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Eat, Pray, Love

August 26, 2010


Eat, Pray, Love

By Rev. Robert Barron

So many people had urged me to comment on the new film “Eat, Pray, Love” that I felt obligated to see it on its opening weekend. The theater in which I viewed the movie was pretty much full, and the gender ratio was approximately 92% female, 8% male. The storyline of “Eat, Pray, Love” adheres fairly closely to the classic spiritual quest trajectory. As the narrative commences, our heroine, Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts), finds herself in a sort of mid-life crisis. Her marriage has lost its spark, her job is going nowhere, and her friends don’t know how to help her. In one of the most affecting moment in the movie, Liz kneels down and, with tears, simply begs God to show her the way. 

She resolves that she will take a year away from her busy life in Manhattan and spend a third of the time in Rome (to enjoy its sensual pleasures), a third of the time at an ashram in India (to commune with her ex-boyfriend’s guru), and a third of the time in the Indonesian paradise of Bali (responding to the invitation of a Yoda-like wiseman whom she had met the previous year). In Rome, Liz indulges in the beauty of the architecture, revels in the delights of the Italian language, and above all, she eats and eats. As I watched this section of the film, I was put in mind of Pascal’s observation that we begin the spiritual journey on the level of the body, which is to say, of the senses and their attendant pleasures. There is nothing in the world wrong with eating, drinking, admiring, listening, and touching. In fact, really attending to these pleasures is of central importance, for one of the ways that properly spiritual progress is interrupted is to bypass, repress, or look down upon these elemental joys.

After a few months in Rome, Liz makes her way to India (the city is never specified) and participates in the life of a Hindu ashram, where she is schooled in the classic practices of chanting, silence, and meditation. After several months of ascetic exercise, she concludes that “God is in me, as me.” This is when I began to suspect there was something seriously wrong with Liz’s spiritual itinerary. She was gesturing toward the famous Hindu principle “Atman is Brahman,” meaning that the individual soul (Atman) finally becomes transparent to the source of all existence (Brahman), but her formulation seemed to me just a species of narcissism. If God is simply identified with the self (me), including all of its flaws and imperfections (as me), then any real conversion is ruled out and the ego has effectively deified itself.

Liz’s godlike self then moves on to Bali, where she promptly falls in with a handsome businessman played by Javier Bardem. When he proposes that they run off together to a favorite island of his, Liz balks, objecting that he is trying to dominate her. She eventually agrees to accompany him, but only when she is convinced that the journey is being undertaken on her terms. I suppose that this was supposed to count as the “love” part of the program, but again it seemed like self-indulgence to me, the natural consequence of the “God is in me, as me” principle.

Now what especially struck me about “Eat, Pray, Love” is that Liz, presumably a Christian by background and training, never once turned to a Christian spiritual teacher or advisor at any point in her quest. During the Rome part of the movie, we were treated to extraordinary photography, featuring the numberless churches of the Eternal City, but never once did Liz darken the door of any of those places of worship. There is a cute scene of Liz sitting on a bench next to a couple of nuns licking ice-cream cones, but it never occurs to our spiritual seeker to wonder about the spiritual path those habited women had found.

If she had followed a Christian path, it would have led her to a very different conclusion than “God is in me, as me.” Many great Christians—Dante, Augustine, and Ignatius of Loyola come readily to mind—began where Liz Gilbert did: lost, anxious, despairing. But they moved along very different trajectory. They commenced with detachment, which is to say, a letting go of anything other than God—pleasure, money, power, ego—that has taken the place of God. This had nothing to do with puritanism; it had everything to do with the right ordering of desire. Once they had passed through this purgative and spiritually clarifying process, they discovered the divine center—that God is indeed in them, but certainly not as them. They found God as the power that ordered all of their passions, energies, and talents and that then sent them on mission. The authentically Christian spiritual itinerary never ends with something as bland as “self-discovery.” Rather, it ends with the splendid privilege of participating in God’s own work of bringing grace into the world.

I very much admired Liz’s honest prayer, and I respected her willingness to go on a spiritual journey. I just wish she had asked one of those nuns for advice!