Cover image for Searching for your soul : writers of many faiths share their personal stories of spiritual discovery
Searching for your soul : writers of many faiths share their personal stories of spiritual discovery
Kurs, Katherine, 1956-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Schocken Books, [1999]

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xxix, 475 pages ; 21 cm
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BL72 .S38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Reflections on the importance of religion include contributions by such authors as Margot Adler, Rita Dove, Mary Gordon, James McBride, Kathleen Norris, and Malcolm X.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this remarkable collection, Kurs, who teaches religious studies at the New School of Social Research, has gathered a rich variety of autobiographical writings on spiritual matters. Writers both contemporary and historicalÄranging from Augustine, Thomas Merton and Mohandas Gandhi to Dan Wakefield, Dennis Covington and Kathleen NorrisÄreflect upon such questions as: "Who or what is God, or the holy, for me?"; "Who are my spiritual ancestors?"; "When did I begin to lose my sense of connection to the holy and to the world around me and how do I regain it?" In the section on "Flesh and Spirit," for example, Gandhi recounts how his struggle with lust led to his vow of celibacy, and contemporary poet Kim Barnes (In the Wilderness) recalls the conflict between her desire for holiness and her desire for boys that she felt as an adolescent. In the section on "Suffering and Mortality," San Quentin death-row inmate Jarvis Jay Masters (Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row) uses Buddhist meditation to contemplate his past life and to enact the Eightfold Path of noble living as he faces the remaining days of his life. Finally, in the section on "Exploration and Encounter," Diana Eck (From Bozeman to Benares) vividly describes how her encounter with Hinduism forced her to more fully examine her own Methodist religious roots. Every piece in Kurs's collection pulsates with life, inspiring readers in their own spiritual paths. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Autobiography lends credibility. This is the underlying premise of this fascinating anthology from writers describing their personal journey of spiritual discovery. Anyone who has struggled to find his or her own religious "center" will be quickly drawn into the wonderful variety of approaches taken in this collection. Although most of the writers were Christian, the memoirs include Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim experiences. Contemporary American writers from the 1940s onward predominate (e.g., Kathleen Norris, bell hooks, and Dan Wakefield), so it is difficult to understand the jarring inclusion of St. Augustine and Carl Jung. Most of these works are striking passages from complete books, and Kurs (spiritual/pastoral counselor and professor of religious studies at the New School for Social Research and Empire University of the State of New York) has chosen well. Interestingly, many of the selections describe the feelings and struggles connected with conversion from one religion to another, while others describe turning away from religion altogether. Readers will find themselves looking to the complete text to get the "rest of the story." Recommended for all larger religion collections.ÄOlga B. Wise, Compaq Computers Inc., Austin, TX (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Ever since I can remember, I have known two worlds. The concrete, day-to-day physical world--deadlines, desks, dinner--the world of manifestation; and another world, the spiritual world of mystery, the world of God. When I search now through the earliest recesses of my spiritual memories, I can see a little me, begging my mother to let me watch The Nun's Story for the umpteenth time on the Late, Late, Late Show. When Audrey Hepburn and the other, less beautiful nuns make full prostration in their long, stark habits, I do the same in a secret place inside myself. I was seven when The Sound of Music was released. I went with my second-grade class and rooted for Maria, the flibbertigibbet postulant, to forget about Captain von Trapp and all those children and go right back into the serene, God-infused world of the convent perched on top of a snowy Salzburg mountain. I must have been nine or so when I fixed my heart on a doll called Lonely Lisa from a B. Altman's catalogue. With her golden blonde hair and large brown eyes, Lisa was toddler size and probably about my age in doll years. She was the perfect companion for an only child and I was thrilled when my mother agreed that I could have her for Christmas. When she arrived, after admiring her for a brief period as she was, I took off her calico dress and carefully laid it aside. I found some material in my mother's sewing basket and worked for several days with an inner determination. Soon my project was finished. I dressed Lisa in a new outfit I had made specially for her--a nun's habit, including black "rosary beads" at her waist. Lisa got to keep her black slippers (they matched her new, true identity), but her blonde hair was hidden behind her wimple. Her spiritual transformation was now complete. For