The National Catholic Review

Confession. I am not generally in the business of writing movie reviews, especially for films that have yet to be released and which I probably will not see. And maybe this post will confirm that I should not quit my day job. So, for more professional opinions of Eat Pray Love, check out The New York Times or USA Today. But if you’re interested in what a single, 30-something, Catholic female theologian might have to say on the matter, read on.

Before you do so, let me make a second confession. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir two summers ago (and have been re-reading it this week to confirm the sinking suspicion I have). Gilbert’s recollection of her obstinate determination to unite her desire to love herself and her desire to love God (and the intrinsic connection between the two) really spoke to me. The fact that one of my mother’s dearest friends gave me a set of japa malas, the meditation beads around which Gilbert builds her story, suggests that in many ways, her tale of her struggle for self-care is, to some extent, every woman’s story. In fact, I count many of her words and phrases among the wisdom of the great mystics of the Christian tradition who have nourished me in my own spiritual journey—from Teresa of Avila to Henri Nouwen. I know that I am drawn to these persons willingness to risk truly knowing themselves, and more importantly, to know themselves as deeply loved by God, in order to be liberated from a variety of constraints and to experience the kind of happiness that comes with truly loving others. The Greeks called this eudaimonia or flourishing. Christ called it the Kingdom of God.

Can the desire for this kind of flourishing be mass-marketed? I’m not so sure, but all of the new-product development connected to the film seems to suggest that Gilbert and Sony are willing to give it a try. Either with the red-carpet smile of Julia Roberts (who pulls the rug out from under the everywoman tone of the book) or an exclusive “Eat Pray Love” collection on the Home Shopping Network featuring products from Italy, India and Indonesia, or with a new fragrance and scented candle line offered by Fresh. Even as a scholar who writes about the importance of the senses and embodiment for moral reasoning, this seems a bit much. All of this purchasable enlightenment flies in the face of what Gilbert identifies as American women’s biggest obstacles to uniting our desire for the beautiful and good with our desire for God. “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort,” she says about a notion she calls “Diligent Joy”:  “You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.”

So I think the movie might not just be a disappointment. It is potentially dangerous. It will exploit the common desire among women for the diligent joy which Gilbert so beautifully names with products that falsely promise such contentment. And it will confuse the liberating wisdom she gained through dligent spiritual practices with the oppressive practices of the market. I say eat, pray and love. And leave the market out of it.  

 

Comments

Pearce Shea | 8/18/2010 - 1:45pm
David- I think you're right, but I think it's probably the opposite of what you conjecture. I, as many others did, read this as part of a book club. I was in my early 30s (30 or 31, I don't recall). I was older than the majority of the book club by like 8 years or so (most everyone was a recent college graduate). The consensus, universal, in fact, was that the protagonist was a loathsome, self-absorbed, spoiled person. My mother, father and their friends, however, largely found the book affirming and spiritually rich.
Pearce Shea | 8/13/2010 - 3:51pm
Huh. I have to echo the more recent comments. I found the book and movie nauseating. As someone who comes from pretty meager means, where we really had to fight for happiness (and by happiness I mean a full stomach), this author struck me as repellent and self-absorbed. The cultural vampirism of the presumed superior a la Out of Africa and all that. Seemed as spiritually deep as Chicken Soup for the Christian Teen Soul so comparison to "deep thinkers" like Nouwen, for whom I don't particularly care, or St. Theresa, whom I adore, seems shocking. I would have preferred to see more of an explication of the text/movie than some rather confusing concern that the market (?) would ruin the movie (commercialization? of a movie? made from a book? on the nyt bestseller list?).
Gregory Popcak | 8/13/2010 - 9:57am
We discussed this on our show last night.  My wife and I both read the book because it resonates so deeply with the culture and we felt it was important to see what the fuss was about.  I think it resonates with people more for the experience of emptiness it relates and the  questions about how to find meaning rather than the answers it provides. 

