Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is one of those books that I read before Oprah did, or at least before it became quite the huge hit it eventually did. Now I’ve re-read it, and am pondering its enormous popularity.
The book was already fairly successful when I picked it up in paperback and gave it a very favourable review as one of my favourite books of 2007, but its popularity then was nothing compared to the tsunami of attention the book and its author have gotten since it was announced that the book would become a major Hollywood movie starring Julia Roberts.
All of a sudden, it’s become one of those books that’s so popular that if you’re a person of any taste or discernment, you almost have to apologize for having loved it — that kind of media-driven mass appeal serves to trivialize a book, and its author, in retrospect, as if it can’t possibly be taken seriously once it’s been made into a movie with Julia Roberts. As if, when you admit to having read and loved the book, people assume you automatically read books just because Oprah told you to, or because they’ve received the Hollywood seal of approval.
People can get very nasty about a book once it has achieved a certain level of fame, too, and there have been more than a few readers and reviewers who have vilified Gilbert as a self-centred middle-class white American woman with too much time on her hands for navel-gazing. Of course, what I loved about the book is that I am a self-centred middle-class white Canadian woman who manages to fit quite a bit of navel-gazing into her busy life … and I loved the fact that Gilbert was so devastatingly honest and funny about her own neuroses, her own selfishness, her own confusion and lostness. This woman is not Mother Teresa, people. She had a guru; she never claimed to be a guru. It’s a book about a very ordinary woman (who happens to be a perceptive and funny writer, which is what made it work so well) who had the opportunity to spend some time travelling and figuring some stuff out, and wrote about the things she saw and thought and did in a way that connected with a lot of readers. No more, no less.
Absolutely the funniest criticism of Gilbert I’ve read since the movie came out was the blogger who revealed to readers, with the glee of someone making a horrific expose, that Gilbert’s one-year journey of self-discovery to Italy, India, and Bali was … wait for it … paid for by an advance from her publisher. Which, in this blogger’s view, invalidated the whole “spiritual quest” element of the journey, because it can’t be a real spiritual journey if you can afford to take it. The Smoking-Gun-like horror with which this revelation was made entirely overlooked, not only the fact that Gilbert explained this quite clearly on about page 35 of the book, but also the fact that she was, by profession, a writer.
This is how writers, particularly travel writers, do their job and get paid — if you want to take a trip, you convince a magazine or a book publisher you can write about it, and if they believe, based on your past track record, that you can make it interesting, they front you the cash. Claiming that this invalidates the purity of the journey is akin to reading a book by a young teacher in an inner-city school about her transformative experience and what she learned from her students, then throwing the book across the room when the shocking truth is revealed: all this time, the school board was paying her to learn these life lessons!!!
Let’s just say: if a publisher ever wants to front me some money for a book about a trip, I am taking it and running (and writing too, of course). This is, you know, my job, just as it is Elizabeth Gilbert’s, although admittedly she’s currently in a different pay category than I am.
Anyway. All this to say that I did go and see the film (with some girlfriends, of course, because that is how you see Eat, Pray, Love) and enjoyed it well enough — it’s Julia Roberts, it’s Italy and India and Bali, and there are nice big segments quoted almost word for word from the book, so it’s an enjoyable couple of hours. The movie was not nearly as good as the book, and the main result was to make me want to open the book again and reread it, immersing myself in what I really loved the first time around — Gilbert’s voice, her sense of humour, her disarming honesty and charm as she says, “Look here, I’m just as screwed-up as you, maybe a little more, and here’s what I did to help myself.”
After the movie, my friends and I had a little talk about why the book was so popular, why it touched a chord with so many women. I’ve been turning this question over and over while re-reading it, and my theory is that it’s not so much the eating and the loving, as it is the praying.
