Eat Pray Love: Three Variations on a Theme

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Take This Bread by Sara Miles
Jesus Freak, also by Sara Miles

These are three of the books I’ve read in the month of August. They all have to do with God, food and love.

Eat, Pray, Love is one of the biggest cultural references to religion in America today, and now a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts. Have you read it yet? I finally did, when my mother offered to loan it to me. People have been asking me about it ever since it came out, but I’ve been resisting. Why, you ask? What’s not to like?

Well, it’s because I used to know Liz Gilbert. Not very well, to be honest, and it was a long time ago, back when she was first dating the guy she got the horrible divorce from at the beginning of the book. She was a charismatic young bartender back then. Somehow the articles on EPL never mention her time at the Coyote Ugly Saloon. As I have mentioned before, the bar was not as crazy then as it is in the movie, but the plot is basically a fictionalized version of an earlier chapter of the Liz Gilbert story.

So anyway, it felt like a bad omen to read the story of the bitter divorce of a woman who got engaged on the same day as me. But when my mother said she was done reading it, it felt like the time had come.

Other people, I’m sure, have written more about the Eat and Love parts of the book. I was more interested in the Pray part. In fact, I really liked it. It reminded me a fair amount of Mary Rose O’Reilley’s account of her time at Plum Village (Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in France) in her book, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd. Very similar struggles with the ascetic life in a foreign culture. Both are funny and profound, sometimes within the same sentence. And they both do a decent job of trying to explain the attraction of a stint in the monastic life.

Liz Gilbert’s accounts of her mystical experiences ring true for me. I don’t know how I would have reacted to hers if I hadn’t had my own. Mostly I just nodded as I went along. It is so hard to take something so intense and effervescent at the same time and make it come out in words. I’ve never been able to write about my most profound mystical experiences in anything like a coherent manner. Liz does a good job AND I’m sure that the words are inadequate. God is like that.

I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not sure I will. Probably I will, eventually. I’m curious about how the religious aspects of the book come across in a Hollywood movie. But I heard that Julia Roberts converted to Hinduism after her experience. That sounds intense. If you’ve seen the movie, feel free to comment here with your opinion. At this point, there’s not point in worrying about spoilers.

I wanted to read Take This Bread a couple of years ago when it first came out, but for some reason I didn’t until Chris checked it out of the library last week. (Thank you, sweetheart.)

It’s the story of how this radical, leftist, political, lesbian journalist ate Jesus, became a Christian and started the food pantry at an artsy Episcopal church maybe a mile from the SF Meetinghouse. (For the story of how SF Meeting started our own, much smaller food pantry, on the model established by St. Gregory of Nyssa and the SF Food Bank, read Chris’s blog.)

One of the funny coincidences is that Miles went to Friends World College, an experiment in education, in the early 70s. She says that mostly what she knew about Quakers at the time was that they were mostly old and they had opposed the Vietnam war. Which is pretty much what she thought about communists then too. Along the way, she developed a fierce need to experience things for herself and then help others to understand them. Which basically explains this book.

She starts with how eating Jesus in the form of good homemade bread in the Eucharist was the central element in her conversion. Nothing about it made sense, but she couldn’t stop. And then she wanted to feed others. So she started the food pantry right in the sanctuary of the church. She quotes the inscription on the altar at St. Gregory’s,
“Did not the Lord dine with publicans and harlots? Therefore, make no distinction between worthy and unworthy: all must be equal in your eyes to love and to serve.”
She writes about finding God in real food and in real people. How being a Christian means loving and forgiving everyone, including fussy middle-aged men who are overly concerned about doing things the right way, and little kids who spill rice everywhere, and really big guys who’ve done time in the army and in prison, and pushy little old Chinese ladies, and all the perfectly ordinary looking people who seem fine now but will probably be annoying any minute now. The ones at the food pantry on Friday and the ones at the 10:00 service on Sunday.

The two things that struck me were 1) you can’t control where God will show up, and 2) when you truly encounter God, you have to do something about it. Amen.