a little Catholic girl, perhaps there would be nothing very remarkable about these yearnings, but it was different for me. I was born a Jew. My father was a hard-headed realist who came of age during the Depression on the Lower East Side of New York, the first-generation son of Russian immigrants. Taking over his father's paper-box business, he had no time for anything other than utter self-reliance. Work hard, rise early, and mind your business. Believe in only what you can bank on--and he meant it, literally. The Almighty Dollar, he used to call it, and on Yom Kippur this Jew would get up and go to work. The only respite was on certain Sunday mornings in winter. While my mother slept late, I would dress myself, and my father and I would drive to the edge of Brooklyn to buy "appetizing"--smoked sable carp, lox, and pickled herring--Jewish food. As the car windows slowly defrosted, I settled in next to him for the drive, breathing in the reassuring smell of his worn-in tan windbreaker. The parkways merged into highways, Queens blurring into Brooklyn, while I listened sleepily to the stories of the Bal Shem Tov that he tuned in on the car radio. This was all I knew of Judaism. My mother was no better equipped to show me the religious tradition of my birth. She came from a poor but arty Jewish family, her father a temperamental tailor who thought he was sewing couture and preferred finishing a seam to studying the parashah. Her mother--dark, flamboyant, and part Mongolian--gave her only son, my mother's brother, a pat on the head and violin lessons instead of a bar mitzvah. My mother's rite of initiation was to join the Ringling Brothers circus. She became the lady on the flying trapeze, defying gravity, trusting the inner rhythm of the body as she went swinging into outer space with nothing to hold her here below. In every way, her sense of the physical went beyond this world. For my mother, the universe teemed with souls and spirits, disincarnate entities, all somehow governed by the valence and pull of heavenly bodies. When I was growing up, people routinely phoned to let her know about their most recent trip to Mars or Jupiter, to which she responded as enthusiastically as if they had just returned from Europe or a posh Caribbean cruise. Others pleaded with her to read their cards or to accept an invitation to an upcoming seance. I'd wake in the middle of the night, as children often do, for a visit to the bathroom or to get some juice, and I'd see her in the den, lighting candles, reading little books on spell casting or astrology, throwing the I Ching or laying out the tarot deck in a new pattern. Her present was bleak; perhaps the future would be better. "You have a good head on your shoulders," my father told me on one of those rare occasions when he felt like complimenting me, but it was really to remind me that I belonged to his side of the family. I was practical, quick, and organized, and I positively reeked with a sober maturity. But I also had no head on my shoulders at all. I could touch and see things that were not there, at least not there in a normal, everyday sense. Traveling ecstatically in inner space, I would sit in meditation for hours, watching my breath drop to nothing and feeling my body fade far away as I left my constantly arguing parents and this confusing world behind to draw closer and closer to God. As a child, the stillness of empty churches called to me. When I reached the age when I was able to venture out on my own, I would retrace my steps toward my elementary school, passing through the arch that separated the outside, predominantly Jewish, area of Forest Hills where I lived, from the high-WASP precincts of turreted mansions, hidden closes, and cul-de-sacs. There, streets were quiet, voices were hushed, and Protestant churches abounded: silent, stately, and serene. Episcopal, Congregational, Presbyterian, they were indistinguishable to me. At that age, I knew nothing of denominations. What I sought was the cool silence of these spaces where, on a weekday afternoon, I could kneel alone in front of a cross and pray to Jesus Christ. Was he human or divine? I did not know, but the sibilant sound of his name rang holy inside me. I felt his power, the power of another world merging with this one, moving through me as I uttered his name like a secret prayer. I stayed there for hours, transfixed, with Christ riding on my breath. But then there was the weekend warmth of listening to elderly rebbes from the old country, real Jews, telling stories on the radio layered with meaning and sad irony. And my craving for the weight of my father's bread and potatoes that my mother, who traveled through the ethers, derided as "peasant food." The world of the mind. The world of the spirit. The world of the rational. The world of the intuitive. The world of the Christian. The world of the Jew. In which world, then, would I live? Standing in the fading lavender light of an April afternoon the day before Easter, now nearing my mid-twenties, I bend over the baptismal font at the cavernous Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Everything feels cool here. The stone floor. The gaze of the priest. Especially the air, like having climbed to a high altitude where the atmosphere is thin and rarefied. I can hardly breathe. A