The Best American Spiritual Writing


The Best American series has been the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction since 1915. For each volume, the very best pieces are selected by a leading writer in the field, making the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.

The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 includes

Mary Gordon • Natalie Goldberg • Oliver Sacks • Ptolemy Tompkins • ...

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The Best American series has been the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction since 1915. For each volume, the very best pieces are selected by a leading writer in the field, making the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.

The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 includes

Mary Gordon • Natalie Goldberg • Oliver Sacks • Ptolemy Tompkins • Patricia Hampl • Gary Snyder • Charles Johnson • Harvey Cox • Todd Gitlin • Bill McKibben • Philip Levine • W. S. Merwin • and others

Philip Zaleski, editor, is the author of The Recollected Heart, The Book of Heaven, and, most recently, Prayer: A History (with Carol Zaleski). He is a senior editor of Parabola and a research associate in religion at Smith College.

Barry Lopez is the author of Arctic Dreams, the illustrated fable Crow and Weasel, and several essay and short story collections, including About This Life and Resistance. He has received the National Book Award and other honors.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
One reviewer wrote that with this series, editor Philip Zaleski had "perhaps single-handedly, created a genre." Certainly, no previous annual spiritual anthology has captured the imagination of the public with comparable effect. The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 brings numerous varied offerings to the table. Its contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, W. S. Merwin, Patricia Hampl, Charles Johnson, and Mary Gordon.
Library Journal
Zaleski (senior editor, Parabola; research associate, religion, Smith Coll.) has edited another invaluable collection of spiritual writing. Like its 2004 predecessor, this book is a real gift to any library collection, as it includes contributors as eminent and various as Harvey Cox, Natalie Goldberg, W.S. Merwin, and Huston Smith and covers an immense range of subject matter illuminated by some of the finest writing in America. A collection of prose and poetry like this whets the reader's appetite for more from its authors, more from the magazines and periodicals from which the contributions are drawn, and, of course, more from the next in the series. Highly recommended. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618586431
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Series: Best American Spiritual Writing Series
  • Pages: 242
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 10.86 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

PHILIP ZALESKI, editor of The Best American Spiritual Writing, is the author of many acclaimed books on religion, including The Recollected Heart, Gifts of the Spirit, and The Book of Heaven. His most recent book is Prayer: A History, written with Carol Zaleski. He is a senior editor at Parabola as well as a research associate in religion at Smith College.
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Read an Excerpt


One benign, summer morning I departed a small tent camp, pitched on the back of a valley glacier, and headed with a few friends for an embayment a couple of miles away in the La Gorce Mountains, in the interior of Antarctica. We were curious about the place, an unnamed natural amphitheater we’d examined through binoculars some weeks earlier. A curving wall rose sharply from the valley floor on three sides, towering over a dark expanse of frost- shattered porphyry and other igneous and sedimentary rock that had fallen, over dozens of millennia, from the walls and serrated ridge above, or been pushed up from the glacial ice below this rock barren.
It was a clear day of unusually still air. By now, at the end of a forty-five-day field season, the six of us were so accustomed to the steady cold I can’t recall a specific temperature. It must have been around 0°F. The few people who have actually traveled in the interior of Antarctica have all done so recently and their journeys have been carefully recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey; so it’s possible to say, with a high degree of certainty, that no one had ever been where we were headed. The La Gorce Range, with its many unnamed peaks, shoulders its way through the continent’s permanent ice cover about 225 miles north of the South Pole. The vast, dead- slow river of ice, flowing off the polar plateau, around this range, and toward the edge of the continent, buries the lower seven thousand feet of these mountains. The upper several thousand feet are bare, wind-blasted rock and steep snowpack.
Eying our destination from camp and scrutinizing the topographic map, we guessed that the only problems we might face in our traverse would be a crevasse field, which we could skirt, and the steep pitch of an ice wall where Klein Glacier, on which we were camped, curved around the base of Kessens Peak, the valley’s southeast portal. Like a river streaming around a boulder, an ice sheet moving around the corner of a mountain range leaves a cavity on the downstream side of any obstruction. It was this side slope of the passing glacier that we would have to descend to reach the mouth, about four miles across, of this deep amphitheater.
The pitch of the ice wall raised a few eyebrows but was not perilous to navigate. We descended, crossed the ice apron to the foot of the valley, and parked our snow machines at the threshold of the felsenmere, the dozen or so square miles of rock blown clear of snow by perennially strong winds (which happened not to be blowing on this day).
My tent mate, John Schutt, the expedition leader, had the same unannounced idea I did. The two of us hiked in a few hundred yards over the angular boulders and rocks, looking for a relatively flat patch in the rubble that had been soaking up solar radiation for weeks. Using a couple of sun-warmed boulders as backrests, we settled in to peruse what many would characterize as a scene of desolation.
To the northwest of us, on the right, was 10,823-foot Mount Paine, the other portal to the valley. From there a sharp ridge, an arete, swung toward us and curved around behind us to terminate on our left, at Kessens Peak, 8,645 feet. Directly before us, about a mile distant, the ice wall of Klein Glacier rose up some hundreds of feet, a rigid tsunami of translucent grays and brilliant whites cutting across a pale blue sky, a great expanse lighter than azure, darker than pearly blue, and without a cloud.
The silence around us was so deep it induced an aura of anticipation. The present, the time in which John and I were gazing west, grew taut, like a manufactured object tightened. And then it broke, in the manner of mercury dispersing. Each of us felt he was being given what he had deliberately sought here—an unbounded moment when immaculate light filled an immense space, a moment devoid of history, empty of language, without meaning.

