April 2006

Barbara J. King

features

Elizabeth Gilbert's Year of Prayer

As I read along in Eat Pray Love, I came to understand Elizabeth Gilbert’s year of travel as a year of prayer. And I mean every single moment of that year, not just the part spent in meditation at the ashram in India, or the time soaking up ancient knowledge from a medicine man in Bali, but also the months in Italy when she gained 30 pounds in pursuit of pleasure via pasta and gelato.

Why a year of prayer? Sometimes the books I read strike up a conversation with each other in my head. Zaleski and Zaleski’s Prayer: A History defines prayer as action “that communicates human and divine realms.” On this view, prayer includes the ritual burial practices and musical rhythms of our evolutionary cousins The Singing Neanderthals, the walking meditation and other mindful practices of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn conveyed in Touching Peace, all the practices Elizabeth Gilbert followed as she crossed the globe seeking God -- and none of the arrogant anti-religion pufferies exuded in Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

Eat Pray Love is a prayer memoir because Gilbert trisects a year of her life and spends four months each in Italy, India, and Indonesia in search of some peace of mind and heart, and because she does this in response to life anguish but with an open spirit and a thirst for God. Her pain was largely rooted in the slow demise of her marriage: “We’d been fighting and crying, and we were weary in that way that only a couple whose marriage is collapsing can be weary. We had the eyes of refugees.” One night, caught in the trap of pain and exhausted, she, Liz, finds herself lying in the bathroom. And “something was about to occur on that bathroom floor that would change forever the progression of my life -- almost like one of those crazy astronomical super-events when a planet flips over in outer space for no reason whatsoever, and its molten core shifts, relocating its poles and altering its shape radically, such that the whole mass of the planet suddenly becomes oblong instead of spherical. Something like that.” This something was prayer.

But the pain was rooted in more than a nasty divorce. Gilbert, “the planet’s most affectionate life form (something like a cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle),” suffered in a wildly happy-unhappy-happy cycle of a turbulent love affair. She became “a pathetic mess” and reached the point of “the complete and merciless devaluation of self.” It doesn’t escape Gilbert’s notice that she chose to restore her self in countries that started with the letter I (the letter of the self) or that she opted for a pretty stunning set of I-destinations. As she puts it, Eat Pray Love is not set in Iran, Ivory Coast, and Iceland or (closer to her New York home) Islip, I-95 and Ikea. Gilbert’s playfulness, her refusal to take her own misery or her own accomplishments too seriously, makes this book fun to read. But make no mistake, her quest is a serious one; it is a search for grace.

If Gilbert prays half as skillfully as she writes, she’s got some divine gifts headed her way. Read how she describes New Year’s Eve at the ashram, only a day after her arrival in India: “The chant tonight is a lullaby, a lament, an attempt at gratitude, written in a raga (a tune) that is meant to suggest compassion and devotion. We are singing in Sanskrit, as always (an ancient language that is extinct in India, except for prayer and religious study), and I’m trying to become a vocal mirror for the voices of the lead singers, picking up their inflections like little strings of blue light. They pass the sacred words to me, I carry the words for a while, then pass the words back, and this is how we are able to sing for miles and miles of time without tiring. All of us are swaying like kelp in the dark sea current of night. The children around me are wrapped in silk, like gifts.”

In India, Liz felt the power and energy of meditation: “The most fierce experiences come when I let go of some last fearful reserve and permit a veritable turbine of energy to unleash itself up my spine… When this energy rides through me, it rumbles like a diesel engine in low gear, and all it asks of me is this one simple request -- Would you kindly turn yourself inside out, so that your lungs and heart and offal will be on the outside and the whole universe will be on the inside? And emotionally, will you do the same?”

I loved this book even before Liz reached the ashram, though; I loved it from the first pages. Already I am counting the days till my return to Lucca this June, when I can shine in the sun and order gelato in my shaky Italian, so how could Eat Pray Love fail to release a brainstorm of serotonin happiness in me? Liz lived for pleasure in Italy. “I am a bit ashamed to admit this,” she writes, “but I did not visit a single museum during my entire four months in Italy. (Oh man, it’s even worse than that. I have to confess that I did go to one museum: the National Museum of Pasta, in Rome.) I found that all I really wanted was to eat beautiful food and to speak as much beautiful Italian as possible.” Her explanation of why Italian sounds so poetic and seductive, tracing its roots to 14th-century Dante, is the best I’ve ever read.

The book’s third section, set in Bali, was my least favorite, an odd thing in some ways because it was there that Liz fell in love and felt the happiest. She chose Bali as her I-country #3 based on an invitation from an old medicine man named Ketut, whom she had met there on a brief visit some years before. As she shares Ketut’s front porch and soaks up his wisdom, parts of memoir continue to sparkle: “Most of the time, I find that I want to pray when I am on my bicycle, riding home from Ketut’s house through the monkey forest and the rice terraces in the dusky late afternoons. I pray, of course, not to be hit by another bus, or jumped by a monkey or bit by a dog, but that’s just superfluous; most of my prayers are expressions of sheer gratitude for the fullness of my contentment.” Sprinkled throughout this section are nuggets of insight into Balinese family life and customs. Yet I felt a shiver of disappointment at the way Liz treated Ketut and other Balinese friends; you’ll have to read the book to see if you agree.

I know I am reading Liz’s life from my own life. When Eat Pray Love thudded onto my doorstep, I had been craving sun and sustenance, the promise of spring on the skin and not just on the calendar. More than that, I had been craving resolution with a friend, “a peace summit from which we could emerge with a united understanding of what had occurred,” as Liz says about her marriage. I cannot feel gut-level empathy with Liz about her marriage; I’m a woman lucky enough to know she’s lucky, when after 16 years, I walk through the door at every day’s end to kiss my husband. But don’t we all, at some point in our lives, engage with a person, a friend or family member, who tugs at us in unexpected ways, so that our heart twists a little bit and we wake one day to find ourselves at some distance from who we thought we were? We may pray our way back to our self or reflect our way back or even read our way back, and in the process travel galaxies of distance (without ever leaving the house, maybe). Eat Pray Love is perfect company for the traveler in all of us.

-- Barbara J. King thanks Charlie for all that, and a lot more besides.