Monday, April 26, 2010

Catching the Spirit

A wise friend, who knows that I enjoy spiritual reading, has given me a beautifiul book by Stephanie Saldana called The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith. I have also been given the chance to review this beautiful memoir in America magazine.

After writing my review, I checked the Internet to see what other reviewers, including those in the mainstream media, had to say. I was dismayed by much of what I found: a nearly total lack of understanding of Saldana's essential meaning.

The book recounts the year the author, an American scholar from Texas, spent in Damascus studying Arabic and the Quran in order to get closer to her faith. She arrives, an American woman alone, in the midst of the Iraq war, with anti-American sentiment running at fever pitch. She also wants to heal a heart broken by family tragedy and by various unhappy love affairs.

Saldana's lyrical memoir, which is surprisingly suspensful and often funny, deals in large measure with the desert experience. I do not mean this merely because the author goes out to a desert monastery to endure a life-changing 30-day retreat, but that her inner struggle--her confrontation with pain and loss and her eventual recovery of faith--is part of the ancient tradition in Western spirituality wherein the desert represents a profound experience of distance from God until transformation occurs. And this struggle is what the book is mainly about, what makes it remarkable.

The book is remarkable, actually, for several reasons, including the author's postive encounter with Islam. But Saldana deals above all with what one of her Damascus neighbors, a carpet seller, calls "a jihad of the soul," that daily struggle we all undergo to find meaning in our lives.

So I was surprised that so many reviewers missed this or failed to mention it: they focused instead on her sometimes improbable love for a French novice monk and her "self-preoccupations."

I suspect that many reviewers read (or skim) quickly, write even more quickly, and thus miss the deeper meaning in a memoir such as this. Perhaps they are not used to looking for spirituality in a book about an Amrican living in Syria in the midst of war.

But what does it take for a reader to catch the spirit of a book called "The Bread of Angels: A Journey to Love and Faith"?

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