One of the books I read on my recent vaction in Mexico was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (although I had to endure the good-natured ribbing of my brother-in-law, Chuck, who thinks Eat, Pray, Love is to books what Chocolat is to movies: kind of a girl thing). I had started reading it on a staff retreat —just grabbed it off the shelf at the house where we were staying, read a chapter before falling asleep, and found it so honest and funny that I wanted to read more.
Somehow it ended up in my luggage.
It’s the memoir of a woman who goes through a brutal divorce and the numbing depression that follows (at one point she talks about sitting in her living room with a sharp knife, wondering if she should cut herself just so she could feel something). But then, almost miraculously, she gets the chance to take a year off, and decides to spend four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia. The memoir is mostly about that: about her four months of indulgence in Rome, eating her way from one gelato shop to another; four months in an Ashram in India, learning to pray from her internationally famous guru and a straight-talking Texan named Richard; and four months in Indonesia, sitting at the feet of an ancient Balinese medicine man and falling in love with a charming Brazilian businessman.
The section about prayer, in particular, made an impression on me. I appreciated the way Gilbert brought together mystical experiences from a variety of religious traditions and showed the similarities between them. Apparently an ecstatic experience in the Christian tradition (think Teresa of Avila) is not that different from an ecstatic experience in the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim traditions. And I was impressed by the diligence with which she applied herself to the task: getting up at impossibly early hours and sitting cross-legged on a stone floor to meditate, chant, and pray. But the more I read the more selfish this whole exercise seemed. Gilbert wasn’t praying so that she could know the will of God and do it, but rather to achieve some sort of blissful union with the Divine that would give her inner peace. And all the sources she cited, all the teachers she consulted, seemed to have the same end in mind: Prayer was not about others; It didn’t even seem to be about God;
It was about her.
Granted, inner peace was what Gilbert needed, and maybe she had to find that before she could turn her thoughts to anyone else (later in the book she is inspired to do a very generous and selfless thing for a poor woman she meets in Bali), but I was struck by the difference between Gilbert’s guru, who wanted to show her the path to inner peace, and Jesus, who wants us to work with him to bring heaven to earth. One way seems to be all about yourself; the other way seems to be all about others. It makes me wonder if true inner peace comes when you get so deep enough inside yourself that blue lights start flashing in your brain, or when—like Jesus—you lose yourself completely in service to others.