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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Eat, Pray, Love -- Anything Else?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 3, 2010

            I know that there are people who are worse than I am at making decisions. People who really agonize about things, as though the whole world depended upon their choices; who can spend hours deciding which brand of toothpaste buy; what to have for supper; which book to read next. And while I don’t think “decisive” would be one of the top ten adjectives I would use to describe myself, I’m not as bad (in this respect) as some people are. The “J” in my Myers-Briggs profile rears its head when it needs to. We “J” types “like to have matters settled”; we yearn for closure; for getting something finished. “Just get it done” could be our motto.


            Usually, I think, I’m like that. I don’t have a lot of patience with “process”. Few things in life give me as much pleasure as checking something off my “to do” list every day. I can usually come to a decision about things fairly quickly.


            Except when I have to choose a flavor of ice cream. Choosing ice cream nowadays usually makes me break into a cold sweat, and well neigh induces in me a panic attack. So many places these days offer such an array of different flavors—all so splendid-sounding, too. “What do I do?” I find myself asking, when my turn at the ordering window comes. “Which do I choose?” Do I go with something traditional, like grapenut or frozen pudding or even pistachio? Or do I try something new and daring like “Lava Java Raspberry Coconut Cherry Berry Chocolate Swirl Chip” (with jimmies)? Chocolate or rainbow?


            Having to make decisions like that are probably why, according to the American Dairy Council, vanilla is still the #1 ice cream choice in America today (with chocolate a close second). People are just too intimidated to know what to choose, what to do; so we fall back on the old standbys. We might even yearn for the days when, like in my house growing up, there was, simply, that be all and end all of a solution: Harlequin. Three flavors—vanilla, chocolate, and the slightly more exotic strawberry—which gave everyone a little taste of everything, just a smidgeon of diversity, late 1950s style. (Or, as happened in my family, where I was the youngest of three boys, where my oldest brothers liked chocolate, and my next oldest brother liked strawberry, I “naturally” developed a keen taste for vanilla. “No, no,” I’d tell myself, even as a child, “I really do like vanilla. Not because it’s the only flavor left. But because of its intrinsic worth, and its deep complexity, and its luscious flavor. And because it’s the only flavor left.” But more often than not, Harlequin saved the day for us back then.


            Which brings us (at last) to Elizabeth Gilbert’s book (now a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts), Eat, Pray, Love.


            Eat, Pray, Live is so conveniently divided into three sections (like a block of Harlequin ice cream). Or like the Holy Trinity. Or like the Three Stooges. And so, it’s part memoir, part travel log, and part spiritual reflection. But all very engaging—extremely well written—and immensely insightful. (And if you are interested in delving into it in even great detail than this sermon will provide, do read the book, by all means; don’t rely on the movie, which, even more than is usually the case, is a mere Technicolor walking shadow of the original).


            Here’s the synopsis:


            By the time she was 32 years old, Elizabeth Gilbert was already a well-educated, sucCessful writer, with a husband, an apartment in Manhattan, a larger home in the country, and a chance to travel on assignment to exotic places around the world. She seemed to have it made, but, of course, she was miserable. Her marriage, she quickly realized, had been a big mistake; she had no desire to settle down and have children; she and her husband were enormously mismatched and totally incompatible.  She often spent the night crying on her bathroom floor; she lost a great deal of weight; she fell into a deep depression; she had an affair. Finally, she separated from her husband and initiated a divorce, which he contested. So just to get the marriage done with and behind her, she assumed full responsibility for the matter and gave her husband everything—the house, the apartment, half of her pension, a lot of her personal savings—I wonder if her got a cut from the book royalties? Wouldn’t that be ironic.


            Meanwhile, Elizabeth’s passionate affair with a handsome New York actor, who is somewhat younger than she is, also cools off, then falls apart. They separate, too; so that Elizabeth is left at the end of it all completely devastated and alone. But then, while she is writing an article on yoga vacations in Bali, she met a ninth-generation medicine man who told her that some day, she would come back to Bali and study with him. His words seemed to Gilbert her only glimmer of light in a life that otherwise seemed dark, drear, and from which all light and promise has been prematurely extinguished.


            So, she clings to that hope, and after finally finalizing her difficult divorce, Elizabeth Gilbert decides to spend the next year traveling—to her “three I’s”, as she calls them: Italy, India, and Indonesia. She envisions spending four months in Italy, eating and enjoying life (that’s Eat).  She will then spend four months in India, visiting the ashram of her guru, and deepening her spirituality (that’s Pray). Then she will end the year in Bali, which is part of Indonesia, looking for "balance" between body and spirit, and perhaps finding – you guessed it—Love.