I have experienced this emotion before, the sense of a sudden immersion in the profound mystery of life, a mystery that seems to originate in arrangements of time and space that precede the advent of biology. It is a sensation known to many people, often characterized as an awareness of unity with the divine, or as a release from the routine coordinates of life, as a greatly expanded sense of the present, or as a religious experience without the symbols of religion.
In reflecting on previous occasions when I have sensed this collapse of measured time, and been aware of a pervasive, almost tangible hush in a specific geographic place—once in the self-contained desert ranges of western Namibia, another time in the far reach of a spinifex grassland bordering a dry riverbed in Australia’s Northern Terrritory, once at the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland—I realized that certain elements were common to them all. I was always with a feeeeew friends; the physical place opened toward a generous horizon; the weather was clement; the atmosphere was silent; and light played a strong role, intensifying the clarity of the air. This has led me to believe, contrary to popular western folklore, that these apparently private experiences are actually social, that they have more in keeping with everyday life than with a grail quest. Further, since these experiences always release in me a floodtide of hope, I’ve come to associate the vistas—sharply lit land opening toward a horizon, a vast silence under benign skies—with that emotion.
That particular day in the La Gorce Mountains with my friend John, though, I saw something in addition, something I’d never noticed before, possibly because no human mark of any sort showed here, or because this landscape wasn’t catalogued anywhere among the events we call history, or possibly because of the sheer immensity in which we were so comparatively infinitesimal in a nightless summer—I experienced space and time as one. I saw the flow of the glacier before me, the shifting of my chilly fingers in my mitts, and the disintegration, rock by rock, of the cirque wall behind me as the same event.
Months later, when the memory of the sensation did not recede, I began to wonder at the nature of the glue that might hold time and space together. To put it another way, what allowed a sense of space, a feeling for the volume of geography around myself, and a sense of time, a sensitivity to the different lengths of interval by which we notice change, to penetrate each other?
It could be reverence, I thought.

