Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life

Spiritual Literacy: Reading the Sacred in Everyday Life – Review

Peter W. Williams

Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat. New York: Scribner, 1996. 608pp. $27.50 (cloth); $15.00 (paper); $18.00 (audiocassette).

Lovers of order, like myself, find ourselves on sticky ground when we encounter the New Age and the related contemporary realm of spirituality. Here is a region of the mind/heart/spirit where conceptual categories, such as those just juxtaposed, are deliberately blurred into one another in a more or less conscious effort to subvert the “in the box” thinking that allegedly obscures access to spiritual truth. Academic disciplines, religious traditions and denominations, “popular” and “elite,” immanent and transcendent, no longer function as operative categories; rather, truth/experience – it’s hard to write about this without using slash marks – are mediated through any number of media, and are certainly not confined by the usage of church or academy.

Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat are professionals in the realm of spirituality, and are involved in a network of communications activities bearing the name “Values & Visions.” Their book, which carries a brief forward by spirituality guru Thomas Moore, is a latter-day “commonplace book” – a lengthy anthology of brief excerpts culled from a vast array of literary and religious sources and held together with italicized personal commentary and anecdote. The book is divided into chapters corresponding to categories of everyday experience: Things, Places, Nature, Animals, Leisure, Creativity, Service, Body, Relationships, Community. At the end of each section, the authors provide suggestions for activities, exercises, and rituals as an extension of the meditations suggested by the texts. An appendix at the end provides a “Key to the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy,” with alphabetical categories such as Attention, Beauty, Compassion, and so on through Yearning and Zeal. (There apparently is no X in the spiritual alphabet.)

At one level, this is a very appealing book. To an academic used to processing vast amounts of data as quickly as possible, the challenge to read slowly, selectively and attentively comes as a welcome signal to pause and reflect. Many of the passages provided here are well-crafted and thoughtful. Collectively, they point to an important commonality among almost every religious tradition, one that traditionally has been localized in intentional religious communities and not often successfully translated into popular usage. This is the practice of meditation upon the commonplace, the extraction of spiritual meaning from the humble activities and occurrences of everyday life. The American tradition abounds in examples: Jonathan Edwards in his “Images or Shadows of Divine Things”; Emerson as “transparent eyeball” open to reading the book of nature; the Shakers, whose “plain style” of household furnishings and implements has ironically become a gold mine for antique dealers; Merton’s Trappists at Gethsemani, who work silently at everyday tasks. It would take a very hardbitten Calvinist, preoccupied with Transcendence at all costs, to reject this perennial source of wisdom.

The problem with this collection is not its contents but rather the framework of interpretation that the compilers impose upon it. Much of their vocabulary is essentially romantic, and they often sound like a less fluent Wordsworth in their rejection of elite traditions and their espousal of the everyday not simply as a supplement or corrective but, implicitly, as an exclusive alternative to the claims of organized religious institutions and traditions. This romanticism not only overlaps into the “politically correct” but also into sentimentalism and anthropomorphism. James Hillman on the personality of candy wrappers, for example, rings very false (68), as do the authors when they claim that “the trash container is my blood brother of conscience, always beckoning us to keep the city clean” (117). Enough said.

More problematic, however, is the lack here of a philosophical framework broad enough to deal seriously with ultimate issues of meaning. Glimpses of Being may in fact be mediated sacramentally by everyday objects and work (if not, perhaps, by candy wrappers), but it is hard to progress directly, even from the disciplined habit of living that opens up to such epiphanies, to such issues as the persistence of evil. Tellingly, the authors cite Albert Einstein’s question as to whether the universe is ultimately a friendly place, and affirm that one can learn the habit of viewing the world as friendly. I am happy to grant that my middle-class Midwestern academic world is indeed quite friendly, and that ingrained habits of distrust are out of place here. However, I am not at all sure that they would have been appropriate in Auschwitz or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Henry Adams presented the issue in classic form in his account of the death of his sister from tetanus in the sublime shadow of Mont Blanc: “For many thousands of years, Nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.” The natural realm is benign, but it is also deadly; by itself, its contemplation cannot lead beyond such paradoxes as that raised by Adams.

Much in this “commonplace” book offers comfort and value; however, it needs to be taken as a prolegomenon or supplement to a more rigorous program of reflection. At best, it is pretheological; at worst, it approaches Kahlil Gibran in its lack of willingness to deal seriously with those questions that have perennially engaged the “Great Traditions” it smugly dismisses.


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