cross, given me by a friend moments before, grazes my skin and I shiver. After years of waiting, I am about to belong to Him. As the Cathedral grows dark, the rose window at the end of the nave hovers seemingly in mid-air. In a white silk blouse and a long, beige Brooks Brothers skirt, I kneel in front of the majestic, patrician bishop as he seals me in baptism with water and the holy chrism. Tracing the sign of the cross on my forehead with the oil he has blessed, he nearly boxes my ears as he holds my head in his enormous hands and marks me as "Christ's own forever." I thought of my adult baptism into the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Episcopal Church of the Anglican Communion as my spiritual homecoming, the culmination of all those years of living like a Marrano in reverse--the Jew who knew Christ in secret. Over the years, I had gradually trained myself to move away from the contemplative, solitary meditation and prayer of my youth to participation in the life of the Church. I altered my inner, spiritual rhythms of yearning and longing, praying and dreaming, to suit the rhythm of the ecclesia: Now you stand; now you kneel. When you pass the altar, always genuflect. Cross yourself at the Benedictus. At the name of Jesus, bow your head. Guide the chalice to your lips and then remember to say "Amen." There was much to learn and I craved every detail, studied every nuance, as though encountering up close for the very first time the revelation of the true nature of my Beloved, and I wanted my responses to be almost instinctive. Every movement, every act in the Church, was charged with meaning and mystery, and every gesture I mirrored took me past another boundary. I wanted to absorb--and become--everything that would allow me to know Christ more intimately, and, at the same time, enable me to pass undetected as an insider, as though I had been born to love Him this way. One wintry Sunday, after the conclusion of the liturgy, I sat far back near the crossing in the frigid cathedral where no one might see me. Balancing The Book of Common Prayer on my lap, my fingers cramping from the icy air and the clandestine urgency of my task, I hurriedly copied out the Nicene Creed into a little notebook so that I could memorize it at home, not knowing that one could buy an inexpensive edition of the prayer book just steps away in the swanky cathedral gift shop. I was convinced that all this ecclesiastical knowledge and etiquette were the privilege and the birthright of "cradle Episcopalians"--I found out early on what "the natives" were called--and intuited that I would have to learn it all in secret, and learn it well. And so I did. But each time the liturgy began and I heard the far-off approach of the incense-bearer preparing the way of the Lord, rhythmically swinging the thurible on its chain down that impossibly long cathedral nave, I was transported by a spiritual ecstasy that was no learned response. The clouds of frankincense and myrrh that hung heavy in its wake, the scent of anointing the body for love or death, simultaneously veiled and unveiled God before my eyes. Even then, I did not wish for myself the nun's habit I swooned over as a child. The mystery of the Eucharist called me closer to the altar than that. I searched and listened, waiting to learn the name of what I was made to be. One very still morning in church, while I was kneeling in the pew and watching the consecration of bread and wine during the Mass, another reality became visible to me, beyond what was apparent at the altar. As a child, I had often experienced two different, but always separate, realities--the world of the material and the world of the spiritual. However, in this moment, when the bread and wine were transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ through the words and hands of the priest, in my spiritual "sight" these two worlds commingled. Each was somehow made holy by the other, and Christ's presence, so real to me then, suffused them both. In some mysterious way, the separation of "worlds" within me began to come together as Christ's presence passed through me as well. I realized that all my youthful hours of meditation and prayer had laid the spiritual groundwork for what I had just witnessed in the Mass. It was then that I knew instinctively that Christ had been preparing me all these years so that I might now serve him as a priest at his altar. Such was the urgency with which I experienced this calling to priesthood that it never occurred to me not to respond, or even to say no. Wanting to begin preparing for the ordained ministry at the first possible opportunity, I had applied to divinity school months before my formal initiation into the Church took place. The party at my favorite Indian restaurant on the night of my baptism also celebrated the acceptance letter I'd received the week before from Harvard, welcoming me to its hallowed halls of veritas that coming fall. Newly Episcopalian, immersing myself in the nuances of the Bible and Church history, sipping sherry at the Dean's tea in wood-paneled drawing rooms with leaded glass windows and roaring fires, at Harvard Divinity School I would receive not only first-rate preparation for the ministry but would at last possess that genteel Ivy League "finishing school" education that