Pray N Play

I've just been on the phone with my wife discussing the movie Eat Pray Love or, as the local cinema in Ottumwa where she saw it billed it, Eat Prey Love, which I assume is the arachnid version.

I haven't seen the movie yet but I read the bestselling book by Elizabeth Gilbert on which it is based. It describes the adventures of a young writer (herself) who, on the rebound from a bad relationship breakup, quits her job and hits the road to sooth her broken heart. Along the way, she discovers good food (in Italy), devotion to God (In India) and the joys of satisfying lovemaking (in Bali). Both the book, and now the film, have been hugely successful, especially among women. My wife certainly enjoyed it (and post-film seems be contemplating a trip of her own!) and I certainly liked the story when I read it. The few TV chat shows I happened across on the subject were all extremely enthusiastic and the film has launched a veritable tsunami of shameless product marketing for anything from exotic trips to Bali to prayer mats and rudraksha beads (welcome to America where nothing is so sacred that it can't be sold for a tidy profit).

The lead in the film is played by Julia Roberts, who would not have been my first pick, but my wife says it works very well. The choice of lead actress in itself creates a fascinating sidebar. On her publicity tour for the film Roberts admitted that she and her family are practicing Hindus. This coincides with almost a quarter of the country now believing our president is a Muslim. He is, in fact, a professed Christian. So, at a time when fundamentalist Christian groups are becoming increasingly insistent we are a Christian nation by constitutional decree, we have "America's sweetheart" actress being a Hindu and its political father being perceived as Muslim by a fair portion of the population. And this is quite apart from the number of Hollywood heart throbs who are Buddhists, Cabbalists, Scientologists, or whatever.

What can be gleaned from the runaway success of Gilbert's story? I think she hits a deep (and far too long suppressed) vein of human desire, and that is the need to be free -physically, emotionally and, most importantly, spiritually. To me, we are born human in order to seek liberation. It's one of the universe's eternal paradoxes and perhaps God's greatest mischief that we manifest within physical boundaries (ie. the human condition) in order to learn how to set ourselves free from them. Even the most orthodox and dogma-toting religious fanatic, ultimately believes by following the rules you will get closer to God; and if God is anything, He or She is infinite and unbounded.

The problem is, and this is especially true in western culture, for the last two thousand years or so, the search for liberation has been perceived to be impossibly hard or, in some cases, even sinful. I'm generalizing here, but suffering has almost become a pre-requisite to religious enlightenment, and natural human desires, such as eating and loving well, antithetical to spiritual advancement. They're not. They just need to be in balance. Like all things in life, overindulgence, even in spiritual practice, can lead to harmful side-effects.

We've also become prisoners to our desire for material success, fame and glory (a tad overindulgence, perhaps?), locked into unsatisfying and repetitive work routines in order to meet impossible financial burdens, and far too busy achieving to appreciate the natural glory of creation that surrounds us. Maybe that's why we all love road movies: they represent our fundamental need to break out and run free. Eat, Pray, Love goes a step beyond: it gives people permission to combine physical enjoyment and love with spiritual expansion. This may be why it is especially inspiring for women. And let's face it, they need a break. I don't want to get too Dan Brown-ish here, but the female side of the divine equation has been getting a raw deal for a few centuries now..

There is a joke I once heard. A young monk goes into the cellars of the monastery seeking to verify from the original records a word he can't quite read in a precious manuscript he is copying. After what seems like ages, his fellow brothers hear him clattering up the stairs from the basement, shouting wildly: "It says "Celebrate…."

Footnote: The Catholic Church, it seems, has given the movie a thumbs down because the heroine fails to seek spiritual guidance while she is Italy and instead just eats spaghetti.