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Spirituality & Practice (October 2006)
(www.spiritualityandpractice.com)


A Private History of Awe
Scott Russell Sanders

North Point Press 02/06 Hardcover $0.00
ISBN: 0865476934

review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

In Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys, Scott Russell Sanders, father of two and a teacher, presents his reasons for being hopeful about the future. Instead of a grand synthesis, he offers an engaging series of “memories, images, hunches, and tales, all drawn from the muddle of ordinary life.” He calls his latest book, A Private History of Awe, a coming-of-age memoir, love story, and spiritual testament. The Indiana author shares intimate details about his childhood and youth on a farm in Memphis, Tennessee, and outside a military arsenal in Ohio. Sanders studied physics at Brown University and finished his graduate work in English literature as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University in 1971. He has taught English at Indiana University for many years.


This is an extraordinary book. Sanders explores what he calls awe, a tough term to pin down because of its rich religious meanings and associations. He writes:

“Saints and bodhisattvas may achieve what Christians call mystical union or Buddhists call satori — a perpetual awareness of the force at the heart of things. For these enlightened few, the world is always lit. For the rest of us, such clarity comes only fitfully, in sudden glimpses or slow revelations. Quakers refer to these insights as ‘openings.’ When I first heard the term, from a Friend in England who was counseling me about my resistance to the Vietnam War, I thought of how, on an overcast day, sunlight pours through a break in the clouds. After the clouds drift on, eclipsing the sun, the sun keeps shining behind the veil, and the memory of its light shines on in the mind.”


Sanders recounts occasions when he was awed by the natural world, encounters with death, the wonders of science, the beauty of the Bible, places, literature, and family legacies. During the time in which he was writing this book, he spent many hours caring for Elizabeth, his first grandchild, and his mother who had sunk in old age into “a wordless stupor.” He laments that “the mind’s grip on language and meaning is less secure than the body’s grip on life.” At the same time, he rejoices in the vitalities and delights of the infant. It is fascinating and touching to read his commentaries on “the infant climbing up a steep slope, the old woman sliding down.” He admits:


“My dearest wish for Elizabeth, as for Eva and Jesse, is that she will never lose touch with the wonder of being alive, that she will never cease to be amazed by the sensations flowing into her. Right now she meets the world without preconceptions, without carving it into categories, without dismissing anything as already known. She has no habits. While her beginner’s mind will cloud over as she grows, I pray that she will never forget this clarity of perception. I pray that throughout her life she will find ways of recovering a newborn’s freshness. What I wish for Elizabeth, for my own daughter and son, and for all of us blessed with consciousness is not that we remain children forever but that we remain forever awake to the astonishing isness of things.”

Sanders notes that his hunger for awe has remained strong over the years despite disappointments with the Christian community and its failure to enact what Jesus said about killing and kindness. He comes down on the side of nonviolence as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. He salutes the strong spiritual perspectives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. His Quaker insights shine through his coverage of this subject. In one paragraph (how helpful it would be for all of us to be so succinct), he sums up the special gifts passed on to him by each of his parents:
“The very differences that set my parents at odds made our household a nourishing place for me. I moved back and forth between my mother’s realm and my father’s realm like an ambassador or a spy. In the house and garden, I learned from Mama to love books, to revel in flowers, to honor my feelings, to appreciate the shape and texture and tone of things, to confess amazement. In the garage and barn and woods, working alongside Dad, I learned to love animals, to delight in the use of tools, to admire good work and the skill required to do it, to laugh at myself and the whole quirky human race, to rejoice in the wild energy flowing through my body and the earth.”


Sanders saves the best for last — his deep and abiding love for his wife Ruth whom he courted for five years and married in 1967. He claims that making love has carried him “as close to the center of awe as anything I’d ever experienced.”


This remarkable memoir is beautifully written, and it delivers a complex and rich vision of the important spiritual practice of awe. Sanders tutors us in the art of paying attention to what is going on within and around us. He makes it clear that awe can slow us down and tame our egos as we confront the powers of nature, truth, justice, and death. Awe and a concern for the environment and peace go together in his vision. Wonder is also a part of this practice, and Sanders leads us playfully into these fields again and again. Bravo!


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