• In a lyrical, beautifully human book called Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, the classicist and philosopher Paul Woodruff describes the cardinal virtues—courage, reverence, wisdom, justice—as those that are recognized, admired, and upheld by all peoples, regardless of their other cultural beliefs. They go beyond religion, and no particular human tradition can claim that these virtues originated with them.
Reverence, writes Woodruff, “begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He describes it as a capacity for certain feelings, most obviously awe and respect, which “prompt us to behave well.” He stresses, further, that the ability to feel these emotions must be practiced if an attitude of reverence is to become part of one’s character. A reverent attitude toward the world, he writes, is what we recognize in ourselves when we feel awe “at the immensity of the reality that does not conform to human wishes,” and when respect for the ineluctable mystery of the world wells up in us. Finally, he points out that through all of human history, different peoples have celebrated and reinforced the virtue of reverence, individually and communally, in ceremony.
It occurred to me, after reading Woodruff’s book, that the emotional elevation I felt that day in the La Gorce Mountains, and which I had experienced in other locales—a mix of awe and respect in the face of certain physical surroundings, a sense that in that moment the physical (outer) and emotional (inner) worlds were part of the same bolt of cloth, and that I was embedded in this setting, not a mere observer—grew out of a capacity for such feelings that I had intentionally practiced (although I’d always understood this as a consciously willed effort to be vulnerable to the world, in order to be intimate with it). I had anticipated that sitting in that rock- strewn amphitheater, emotionally susceptible to it, might give rise, in other words, to the sensationWoodruff calls “joyful reverence.” I could not assume, though, that cultivating such a capacity would make the sensation inevitable.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of any revitalizing experience like this is that no matter what we’ve done, such doors regularly swing open before us. A gift. You cannot expect, after months or even years of emotional barrenness and anxiety, to be elevated out of the ordinary merely because your desire is keen and constant. The elevation can’t be earned. It’s true, as Woodruff writes, that the capacity for such feelings must be cultivated—the gift always has to be acted upon—if these feelings are to go deep and sustain us; but the opportunity to enhance a sense of reverence—or of justice, for that matter—is sometimes upon us, overwhelmingly, when we least expect it.
To feel, suddenly and intensely, reverent toward the world can seem like a reprieve. It releases a person, at least for a few moments, I think, from the modern burden most of us feel over our complicity in the world’s waywardness: injustice, religious contempt, ethical cowardice, rampant intellectualizing—the conditions against which the cardinal virtues are arrayed. As such, the unanticipated moment of elevation feels like an absolution.
It seems to me that this experience with the numinous, of release into a world that stands outside human comprehension, is what lies at the heart of “spiritual writing.” The intent in the genre is to locate, make apparent, and celebrate the wellsprings of the cardinal virtues—justice, courage, wisdom, reverence. The term itself, of course, is problematic. For many, the notion of spiritual values is too closely identified with specific religious dogma. And experiences with the numinous are too easily associated by some with deism or theism. Or pantheism. Gods and religion, however, need play no role in the experience, cultivation, and exercise of virtue (which is why philosophers stipulate that the cardinal virtues are recognized by everyone, regardless of their doctrines).
Writing about the recognition and pursuit of virtuous life is one dimension, as I have come to see it, of a very old ceremonial history, one that celebrates mankind’s affinity for, its longing after, a frame of mind sensitive to issues of reverence, wisdom, justice, and courage. Somehow, in experiencing these feelings, we experience the profundity of our own existence. It is a specific kind of human awareness that leads to just forms of governance, to good politics, to equity at all levels of a social order.
What caused me to sense a seamlessness of space and time with John that day in the La Gorce Mountains, I believe, was that the intensity of reverence I felt could not be distinguished in those moments from what I imagined the conditions for justice to be. There were no lines of separation.

I opened this essay with a description of events in a place nearly impossible for most people to travel to, implying, perhaps, that encounters like this which lead to a renewed awareness of the profundity of human existence are most often wilderness experiences. I don’t mean to convey this. I recall emerging once from the paleolithic cave at Altamira on a cool, fall day in northern Spain. Suddenly I saw spread below me, as if for the first time, the bucolic landscape that runs inland from the Bay of Biscay, near the village of Santillana del Mar. I felt immense tenderness toward it. Twostory farmhouses, compact and tidy, stood randomly on several square miles of land, the fields divided by low stone walls and windbreaks of tall Lombardy poplars. Grain had been harvested; sheep were penned; late-summer vegetables grew in straight rows in large kitchen gardens; a Guernsey cow straddled the sill of a barn door; a man was towing a manure spreader with a small red tractor. Having just stepped from the cave, having stared in wonder for the past hour at a Cro-Magnon record of life, the interpretations of that life still glistening on the damp walls, as if they had been created only that morning, I lost completely the sense of a time between these painters and the man on the tractor. I was so overcome by the elimination of this familiar distance, I had to lean into a retaining wall on the bluff above the valley to keep from reeling on the path.
That night I sat in a hotel room in Santander and wrote to a friend in rural Kentucky, a well-read man with a great capacity for reverence, about what I had seen. It seemed crucial to share the sensation while it was still fresh with someone who would understand my observations about how ruthlessly insistent the modern metronome of time can be about Progress.
One June morning, looking up a side street in Montmartre, I was transfixed by how the reflection of early light gleaming on wet paver stones and the sound of rainwater burbling around a scrap of wood in the gutter included a woman emerging from a bakery with a large clutch of bread loaves in the fold of her apron. Another time, I felt myself “living outside the moment” as I gazed at Old Havana from the Malecón, the city’s Gulfward edge, at the crumbling pastel façades of rowhouses, and heard long runs of birdsong over lulls in the traffic. And I would want to include in these “out of place and time” experiences, which reawakened a sense of reverence for humanity, the moments of eerie luminosity and the collapse of language and analysis I felt the first time I saw a Vermeer, Girl Interrupted at Her Music, at the Frick Collection in New York. I remember having the same sensation when I turned a corner in the Vatican Museums a couple of years later, a seventeen-year- old boy, and came upon Agesander, Athenodorus, and Polydorus of Rhodes’ Laocoön. Most recently, I felt infused with a sense of regard for all life after I entered a Quaker meetinghouse in Houston, Texas, where a ceiling designed by the space-and-light artist James Turrell opens to accentuate the skyspace above the building. I watched for an hour hues shifting in a cloudless sky, while the sun set and three or four times blackbirds crossed over.
The essential ingredient in these experiences is humanity, not wilderness. If I were better at inducing a state of vulnerability in myself in cities, I believe I would experience there the same intensity of life-purpose I did in the La Gorce Mountains.

