I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love cover to cover one Friday in July, sitting in a coffee shop in Bossier City, LA. I had just moved from Chicago after receiving my first appointment to a United Methodist Church in Northern Louisiana. The transition had been, for lack of a better description, a shock. I had just gone through an abrupt break-up with a serious boyfriend, had very few friends in the area where I lived, and found myself in many ways at odds with the conservative culture and people I was serving. The three years I had spent in seminary in a larger metropolitan area were full of adventure and possibility, things that were sorely missing in my new life. I grasped at anything I could that seemed remotely likely to engage my senses and imagination in the same way: yoga, hip-hop dance classes, and when all else failed, Cheetos and chocolate.
I have to admit—after finishing the book that day, I saw much of Elizabeth Gilbert’s story in myself, just as many of us transfer anyone’s experience to our own. Eat Pray Love sent me back at moments to my days where a conflicted, serial-dating-screw-up Sarah Jessica Parker and the six-season Sex and the City DVD set helped me survive those first few friendless weeks in Chicago before seminary began. Series and books like these help to offer us stories that, in part, reflect our own, and nuggets of truth to live by. My personal favorite from Gilbert was, “There's no trouble in this world so serious that it can't be cured with a hot bath, a glass of whiskey, and the Book of Common Prayer." (I taped that on my bathroom mirror for over a year in 2007!)
For those of you that may not be up-to-speed on the plot, here’s a “Cliff’s Notes” version: Liz Gilbert (played in the recent film adaptation by Julia Roberts) had everything a modern woman is supposed to dream of having: a husband, a house, a successful career
– But despite all this, she found herself searching for what she really wanted in life. Newly divorced and at a crossroads, Gilbert steps out of her comfort zone, risking everything to change, and embarks on a journey around the world that becomes a quest for self-discovery. In her travels, she discovers the true pleasure of nourishment by eating in Italy; the power of prayer in India, and, finally and unexpectedly, the inner peace and balance of true love in Bali. (Makes you want to take a vacation too, doesn’t it?)
Three years have passed since I first read Eat, Pray, Love, and in that time, I have been appointed to another church, am now an ordained elder, and am approaching my first year of marriage. So when I saw that the movie came out, I was one of the first to grab a girlfriend to go see it. After the lights came up and the credits rolled, I found myself disappointed.
I don’t mean to be so critical about the movie itself. But a big part of me imagines Gilbert’s response reflecting my own: “Oh! Thank you…uh…what is this?.”
The point of judgment comes most often for me
in the aftermath of encountering all kinds of art—music, paintings, and film — at the point where the lights come up in the theater or we walk out into the parking lot and the work asks us—“so what will you do with what you have just seen?”
I would venture to guess that the response to the movie has been mostly opposite of its author's intention. The search for God has turned from a journey to walk into a commodity to consume. And, we Christians ought to know, when we make God into a commodity, things are never looking good.
The Eat Pray Love logo has been taking over in the marketplace in the weeks surrounding the film’s release. The Republic of Tea's Eat Pray Love Tea is a combination of flavors derived from the book's three destinations: blood oranges from Italy, Indonesian cinnamon and Indian black tea. Cost Plus World Market's licensed products include leather journals, prayer beads and clothing. The Home Shopping Network offers regular shopping events featuring products themed to Italy, India and Bali, including jewelry and home decor. There are even have Eat Pray Love pillows and yoga mats. On another level, a woman in my covenant group revealed recently that she has actually visited the ashram in India that Gilbert describes. She said that the name of the ashram has been changed because the community feared that it would be flooded with people once the movie came out—people that were searching for “something,” and would go at any length to find it, even retracing Gilbert’s steps.
We have served these people as their pastors. We have, maybe, even been these people.
There is certainly great temptation in the notion that we can “buy” our happiness. Gilbert, in one of many illuminating and insightful moments, writes, “We search for happiness everywhere, but we are like Tolstoy's fabled beggar who spent his life sitting on a pot of gold, under him the whole time. Your treasure–your perfection–is within you already. But to claim it, you must leave the ‘buy commotion’ of the mind …and enter into the silence of the heart." The book is wise, and grounded; the movie seems designed to capitalize on our hopes that we can acquire wisdom through brand identification. This is where I found Eat, Pray, Love—in novel and movie form–to be most conflicted.
A central theme for Gilbert is that of “attraversiamo,” and its presence in the narrative is both subtle and redemptive. It’s not only Gilbert’s chosen“word” for her life, but also an emerging theology among 21st century people of faith. In Italian it means, "let's cross over". People say it to each other when they are walking down the street. Attraversiamo. Our culture seems to suggest that there is a way to “attain” balance, or perfection (in the sanctified sense). We hunger for that balance, and long for a clear and ongoing sense of God’s presence within that balance. If we’re lucky, we may even have moments where that sense of the Holy is so real, so tangible for uBut most of the time, after we search for a long while, we will most likely discover that such a perfect, ongoing, static balance is unattainable, and that our life is rather a series of daily “crossings”—crossing over from one thing to another, discerning individually and in community about where our next steps will take us.
I didn’t find contentment as a pastor, or as a person, until I learned and came to believe that for myself. And this is my prayer for all that may seek the spiritual path: that we may reminded again and again that true courage and contentment comes in living a life that seeks the adventure of questions rather than the comfort of answers.