The Common Good

Eat, Pray, Love ... Yourself?

Eat Pray Love the movie has the makings of a summer hit, with Julia Roberts as its star and Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling book as its source material.

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The book was something of a phenomenon when it was published in 2006: instantly popular and penned by an accomplished writer (a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002) who was immensely likeable on the talk-show circuit.

Eat Pray Love is part travelogue and part spiritual memoir which in some ways is a redundancy since the notion of seeking ultimate meaning or spiritual fulfillment (the lingo varies) often involves a journey to and through unknown vistas. Fulfillment is "out there" somewhere, waiting to be discovered through geographical adventure.

Gilbert used the money from a book advance to plot a year-long trip abroad in which she would "explore the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two." But for all the engaging travel commentary Gilbert provides -- she's a witty, winsome, observant guide -- the book, by her own admission, is really a journey inward; the subject, finally, is Elizabeth Gilbert herself.

Given the popularity of the genre and of writers like Gilbert, it can seem a little petty and scornful to point out not only the latent narcissism of a quest like Gilbert's but also the truth that such spiritual exploration is available only to the materially secure. The poor, it would seem, simply don't have the means to find themselves.

It also seems hopelessly old-fashioned to suggest that spiritual-fulfillment-as-private-quest misses the boat (to stay with the travel imagery here) on the kinds of ordinary, mundane communal practices that make the life of religious commitment what it is. It's true that Gilbert spent time in ashrams and studied at the feet of wise teachers, but she's an ambling tourist not a planted pilgrim rooted in a particular place, willing to be faithful for the long haul to fellow-disciples on the way.

In the Christian tradition, it's the Eucharist around which all our eating, praying, and loving converge. We share this holy meal with people we don't necessarily like but whom we're called to love. In the liturgy we "pray with our feet," as an African proverb has it, moving out into a suffering world to be the answer to our prayers, to risk ourselves in love for our neighbors: friends, strangers, enemies.

Eat Pray Love the movie may be a harmless confection -- a bit of late-summer indulgence. (I plan to see it soon). But if we're looking for something more substantial or nourishing, we'd do better to forego the romantic notions about fulfillment being out there somewhere and risk life in community in all its unpredictable messiness. Eatingtogether, praying together, loving together -- now that's the ticket.

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.

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