I agree with Colleen above that the answers Gilbert finds in response to asking her questions leave a lot to be desired.  The positive psychology movement tells us that authentic happiness is found in the pursuit of meaningfulness, intimacy, and virtue. Gilbert leads people to believe that she finds her bliss in escapism, narcissism, and self-indulgence.  She begins her story by ending a marriage because she feels trapped by the requirements of commitment and self-donation and ends the book finding bliss because she found a guy who agrees to worship at the altar she's built of and for herself, asking her for nothing other than what she feels like giving him. 

The funny thing is, while she proclaims her liberation in Eat Pray Love, in her next book,  Committed, she winds up right back where she started at the beginning of her journey.  After seeking freedom and enlightenment by seeking escape from commitment and self-donation, she winds up facing the same challenges she thought she escaped when she is "forced" by Uncle Sam to marry her Eat-Pray lover who has run afoul of US Immigration.  "Forced" into marrying the man she claims to love, she ends of forced to face the feelings of entrapment, and fears of committment and self-donation that had been passed down intergenerationally from her unaffirming, emotionally crippled grandmother. Except, this time, there's no publisher-funded escape hatch and so, she's been "committed", sentenced really, to a life of marriage without parole, where she is going to have to learn to truth about finding herself, which is that she needs to learn how to make a gift of herself.  The problem is, her quest for liberation in Eat Pray Love gave her no new skills or tools to face this challenge, so she spends Committed railing against the marriage-minded culture that keeps insisting that she think of someone other than herself.

Eat Pray Love asks great questions, but ultimately its a story of self-delusion and narcissism whose erstwhile happy ending only lasts until the next book, when the real work of self-discovery is again avoided, not through carbs but through self-pity.  It's sad to read a story of a woman who has experienced so much but benefitted so little.
TERRI MIYAMOTO | 8/12/2010 - 10:44pm
Wow. I'm wondering if I need to go back and try to read this book again. I admit I couldn't even finish it. I lost patience with the author, who seemed to me self-indulgent and self-absorbed. I couldn't seem to make a connection with her. I was surprised that it became as popular as it has.
Colleen Eubanks | 8/12/2010 - 8:45pm
Wow, I am wondering how my book group of mostly devout, practicing Catholic women missed this perspective on Eat, Pray, Love.  We have been meeting monthly for almost two decades and it is rare we are in agreement over a book - but we found Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir a selfish, self-celebrating book and missed any connection to loving or search for divinity in it. 

Our group runs the gamut of ultra conservative to quite liberal thinkers and rarely agree on anything which made our discussion about a year ago of this book amazing and unusual. We were united in that we thought this book has been over promoted - and mostly focused on a good writer's selfish search for self-fulfillment and self-pleasure without really considering the bonds of the marriage vows and the vocation of marriage.

While the book (and now the movie) may speak to the malaise of middle class American women in their professional and personal lives in this period of time - in no way do I see how this is a positive search for the desire for God.  If we think this perspective is a desire for God - then we are free to hurt or not consider others in our selfish search for God since it is only about how we feel - and not about our impact on the community or people around us - let alone those with whom we are temporarily or eternally companioned with ...

I frankly, was quite surprised to find this positive note in my RSS feed from a Catholic perspective as I think the book celebrates the individual and NOT the mystery of the community of the body of the family and the community.


 
Theresa Lee | 8/12/2010 - 5:34pm
I agree that Gilbert's book holds much wisdom for wisdom-seekers.  It certainly is helping me look at the prayer of petition in a new light as well as understand the common thread that runs in many monastic traditions of different religions.  It also seems true that once a book gets to be made into a movie and then to market of various products, it is easy to lose what one holds to be a sacred insight that one gained from reading the book.  True, market can stay out of the journey.  But, perhaps, it is inevitable in the mass-market world we live in.  What seems important, however, is that one holds true to one's values and use them in deciding for themselves what to consume or what not to.  After all, what is important is the knowledge and awareness that more and more women (and men, I hope) are desiring to get in touch with their inner selves and the need for God.  So, why not use the market to find God even if it may be laden with trinkets and what nots along the way?  That also seems to be the commonalities we all share as well-the need to get there and the temptations to be distracted by along the way.  But, people have to make their own choices, and may whatever help them get to their destination be a blessing, not a curse...even in the market.  =)