A quick glance at the “inspiration” section in any large bookstore is all one needs to determine that books classified as spiritual writing occupy a large tent. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace nestles next to Bruce Wilkinson’s The Prayer of Jabez, while Kabbalah for Beginners and books of Sufi poetry fill the shelves immediately below. The poems, confessional essays, journalistic analyses and riffs that fill the pages of Best American Spiritual Writing are of the decidedly literary variety, having been gleaned from mainstream periodicals like The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times magazine, as well as more specialized journals and literary magazines like The Sun, Image, and American Poetry Review.
This is the second year for inclusion of this genre in the popular Best American series, which includes yearly anthologies of short stories, sports writing, food writing, magazine writing, essays and mystery stories. Skillfully chosen by Philip Zaleski, a research associate in religion at Smith College and a respected author of multiple books on spirituality, this particular collection varies widely, stimulating a host of different emotional reactions from the reader.
By Way of Definition
Good spiritual writing, says Zaleski in the introduction, combines insight and beauty, speaks to people of every faith and retains its value because it deals with eternal rather than ephemeral matters, and his selections do just that. Charles Johnson’s “Dr. King’s Refrigerator,” a fictional short story of Martin Luther King Jr. drawing sermon inspiration from a midnight snack. is delightful. Anyone who has struggled to read sacred scripture reflectively will find resonance in Helen Garner’s “Sighs Too Deep for Words: On Being Bad at Reading the Bible.” (“…there is always this feeling of intellectual inadequacy: I don’t know enough to read the Bible,” she writes. “The job of it is so colossal and complicated and endless…whatever response I come up with will have been shown by some scholar somewhere to be feeble and ignorant.”)
In her essay “Wonder Bread,” originally published in The Sun, National Public Radio commentator Heather King uses the analogy of the tiny fifth dimension discovered by quantum physicists to describe finding Christ in the homeless roaming the streets of Los Angeles. “Could there be a more exciting metaphor for the smallness, the poverty, the hiddenness of Christ?” she writes. “After the resurrection, he had gone on to reside invisibly in all of us.” Those interested in the theme of pilgrimage and travels to the Holy Land will enjoy Patricia Hampl’s thoughtful and humorous essay, “Pilgrim,” in which she offers a witty commentary on the travails of seeing Israel and Palestine on a large group tour.
Even this poetically-challenged, literal-minded reader appreciated Robert Cording’s “Advent Stanzas” and Brooks Haxton’s “Gift,” a meditation on receiving his deceased grandfather’s morocco Bible, the paper of which “is translucent with the oil and dark still with the oil of his right hand.”
One complaint about this book stems from an idea planted by a passage in National Book Award winner Barry Lopez’s introduction to the text. Lopez writes, “To overcome the charge, sometimes warranted, that [spiritual writing] is a pious genre, it has to point toward better systems of governance, toward more equitable economies, and toward the protection of diversity.” This reader would have liked to see more examples of this kind of spiritual writing in the collection, but perhaps its lack of inclusion points to the fact that most spiritual writing has not yet caught up with this prophetic vision.
While it may be difficult to claim with any authority that this collection features the best of the year’s spiritual writing, it is quite fair to say that this volume does embody spiritual writing at its best: honest and reverent, startling and incisive, joyous and elegiacal. The collection simultaneously confirms, challenges, and broadens the reader’s perception of what makes writing good spiritual writing.