“The God Within” is the title of chapter seven in Bad Religion, New York Times columnist and Catholic author Ross Douthat’s important new book. Douthat suggests that if there is a representative religious pilgrim for our time it is magazine writer-turned-memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert. If you don’t know much about Gilbert you have missed a story that is, in so many ways, ‘the spiritual odyssey” of our time.
In 2001, at the age of 32, Gilbert had three books published. She had also won a National Book Award. (She is a great writer!) She had a rewarding day job as a travel writer, an apartment in Manhattan, and a big house in the gorgeous Hudson Valley. She even had a devoted husband and intended to begin a family with him. But after only five years she traded her marriage and houses “for a globe-trotting spiritual quest.” The result was a publishing phenomenon titled: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. This book was a New York Times bestseller for an amazing 187 weeks! Last year it became a popular movie with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem in the starring roles.
Gilbert’s spiritual journey began where similar experiences have begun for many centuries. She had a dark night of the soul. Awake at 3 a.m. and weeping on her bathroom floor, she found herself longing for the life she wished she had rather than the one she did have. Douthat concludes that, “Culturally, she was some sort of Christian (‘born Protestant of the White-Anglo Saxon persuasion’), but theologically, she had always been unable to swallow ‘that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God.” She thus began to speak to god in a more open-ended way and planned a new life. This life would be without her husband or the baby she had once hoped to have with him. What she describes is the experience of an inner voice of illumination rather than anything remotely centered on Jesus Christ. So off she went, seeking for peace and love. She met spiritual gurus in India and enjoyed the culture of Italy. Suddenly, her ex-husband signed off on the divorce she wanted and she felt like her prayers had been answered. In Indonesia she met a ninth-generation medicine man who told her she would lose all her money (which she did in her divorce) and then get it all back (which she did with her best-selling book and the movie rights). Her story includes a Roman excursion and a Balinese spiritual sojourn but the happy ending makes it all work for Americans. Douthat adds, “. . . it’s the ashram section that really distinguishes Eat, Pray, Love from the ordinary run of self-help books.” She describes what so many mystics have discovered, “