A writer who sees the forest and the trees

The Force of Spirit

By Scott Russell Sanders Beacon 175 pp., $22

Amid the shopping and the cooking and the traveling and the greeting, make some quiet time this month for a little collection of essays called "The Force of Spirit."

Scott Russell Sanders is one of those craftsmen who composes pieces I can't believe anyone makes anymore - like cedar chests or potato mashers. And yet his essays are such a pleasure that I wonder why we usually put up with the literary equivalent of moth balls and potato buds.

"I have reached the time in life when I can no longer put off asking the ultimate questions," Sanders writes. That may sound like a warning that you've reached the time in life when you should put off reading a pompous book, but these 14 essays are models of humility.

Whether considering organic farming, the importance of storytelling, or his first Bible, Sanders, a professor at Indiana University, speaks with gentle, but penetrating insight that encourages contemplation. He looks so wisely at the grain of his life that we can't help consider the timber of our own.

In the title essay, he and his wife visit her father at a nursing home. The prognosis is bleak. His body and mind are failing. But even shrouded in anticipatory grief, Sanders is thinking about the force of life.

"Who can accept that we're merely meat?" he asks. "Who can shake the suspicion that we're more than two-legged heaps of dust accidentally sprung into motion? Whatever the doctors and biologists claim, we go on using the word heart as if it pointed to an emotional center, a core of integrity."

"I want a name for the force that binds me to [my wife] Ruth, to her parents, to my parents, to our children, to neighbors and friends, to the land and all its creatures.... No name is large enough to hold this power, but of all the inadequate names, the one that comes to me now is spirit."

Most of the essays in this collection are less openly spiritual, but the metaphysical impulse always beats beneath these pages. For instance, "Heartwood," a beautiful essay about the woodgrains in his house, moves gracefully from the boards to the trees to the moral fiber that gives order to our lives.

In "Amos and James," Sanders considers his lifelong wrestling match with the Bible, starting in the early days when he thought King James was the author of that brief letter toward the back. As a teenager, he searched the Scriptures looking for secrets to heal his parents' contemptuous marriage. As an adult, he's "still haunted by the Bible," tempered by its advice, comforted by its promises, and troubled by its warnings.

In a voice that's daringly intimate but never treacly, Sanders sometimes invites us into the most private moments of his life. A letter to his daughter recalls the way her birth forced him to consider the mistreatment of women throughout the world. An apostrophe to his late father celebrates the old man's integrity and rages against his weaknesses.

"Wood Work," about the moral responsibilities of carpentry and writing, is destined to become a classic piece of furniture in English courses. It's a piece full of wit and moral authority, polished with an epigraphic style that's irresistible.

Recalling the words of St. James, Sanders writes, "The work of language deserves our greatest care, for the tongue's fire may devour the world, or may light the way."

Here's the work of a quiet torch bearer.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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