Jesus Freak is the book I’ve been waiting for. The book that explains why following Jesus is important, in language that doesn’t take for granted that you think being a Christian is a good thing. The quotes on the back are like the pantheon of religious writers I’d most like to meet: Anne Lamott, Rob Bell, Diana Butler Bass, Tony Campolo, Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren. Like Gilbert (and O’Reilly and Lamott), Miles is laugh-out-loud funny and made-you-cry profound. It has great exegesis of Biblical stories and everyday stories from Miles’s life. Maybe the right word for this is midrash.

I will quote here the end of the Introduction, pp. 19-20:
“Everything Jesus has revealed, through stories and parables, bossy directives and patient touch, remains available to his disciples. He’s shown that we have the power not just to feed and heal, forgive and cleanse, but to do these things in new ways that reflect God’s nature and give us life.

It doesn’t take a special kind of person – the selfish and obtuse are welcome, too. It doesn’t take a lot of equipment, or training – little kids can lead. Jesus is still with us, which means we can say yes to God’s call, without knowing what the outcome will be. We can jump right in, instead of waiting for a committee to authorize our work. We can come and see what God is doing, all over the place, instead of worrying that we’re not good enough. We can get over our fear of strangers, free ourselves from superstition, and find sweet streams of mercy in the middle of the world’s driest places. We’re not alone.”

I am deeply moved by Sara Miles’s ability to articulate the kind of Christian I want to be. And I’m grateful that I was able to read her books while cooking, because she inspires me in that sense too. The peach pie I made for our Friendly 8’s potluck last weekend, with vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries on the side, I wouldn’t have been ashamed to serve it to anyone.

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Blogger Lone Star Ma said...

I like the points that you can't control when God will show up, and that when God does, you have to do something about it.

9/01/2010 7:03 AM  
Anonymous Amy said...

Finding God in real food and real people is the best part of the article which moved me. Good work.

9/01/2010 2:57 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks - those were some of my favorite parts too!

9/01/2010 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Katherine said...

I always learn from your blog. thank you.

Just as a quick sub-sub note, Julia Roberts has been a Hindu for a number of years, but doing the movie enabled her to express herself a bit in public on the subject. I only mention this becaise even the hint of someone converting to a faith system based on acting in a film about faith gives me the willies. Too much like a film script, iyswim...

I do love this blog, though, and will check the books out from our library, even if they have to order them from elsewhere. Thank you!

9/07/2010 7:58 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Katherine,
Thanks for the clarification about Julia Roberts. That wasn't the impression I got from the trashy magazine where I read the information, but I believe you.

The books are well worth the investment in inter-library loan.

9/09/2010 1:10 AM  
Blogger forrest said...

I really loved Take This Bread but my library hasn't ordered her next one; I should give them a push because I want it!

I think I've been in trouble over "1) you can’t control where God will show up, and 2) when you truly encounter God, you have to do something about it," mainly because I haven't found the right questions about "What & how?"-- because "waiting for a committee to authorize our work" is a big bugaboo hereabouts. Waiting doesn't do it because they don't have the vision and won't get it unless someone shows them, and meanwhile I just keep wondering painfully: "What's everyone so afraid of?"-- and getting all the frustrated twitches of someone who's been letting his light get buried and suffering the consequences.

Probably there's a way to do it via "Quaker Process" but like the law, it all too easily gets put in the way by frightened people.

[I'm really glad I found this; there's a lot on quakerquaker one really needs to look for!]

9/17/2010 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well i like how you mentioned that you can't control when God will show up. Anyway, the reason I read your blog is because i have to do a paper on this book for my college English class. I have to describe the themes, and I honestly can't get past the spiritual themes. So please Help! Thanks :)

9/27/2011 11:48 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Dear Anonymous, I'd look at the role of food in different cultures, the forms of heartbreak, forgiveness and community that Gilbert encounters, and whether it is too self-involved to have any relevance to people who didn't get a huge advance check to help them get over a bad divorce. Good luck with your paper!

9/28/2011 8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much this helped me tremendously!

9/29/2011 1:37 PM  

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