It is a commonplace observation that, like other cultures, we too yearn after justice, that we want civic life to hinge on mutual respect, and that we hope to cultivate in ourselves a capacity for virtue. What we truly wish for, I think, is not the impossible ideal of a life of just relations, of consistently wise decisions, courageous action against the afflictions that dog us, and respect for what lies beyond our ken, but simply the conditions that make such things possible. We seek out books, art, performances, and political groups that make the life we believe is possible plausible.
Spiritual writing, and some of what is called nature writing, are literary attempts, it seems to me, to explore and to keep alive the plausibility of virtuous life. Modernity, with its caustic contempt for virtue, its investment in the importance of individual life over social life, and its choice of cynicism and detachment as a safe way to approach the unknown, insists, of course, that real literature lies somewhere else. The attempt to write about spiritual matters, this argument goes—or to read about them—is work for the naive writer, the misguided reader.
What we must ask of spiritual writing, I think, is that it be of some practical value in a culture as ethically conflicted as ours. To overcome the charge, sometimes warranted, that it’s a pious genre, spiritual writing has to point, as a literature, toward better systems of governance, toward more equitable economies, and toward the protection of diversity. From a certain perspective, it already does; but for too many it remains writing about “God,” a sectarian subject. Few, if any, critics would see it as a part of the phenomenon de- scribed in other countries as postcolonial writing, or as a literature of social justice. In this, spiritual writing suffers the same fate as another sort of more obviously postcolonial writing, nature writing.

In several decades of international travel, I know I’ve missed a lot; but one thing that has not escaped me in visiting with indigenous people around the world is that these communities root their way of life—their social organization, their politics, their civics—in a seamlessly integrated perception of the world. This view consistently draws together spiritual awareness and biological knowledge to frame systems of governance. It is impossible, in other words, for many traditional people to imagine a social order not founded in ecological awareness and spiritual experience. The western doctrine of Progress, in contrast, stipulates that spiritual awareness and ecological knowledge are, ultimately, impediments to the smooth operation of any system of governance. The modern rise of spiritual writing and nature writing, in my view, is partly a response to this situation, by literary writers steeped in anthropology, comparative religion, the physical sciences, history, geography, and philosophy. It’s a reaction to a system of governance that seems to mistrust reverence, and to be organized around a sense of justice that does not extend beyond an immediate ethnic culture and which also pits humanity against organizations.
What lies beneath the varied subject matter of any good piece of spiritual writing today, I would argue, is an awareness that if Western culture—to stay within the realm of self-criticism—does not successfully imagine a way to incorporate ecological awareness (i.e., find the courage to confront major biological problems facing Homo sapiens, including global warming, diminished supplies of perennial fresh water, and a falloff in species diversity) and spirituality (Woodruff’s “capacities” for virtue) into its system of governance, it will go the way of Rome and the Khans, but with catastrophic consequences for everyone.
It’s worth recalling, as Woodruff does in his book, that within our foundling mythology is an often overshadowed but crucially important episode. After Prometheus gives us fire and, with that, technology, Zeus offers us reverence and justice. Without them, in Zeus’s view, no society, no matter how technologically adept, can stave off a disastrous end. Spiritual writing, to have a critical place in the forefront of American literature, must be about reinfusing our social order with ecological (i.e., communal) awareness and reinforcing behavior that responds to the call of Woodruff’s cardinal virtues.