I think readers are drawn to Gilbert’s ravishing descriptions of Italian pasta, her reflections on the break-up of her marriage and her post-marriage rebound relationship, and her happy ending with the handsome older Brazilian man who thinks she’s gorgeous. But lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, feature romance and happy endings, and some even have pasta. What I think gives EPL the “added value” is the spiritual element, beginning when Liz, miserable in her perfectly adequate marriage, gets down on her knees in the bathroom sobbing, and starts to pray.
I believe there are millions of people — maybe women in particular — who either don’t go to church or aren’t religious in any traditional sense (many of whom feel traditional religion has failed them or hasn’t “worked” for them), who are on their knees, crying and praying bathrooms around the world. I believe for a lot of these women, Eat, Pray, Love validated their desire for a connection with God that felt real and authentic for them, that could operate outside the structure of traditional religion. A lot of people are hungry for God, and they haven’t found God through traditional organized religion, and they want to be told it’s OK to go off pursuing God in your own direction, even if you don’t quite make it to church every week or you’ve been told you don’t quite belong there.
So I ask myself, being the incredibly traditional Church Lady that I am, is this OK?
I think it’s yes and no. I think it’s wonderful that so many people feel a genuine desire for God, and I’m always blown away by the unlikely people who tell me that they pray or they secretly want to believe in something more. I think all of our churches have a lot to answer for in not meeting people’s needs. We spend, I think, a lot of time answering questions people aren’t asking, and ignoring the ones they actually are asking. We turn away as many people as we attract, leaving a lot of people to pray alone in their bathrooms with no spiritual guidance or community. And I think anyone who tells people, “It’s OK to reach out to God directly — God is listening even if the churchy people aren’t” should be applauded, including Elizabeth Gilbert.
But the flip side is that do-it-yourself religion can become overly personal, isolated from community, isolated from the wisdom and structure provided by church and traditions and sacred texts. One of the ironies of the love people have for Eat, Pray, Love is that they imagine Gilbert’s spiritual journey as a kind of cobbled-together, self-paced course in seeking God which just happened to include yoga and a few weeks at an Ashram in India. In fact, as she makes clear, she had been a devotee of this particular guru, following a specific set of teachings, attending religious services for some time — and unlike the occasional yoga class as practiced by most of us American women who want to be a little bendier or stretchier, a serious attempt to follow the path of yoga as prescribed by a real Indian guru is tough, disciplined stuff. Going to live at an ashram for awhile required planning and dedication, and while there, Liz had to do the very things many of us hate about church — follow rules, sit through long boring hymns, force herself to participate in services that didn’t seem that exciting, and the real toughie … live with other people.
The thing I love about church, even when I hate it, is that it forces us into community, and not necessarily with like-minded people who we would have hand-picked to attend our Dream Church. There are people in my church who have been a part of my life for so long that they genuinely are like family — in all the good and bad ways. There are people there I love so much I almost consider hugging them (and for me, this is huge, because I am not a hugger). There are also people at my church who irritate me so much I won’t attend a meeting if I know they’re going to be allowed to speak, and people I fear so much I can feel my pulse race and my blood pressure soar when they enter the room as my body automatically goes into fight-or-flight mode (fortunately, not too many of the latter, but they are there).
And more and more, I come to believe that this is church — this is the Christian life, this is spiritual growth. Figuring out how to live in this community that is not the one I would have handpicked or chosen. Figuring out how to love people I’m not naturally drawn to. Figuring out how to solve problems in tandem with people who want different things from what I want. This is what we are here for.
All this to say: if you need God and you want to pray on the cold tile floor of your bathroom alone at night, that is so completely OK. God is everywhere, even in the bathroom, and is always listening and loving you. (My own personal favourite spiritual-journey memoirist, Anne Lamott, says “Some people say God is in the details. I think God is in the bathroom.”)
But I don’t think God wants to keep your spirituality locked in the bathroom where it stays as white and shining as the polished porcelain. Faith is meant to be lived out in the messy marketplace of community with others. It might even be beautiful there.