            It’s all a bit contrived, perhaps: When is the last time any year of your life fell into such neatly-identifiable segments? It’s also the kind of spiritual journey that only the most priveleged would even be able to dream about taking. (Indeed, Gilbert’s trip is financed from the advance she got for the book that she would write about it afterwards. She must have one hell of an agent!) Eat, Pray, Love also has about it, sometimes, a decided air of self-indulgence and overly-studied charmingness. Gilbert seems to try too hard, sometimes, to be entertaining and liked. But this is a memoir, after all, which sort of gives the author the excuse to indulge herself, don’t you think? After all, memoirs are supposed to be “all about” whoever happened to write them.

            Which makes it all the more surprising, I think, that Eat Pray Love isn’t “all about” Liz Gilbert—at least, not all of the time.

            It’s about other people, too—a really interesting array of them. I loved the different characters in Eat Pray Love, at least as much as I liked Gilbert herself (maybe more, if truth be told): her friends in Italy, including one with the amazing name of “Luca Spaghetti” (which has now replaced “Kirby Puckett” as my favorite name of all time); a crusty old fellow-pilgrim at the ashram in India, a fellow-divorcee, from Texas, named Richard, who serves as a sort of mentor or conscience or voice of reason for Gilbert during the “Pray” section of the book, dragging her out of her self-pity, commanding her to listen to the voice of reason and common sense,  relentlessly cutting through the mounds of b-s which she has affixed to the narrative of her life. Then, in Bali, there is a toothless old healer and artist named Ketut Liyer, who is somewhere between the age of 65 and 112, and whose wisdom and good humor Gilbert describes with absolute mastery. It is Ketut’s “prophecy” that she will return someday to Bali to work with him which sets Gilbert on her journey. “Congratulations to meet you!” he greets each of his guests, and sends them on their way with “See you later alligator.” And amidst all his esoteric ritual and Balinese chanting and spiritual cures, he always adds, “Let your conscience be your guide” as a sort of  philosophical “Have a nice day!”

            (Interestingly, when Gilbert shows up on Ketut Liyer’s doorstep a year or so after their first meeting, and reminds him of his prophecy for her, he doesn’t remember it, and has no idea who she is. [He is between 65 and 112, after all.] “You the  girl from Californiaa?” he asks her. “No,” Gilbert replied, “I’m the girl from New York.”) Not even Balinese holy men are perfect.

            Gilbert paints her characters splendidly (she is a very talented writer), and presents a wondrous array of humanity to us; she met so may fascinating, multi-faceted people during her year on the road. Indeed, she presents, in truth, as interesting an array, as amazing a panoply, as any of us will experience along the way of our journeys here on this earth. If we open our eyes to the people around us, and listen—really listen—to their stories, and their experiences, we, too, could number our Richards from Texas, and our Luca Spaghettis, and even our own toothless holy men. There is no much wisdom and humor (as well as so much duplicity and so much conflictedness) in our human story, our human be-ing on this earth, and we are blessed that Gilbert presents it all so eloquently. In so doing, perhaps she inspires us to be better listeners, and to savor the experience of others, as well as our own experience—indeed, the experience of being here with others—all the more seriously.

            Which doesn’t mean it always has to be serious. Much of Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey is about her struggle to transcend the taciturn New England Calvinism into which she had been born; and out of which, of course, she would readily evolves into a high-achieving, workaholic, modern American, lacing her frenetic careerism with just a tad of bohemian rebellion and self-destructive consumerism thrown in for bad measure.


            She finds the perfect balance to her Yankee Calvinism in Italyy, of course. During the trials of her divorce, she decided that she needed to do something “just for fun” or die, so she decided to learn Italian. Her study of Italian becomes a perfect example of how doing  something seemingly insignificant, even whimsical, can take on unforeseen, even major, importance in our lives. (Because of Elizabeth Gilbert, I am now studying German in my spare time. She studies Italian; I study German; I’m such a Romantic.) To hone her  Italian, Elizabeth decides to include four months in Italy during her year abroad—and what a wondrous four months they are!

            “The first meal I ate in Romee was nothing much,” she writes. “Just some homemade pasta (spaghetti carbonara) with a side order of sauteed spinach and garlic… Also, I had one artichoke, just to try it; the Romans are awfully proud of their artichokes. Then there was a pop-surprise bonus order brought over by the waitress for free—a serving of fried zucchini blossoms with a soft dab of cheese in the middle… After the spaghetti, I tried the veal. Oh, and I also drank a bottle of house red, just for me. And ate some warm bread, with olive oil and salt. Tiramisu for dessert.”

            From that first meal onward, it was four months of indulgence. Pasta. Pizza. Tomatoes. Mushrooms. And, of course, gelato. If you think ordering ice cream at Friendly’s  is tough, can you imagine what it must be like at a gelato stand in Rome! Obviously, the Italy section was my favorite section of Eat, Pray, Love. Indeed, I think if I were to go on such a journey, the result would be a book called Eat, Eat, Eat. Gilbert gained about 30 pounds after four months in Italy. I didn’t think that was so bad, actually.

