation in general, she writes, “were not created to help people disappear into a mist high on a mountain. The terrible truth, which is rarely mentioned, is that meditation doesn’t directly lead us to some vaporous, glazed-eyed peace. It drops us right into the personal meat of human suffering. No distant, abstract idea of distress; instead we get to taste the bitter pain between our own twin eyes. With practice we settle right down into the barbed-wire nest, and this changes us.”

This anthology is filled with such sacramental nuggets, a feast not only for the spiritual seeker but for anyone who savors a good read.

Rich Heffern is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is rheffern@ncronline.org.

National Catholic Reporter December 26, 2008

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