I usually find a collection of essays to be too diffuse and disconnected for my taste. I prefer a book with a unifying theme, something that either grabs me or repels me -- but at least touches me forthrightly.
However, I enjoyed "The Best Spiritual Writing 2011" more than I expected. [Note: I got this book free from the publisher, who said I could have a copy if I considered writing a review of it, which I'm doing here.]
The thirty essays are well-written, some more so than others, naturally. Good writing always is pleasurable, even if I don't agree with the author's point of view. And that happened frequently, given that the essays ranged from full-on God-embracing to quasi-atheistic.
Not surprisingly, I resonated with the skeptical more than the faithful. I read every essay, though, finding it interesting to see what my reaction was to each literary Rorschach "inkblot."
Poet Billy Collins wrote the introduction. I liked how a book of spiritual writings started out with a tale of how a guy lost his Catholic faith.
But gradually, through a number of influences both literary and natural, I came to sense that a spiritual realm could be accessed, not through the recommended roads of religion leading to portals guarded by priests, rabbis, imams, and religious leaders of other stripes, but instead, directly through actual daily experience.
Along that line, Rick Bass wrote about the regularities of the changing natural seasons in the wildness where he lives.
In a way that I haven't figured out how to fully articulate, I believe that children who get to see bald eagles, coyotes, deer, moose, grouse, and other similar sights each morning will have a certain kind of matrix or fabric or foundation of childhood, the nature and quality of which will be increasingly rare and valuable as time goes on, and which will be cherished into adulthood, as well as becoming -- and this is a leap of faith by me -- a source of strength and knowledge to them somehow.
That the daily witnessing of the natural wonders is a kind of education of logic and assurance that cannot be duplicated by other means, or in other places: unique and significant, and by God, still somehow relevant, even now, in the twenty-first century.
I enjoyed Joseph Bottum's essay about E.M. Cioran, having fairly recently read Cioran's "A Brief History of Decay" (not the cheeriest reading, as can be surmised from the title, but indisputably real).
But until we recognize the darkness, we cannot see the light; philosophy's candle matters only if we realize that genuine shadows lurk beyond reason's small illuminated circle. "There is no limit to suffering." E.M. Cioran insists we remember, and so he posted himself like a sentry on the edge of reason, refusing to turn away from the night.
Billy Collins also has a poem in the book. I was intrigued by the mention of "one hundred kinds of silence." Googling the term, it looks like this is an original thought of Collins. Nonetheless, it seems so true, and perhaps it is.
What do you think of my new glasses
I asked as I stood under a shade tree
before the joined grave of my parents,
and what followed was a long silence
that descended on the rows of the dead
and on the fields and the woods beyond,
one of the one hundred kinds of silence
according to the Chinese belief,
each one distinct from the others,
but the differences being so faint
that only a few special monks
were able to tell one from another.
From Robert D. Kaplan I learned about the warring between Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon). This was a useful reminder to me that Buddhists aren't always Buddha-like, filled with compassion and peacefulness.
Yet Buddhism, as Kandy demonstrates, is deeply materialistic and demands worship of solid objects, in a secure and sacred landscape that has required the protection of a military. There have been Buddhist military kingdoms -- notably Kandy's -- just as there have been Christian and Islamic kingdoms of the sword. Buddhism can be, under the right circumstances, a blood-and-soil faith.
Jewish rituals and customs make as little sense to me as those of any other religion. After reading Jesse Kellerman's "Let My People Go to the Buffet" I'm inclined to raise Judaism a notch up my Ridiculous Religion list. This essay is about recollections of his family heading to kosher resorts at Passover time, so they wouldn't have to deal with the dietary difficulty of excluding all leaven, grains, and legumes from the food they eat.
Nowadays, when virtually every commercial food contians some form of corn syrup, the ordinary supermarket is transformed into a religious House of Horrors. In preparation for the holiday, homes must be scrubbed and scoured until no trace of chametz remains, in a ritual that resembles spring cleaning for the obsessive-compulsive.
...People say that the easiest way to understand a cruise is to think of it as a giant floating hotel. The easiest way to understand a Passover hotel program is to think of it as a land cruise.
Here's some nice writing by Anita Sullivan, who taught me a lot about scordatura piano tuning, a subject I started with zero knowledge of prior to reading "Scordatura: Upon Listening to Biber's Rosary Sonatas."
But then, with so much infinity expressly, if fleetingly available, might this not suggest more than one essential way through the world? Perhaps if beauty arises out of the Is-ness of things, spontaneously, irrevocably, and if this Is-ness exists hugely, obliviously but all around us at all times, we need only a tiny shift in the magnification of our seeing or hearing, a miniscule twitch of angle, and it will explode into us: a series of caverns inside the veins of each leaf, the lavish turquoise bleedings from the under-surface of the sea. If this is so, then how can suffering be merely what it seems?