Three in the morning, and she's on the bathroom floor of her country house, sobbing. And not for any obvious reason. Elizabeth Gilbert, at 31, jets around the globe, writing travel pieces for GQ. She's published three books, all well-received. She's got a loving husband, a city apartment and a country retreat, money in the bank, eight phone lines, lots of friends.
So what's her problem?
I don't want this house. I don't want a baby. I don't want to be married.
These thoughts cycle and cycle. So do her sobs. Then Liz does something novel --- she starts to pray. Not in any formal way. She just...talks to God. She apologizes for getting in touch in the middle of the night and for being such a mess. But the thing is, she's in trouble: "I am in desperate need of help. I don't know what to do. I need an answer. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do. Please tell me what to do..."
She stops crying. She finds herself "surrounded by something I can only describe as a little pocket of silence." And she hears a voice. Not God's voice. Her own. But coming from a wise, calm and compassionate place. The voice says: "Go back to bed, Liz."
It's the right advice. It's also the beginning on an ongoing conversation with God. Seven months later, she leaves her husband. Starts a passionate affair --- is there another kind? --- with the wrong guy. But the wrong guy has a Guru, and Liz goes with him one night to chant. And she walks home "feeling like the air could move through me, like I was clean linen fluttering on a clothesline."
Not long after that, she hears the Guru lecture: "Her words gave me chill bumps over my whole body." The Guru, she learns, has an ashram in India. How soon can Liz get there?
For a devastated woman, Liz has no trouble getting what she wants. She scores a book contract to pay for her trip --- the book contract for this very book. The idea is that she will take a year to indulge three fantasies: living in Italy and learning Italian, an extended visit to the Guru's ashram, apprenticeship to a Wise Man in Bali.
Italy comes first. Liz has a pleasant time there, and her observations are amusing. But Italy is insubstantial --- it's just food, friendly people, architecture. India is where she's bound from the beginning, and it's where the reader wants to be as well. On New Year's Eve of 2004, we get there.
Just as she divulges nothing about the troubles in her marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert obscures the identity of her Guru. To no point --- she's Gurumayi, or Swami Chidvilasananda. Some of you, I'm sure, have her CDs or have read her books. From my own experience, I can attest that's she's extremely impressive. Her chanting comes straight from her soul and goes straight to yours. And when, in the course of a talk, she says that "You are loved more than you can possibly know," there is no way the blood doesn't rush to your heart and your eyes fill with tears.
For all that, the section about the ashram is a story of struggle. The prize is Elizabeth Gilbert's soul --- the stakes couldn't be higher. Will God's love overcome her resistance, her fear, her insistence on a writer's critical voice? Can she endure the early morning chant that drives her crazy? Can she drop her bitterness about the past and forgive those who wronged her --- for that matter, can she forgive herself? And, finally, can she believe the ultimate: "God dwells within you, as you."
I was reading this section for some time before I realized: This is the most intelligent writing about the minute-to-minute search for God I have ever read. That's because Elizabeth Gilbert is like us: American, urban, no-nonsense smart, self-deprecating in her wit, sharp of eye and tongue. Hers is a trip we can take with her, can identify with. And we do. Well, I do --- and the result is a thriller a lot more compelling than The Da Vinci Code. Her stakes are our stakes. We want her to win big because we too want to know God. Or, at the very least, to grasp that God can be known.
So it disturbs me not at all that, one blissful night, a writer published by Conde Nast hugs and kisses a tree. Or sits in a cave-like room all night, not praying. She no longer needs to: "I have become a prayer." I'll even listen to her advice: "Keep searching....be sincere."
On to Bali. She finds love and sex --- and in that unusual order, too --- and a happy ending. Nice. But the climax of the book came earlier. Indeed, the value of the book was that hundred-page section on India. It is weird to recommend that you focus on a third of a book --- it's not like you can buy only a fraction of it --- but that third is such a rich meal you may not care.
Om Namah Shivaya. "I honor the divinity that resides within me."Elizabeth Gilbert certainly does.