            But her time in Italyy wasn’t just about eating. Well, maybe it was. But it was about purposeful eating—eating with a meaning. “We live not by things, but by the meaning of things,” St. Exupery said. We live not by pasta, but by the meaning of pasta, I guess.

            In Italyy, Gilbert learns to find joy through pleasure. Not amusement through consumption (which we Westerners, especially we Americans, already know a lot about).  But joy through pleasure. In Italy, Elizabeth Gilbert learned the art of bel far niente—of creating “beauty doing nothing”. It is the realization that life itself is the gift—and that all the manifestations of life—the physical manifestations of life—are, quite literally, a feast to be savored. It’s all about tasting—really tasting-- the gift of life in a single, ripened tomato, and knowing that it is abbastanza – enough. And that from abbastanza to abbondanza – from a sense of “enough” to a sense of “abundance” – is a small enough journey, both linguistically and emotionally. Both are founded on a sense of savoring what we have been given—in joy and in gratitude—as deeply as we are able, right here and right now, and realizing that the physical joys of life are an important entry point on our spiritual journeys.

            From the plenitude of Italian marketplaces, Gilbert then goes to the severity and deprivation of an ashram in the outskirts of Mumbai. Talk about juxtaposition and culture shock! She is also traipsing onto foreign territory religiously for many of us here, too—into the esoteric realm of Eastern religion, with its chants in Sanskrit and its ritual fasting and meditation—things that might seem completely detached from our Western lives and the way some of us approach the sacred.


            But as we read about Gilbert getting up in the wee hours of the morning to say her prayers, or getting eaten alive by mosquitoes as she tries to meditate, or joylessly slogging through the 182-verses of a Sanskrit chant she especially hates——then we can see something of ourselves, as fellow pilgrims, reflected back to us in her struggles. Gilbert’s experience in India reminds us of the wisdom of Tielhard de Chardin’s insight that we men and women are both human beings trying to figure out what it means to be spiritual, and also (perhaps primarily) spiritual beings trying to discover how to be human. Gilbert struggles mightily with the human and the physical—and in India, too, there are more nights spent alone on the bathroom floor, in a deep despair that will not let her go. But when the other side of the equation takes hold, and she beholds (through that prayer she especially hates) the divinity that lies within, then the reality of her spiritual self explodes upon her, and she experiences a profound sense of self-forgiveness and amazing grace.

            Then, with her year rapidly flying by, she comes at last to Balii, seeking balance and wholeness. She reminds us that even when it’s easy and we’re all together and things are going well, that life is never easy. Even when we seem free of self-doubts and inordinate psychic pain, those ghosts of the past have their way of reappearing in our dreams and in our lives. Doubts about our self worth and the meaning of it all continue to plague us. Things are seldom as simple or as perfect as they seem. (Gilbert discovers that even beautiful Bali, a land apparently as close to Shangrila as any on Earth, has its own history bathed in blood.) Even trusted friends can let us down (a woman Gilbert befriends and saves from poverty apparently tries to defraud her and get even more money out of her). At the end of it all, Gilbert begins doubt whether the year away has taught her very much after all (Should she risk marriage, she wonders. Should she run off with the perfect Brazilian she has fallen in love with? Or are her relationships just doomed to failure and her life to loneliness?)

            But finally, she decides to risk it, and trust, and take that leap of faith (that leap of hope), and give all to love once again. Because Elizaebeth Gilbert realizes that at the heart of her journey—her one year’s journey around the world; her forty-something year journey through life—at the heart of all our journeys, there is a great force, a power, a spirit which says to us, however bleak and hopeless our lives may seem, “I love you, I will never leave you, I will always take care of you.”


            She writes:


            “Those were the first words I ever wrote in that private notebook of mine, which I would carry with me from that moment forth, turning back to it many times over the next two years, always asking for help—and always finding it, even when I was most deadly sad or afraid. And that notebook, steeped through with that promise of love, was quite simply the only reason I survived the next two years.”

            Or, as the author of a much less-selling book has written:


            “These lives we lead often fray the ties that bind. So many forces—economic, social, cultural, interpersonal—buffet the connections we have with one another. The currents of life can often threaten our little crafts.


            “Yet there is something in the river’s flow that lifts us free. We are headed, through all the shoals of life, toward that Greatt Sea where all rivers end. Our power may seem limited and fragile, but there is something in us that shares in the greater powers of all creation. If we keep faith with Life—and that means keeping faith with each other—then when our journeys finally end, we too may be bruised and battered, but we will find ourselves at last on a vast but friendly shore.”



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