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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

Compiled and edited by Philip Zaleski; introduction by Jack Miles
Houghton Mifflin, 304 pages, $14
Anthology of spiritual writings reveals Americans to themselves


The Best American Spiritual Writing 2004 offers us 25 essays and 10 poems that touch our emotions. Through the skillful use of word and image, the authors allow us to tap into their thoughts and experiences. We are once again thankful to Philip Zaleski for providing us with the “best” of American spiritual writing, something he has been doing since 1998.

There are many wonderful essays in this year’s compilation. Three in particular show the diversity of content and purpose: “A Texas Childhood” by Rick Bass; “Miss Ivory Broom” by Robin Cody; and “Good Grief” by Thomas Lynch. Bass describes what he calls “lightening strike moments” where nature reveals more than any human artifact ever could. One example of such a moment is his realization gazing at a frozen pond one clear winter night that fish live in a world different from ours; that other worlds exist beyond our immediate sensations. “Miss Ivory Broom” describes the interaction between a school bus driver and a child with spina bifida.

Thomas Lynch has written and spoken a great deal about funerals. In his essay, he takes up the way some spiritualities avoid the importance of the body at death. In opposition to these modern spiritualities, he proclaims the Christian importance of the body:

In each case these holy people treated the bodies of the dead neither as a bother or embarrassment, nor an idol or icon, nor just shell. They treated the dead like one of our own … temples of the Holy Spirit, neighbor, family -- fellow pilgrims. They stand -- these local heroes, these saints and sinners, these men and women of God -- in that difficult space between the living and the dead, between faith and fear, between humanity and Christianity and say out loud, “Behold, I show you a mystery.”

These three are a brief taste of the “best” in America. But why did Mr. Zaleski choose these as the best? He tells us that for a certain piece of writing to be considered “spiritual,” its author must always be striving to be the best, as a writer and as a person. There can be no mediocrity in either the writing or the person. A true spiritual writer must also recognize that writing is a moral act. “Such recognition inoculates the writer against the three deadly literary vices of pandering to popular taste, creative laziness, and didacticism.” No free grace here.

The best writings are, therefore, produced by the best writers. Certainly the brief description of each author at the end of the book demonstrates that these authors are prolific. Their achievements have been recognized by past editors as worthwhile; thus, what Mr. Zaleski has chosen are worthwhile pieces of writing.

But what is considered “American spiritual writing”? This question haunted me throughout my reading of the book. At first I thought “spirituality” was a person’s ability to recognize a deeply felt experience. At least 20 of the readings express each author’s stirring experience of nature, bravery, hope, friendship, light, blindness, sight and the meaning of body. Several give rise to feelings of grief. A few delve into philosophical discussions about the nature of the body-soul relationship or the meaning of mediocrity.

Very few selections touch on the traditional themes of pre-20th-century spirituality or recognize the role of traditional religions. All focus on the individual and the individual’s ability to improve her or his life. All remind us of the necessity to be reflective, to look inward, to be rather than to do. All are an expression of what might be called American Romantic spirituality, according to which we are encouraged to discard our cultural clothes and roll in the emotional grass of self and others in order to become a better person. In so doing, we recognize our individual differences through our unique emotional experiences and hold on to these feelings against the materialism and socialization processes that surround us. Emotions are considered more trustworthy than thoughts. The individual is the source of truth, not the group. Life always gets better if we believe it will get better. Are these characteristics what constitute “American spiritual writing”?

Jack Miles’ excellent introduction wrestles with the same question by asking what is common to all these writings. What is common to all of them, he says, is their rejection of the typical American beliefs that truth is to be found in science and life’s perfection is measured by what we possess. The readers of this volume, he suggests, are those who realize there is more to life than science and possessions and hope they will find what that “more” is in these writings.

Is Mr. Miles’ conclusion just more American spiritual romanticism founded upon the superiority of the individual and the un-known-ness of individual destiny? Does it just add to the conviction that anthologies provide a better option than an old spiritual classic? I think yes. But I also think this volume is a must-read because its well-written essays and poems tell us how our fellow Americans define “American spirituality.” Americans have been buying these volumes since 1998. They must see in them something about themselves and their yearnings.

Nathan Kollar is professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College, senior lecturer in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester and adjunct professor of St. Bernard’s Institute, all in Rochester, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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