It is hard to choose the “best” of any type of writing, but spiritual writing poses a particular kind of challenge: There’s so much to choose from and the range of topics is so varied. In The Best Spiritual Writing of 2010, editor Philip Zaleski’s choices are so all over the map – from the importance of beards to the dangers of the Internet – that no theme emerges. No reader can read these pieces and conclude: This is spiritual writing.
But those who embrace variety will find plenty to sink their teeth into.
In “The God of the Desert,” (first published in Harper’s Magazine), Richard Rodriguez travels to Israel in search of – well, God and a lot of things. “I have come to the Holy Land because the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians, the God of the Muslims – a common God – revealed Himself in the desert.” Rodriguez, with the help of some guides, visits aspects of the desert: the busy streets of Jerusalem, a Greek Orthodox monastery outside Bethlehem, a cave in Qumran in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered 60 years ago by a Bedouin chasing a lost goat.
But Rodriguez fails to find the old Jerusalem, “the city of ossuaries,” he came seeking. “The city that exists is superimposed in some meaty way over the bone city I long to enter. The streets are choked and impassible with life; the air stifling, the merchandise appalling.” The entire essay is a wonderful meditation on the paradox of being a tourist 2,000 years too late.
Diane Ackerman tells the stories of two men who “famously chose to stay” when offered escape from the Warsaw ghetto during World War II: Hasidic Rabbi Shapira and writer/pediatrician Goldzmit (pen name Korczak). Ultimately leaving behind both pediatric practice and writing career, Godzmit/Korczak operated an orphanage for 30 years until “deportation” day, 1942, when he voluntarily joined 200 children on a train bound for the extermination camp at Treblinka “because, he said simply, he knew his presence would calm them.”
Perhaps the least likely to be considered “spiritual writing” is Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” reprinted from The Atlantic. Drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s observation that the medium is the message (directed then at TV), Carr wonders if the quick bursts of information he takes in from the Internet “is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”
Zaleski has provided a range of spirituality in this collection. Maybe Pico Iyer is right, in his thoughtful introduction, contemplating the “s” word. “So often we accord the term a solemn big S and assume that it is something that looms over us instead of living inside us. But the truest words tell us that it’s in our daily lives, or it is nowhere; it is in our breathing in and out, and in the space where we leap and don’t know what we’ll find.”
To borrow one of essayist Rodriguez’s phrases: We behold the spiritual “when the ape in our hearts” stands still.