A few months ago I traveled to a place I had wanted to see for many years, the relatively unpopulated basin-and-range country of southeastern Nevada. I came in from the east at dawn, across the Delamar Mountains and into the Pahranagat Valley. With the sun behind me in an unclouded sky and the air empty of dust, the landscape before me—the sage and rabbit-brush flats, bounded by ocherous scarps in the Mount Irish Range to the north and the Pahranagat Range to the south—looked like an etching plate, illuminated at a low angle by intense yellow light. Sharp contrast and crisp definition, wherever the eye attached itself.
I crossed Hancock Summit and descended into the northern end of the Tikaboo Valley. To the south and east, behind me, were the Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range and the Nevada Test Site. Ahead, the land was tightly covered with low, tawny brush, all growing to the same height. No tree rose anywhere in the basin.
No fence ran through it, no pylons carried high-tension wires into the distance, no microwave towers gleamed on the ridges. Cattle were nowhere drifting through. The lone human mark was the narrow, blacktop scribe of road that would take me to the far side of the valley. It ran empty and straight as a runway for sixteen miles.
I pulled off the road somewhere in the Tikaboo when a low movement above the brush caught my eye—a golden eagle, hunting. I watched it through binoculars, studying it and the several ravens coursing its wake. The valley was beautiful. It was charged with early daylight, set apart from the sky by the long sweep of its lines, the sky itself a pale canopy over the valley’s pointillist patterns. The glide, turn, and flapping rise of the eagle gave the scene a single stroke of animation and tension, in the way of shibui, the Japanese design principle that urges a gardener to leave two or three bright, fall-colored leaves behind on an otherwise immaculate surface of raked lawn.
The valley could have held herds of pronghorn antelope, but that morning it did not. It could have held herds of wild horses, but it did not, that I saw. I could have seen ten golden eagles hunting (as I would the next day); but here there was just the one and, a bit later, a second. I could have experienced, in that vastness and silence, in the plein-air bowl of that basin, with the cleave of early morning light incisive against that earth, a kind of ecstasy. But I did not. Perhaps because I was traveling alone. Perhaps because I was distracted by thoughts of home, and so not completely there.
Or perhaps because, that morning, nothing at all was compelled to occur.

Barry Lopez

Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Barry Lopez. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents


Foreword by Philip Zaleski xi Introduction by Barry Lopez xvii

Christopher Bamford. The Gift of the Call 1 from Parabola

Brian Blanchfield. The Acusmata of Pythagoras 10 from Jubilat

Scott Cairns. Replies to the Immediate 15 from Western Humanities Review

Richard Chess. Kaddish 16 from Image

Robert Cording. Advent Stanzas 18 from Southern Review

Harvey Cox. Best of Intentions 23 from Christian Century

Andy Crouch. The Emergent Mystique 33 from Christianity Today

Brian Doyle. Joyas Voladoras 43 from American Scholar

David James Duncan. The French Guy 46 from Portland

Jean Bethke Elshtain. “You Kill It, You Eat It,” and Other Lessons from My Thrifty Childhood 50 from In Character

Margaret Erhart. An Entomologist’s Dilemma 61 from Turning Wheel

Helen Garner. Sighs Too Deep for Words: On Being Bad at Reading the Bible 65 from Portland

Todd Gitlin. A Skull in Varanasi, a Head in Baghdad 74 from American Scholar

Natalie Goldberg. When the Candle Is Blown Out 79 from Shambhala Sun

Mary Gordon. Appetite for the Absolute 89 from Portland

Patricia Hampl. Pilgrim 98 from Granta

Brooks Haxton. Gift 104 from Atlantic Monthly

Edward Hirsch. Self-Portrait 105 from The New Yorker

Charles Johnson. Dr. King’s Refrigerator 106 from StoryQuarterly

Maria Poggi Johnson. Us and Them 112 from First Things

Heather King. Wonder Bread 119 from The Sun

Philip Levine. The Genius 125 from Georgia Review

Thomas Lynch. Passed On 127 from Christian Century

Bill McKibben. High Fidelity 130 from Christian Century

W. S. Merwin. To the Gods 133 from American Poetry Review

Richard John Neuhaus. Kierkegaard for Grownups 135 from First Things

Oliver Sacks. Speed 149 from The New Yorker

Huston Smith. The Master-Disciple Relationship 168 from Sophia

Gary Snyder. No Shadow 184 from The New Yorker

Dana Tierney. Coveting Luke’s Faith 185 from The New York Times Magazine

Ptolemy Tompkins. Two Short Essays 188 from The Sun

Kenneth L. Woodward. The Passion’s Passionate Despisers 190 from First Things

Charles Wright. Wrong Notes 197 from Virginia Quarterly Review

Franz Wright. Prescience 199 from The New Yorker

Contributors 203 Notable Spiritual Writing of 2004 209

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