had, thus far, eluded me. My call, once named--though at the beginning, whispered just within the confines of my own heart--was so strong, and I felt so full of God's desire, that I believed my path from the baptismal font to the altar would be as clear as the straight highway in the desert that Isaiah saw laid out, unbroken, through the wilderness of this world. But the long road I traveled from the moment of baptism when I lifted my face streaming with sanctified water, to a moment fifteen years later when I would stand in synagogue in front of the Ark of the Covenant, feeling the weight of the Torah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a journey that I never could have imagined. One divinity degree. One Ph.D. Three years spent in England, the Anglican homeland, where I had been part of the clergy team at a prominent, progressive London parish. I prepared for ordination in every way I knew how: through prayer and practice, study and service; through endless hours pastoring and preaching, teaching and leading church services. The call to priesthood grew ever stronger in my soul as I took on more and more parish responsibilities and congregation members affirmed my ministry. Sunday after Sunday, assisting the priest at the altar, utterly immersed in the life of the Church, I imagined myself soon being able to celebrate the Eucharist, standing in that place where God's worlds "came together." But shortly after I returned to New York from England and began the Episcopal Church's process for Holy Orders, I was turned down for ordination. In a single moment, I experienced the shattering of my reason for being in the world. I thought I had known something about how to listen to the still voice of God, how to give expression to this fire, this passion, that I felt within. All these years, I thought I had done everything that God had asked of me. What could God possibly be asking of me now? As I reeled from the shock of learning that I would not be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, I struggled to be supportive of my then-husband, a Prince Charles look-alike who disdained the Anglican Christianity of his upper-crust, English birthright and hoped one day to embrace Judaism. One Saturday, I reluctantly agreed to accompany him to a synagogue he had discovered near our Upper West Side apartment. I figured that some religious commitment was better for him than none, since he had always been unwilling to attend church. But I was in no way prepared for my own response. I, who had only known rapture in those high Gothic spaces reaching toward heaven, was astonished with what I found in this particular synagogue--my first significant encounter with Judaism. Instead of the "three point," twenty-minute sermons I was used to in church, here were rabbis who were eloquent and learned on the subjects of meaning and being, spontaneously questioning each other in a lengthy dialogue in which the congregation joined in! I alternated between staring outright and averting my eyes in embarrassment as I watched them praying to God with unabashed love and passion, the kind of holy adoration and abandon that I, too, had once known before I became so well-trained in the restrained, highly choreographed movements of Anglican liturgy. In church, I always wanted to wrestle with the Bible passages, bridling when I was instructed to tone down my intellectual streak. But here in this synagogue, the rabbis revered the text yet still challenged it--and God--and to do so, they said, was, in Judaism, a sacred act. No longer was I out of place with my love of learning and voracious reading habits, my desire to talk late into the night with all my friends over food and more food, uncovering layer after layer of meaning--in ideas, in books, in life. Suddenly, so many of the things that had made me stick out as "too intense" in church all had a context. Alongside of the Anglican I had become, I found I was also a Jew. It is years later now. The early autumn light is dimming; the Yom Kippur fast has begun. I surround myself in my tallit, white Ethiopian homespun riven with silver and black, drawing this prayer shawl over my head. I reach for the Torah without hesitation, the force of my body ready to receive it. I accept its weight, its curved bulk, against me, as I take it in my arms at last. Just beyond where I stand in front of the Ark, the cantor begins to chant the Kol Nidrei --solemn and dark. My eyes closed, I rock from side to side, shutting out the enormous congregation, the rising heat of this unusually warm fall day, and the sight of my beloved rabbis nearby dressed in Yom Kippur white. I am utterly focused within this embrace. I touch the scroll gently through its velvet covering, questioning, stroking, as though I could penetrate its layers and somewhere, among all its words in a language I barely understand, I would find--and grasp--my lineage at last. For years, I remained caught in the gravitational pull between the two spheres that transited through me, Christian and Jew, these two ways through which I knew God. Holding the Torah so close to me now in front of the eyes of the assembly, seven years after my first encounter with Judaism, I have passed through the gate. Having embraced this covenant, now there is no turning back. Moments later, at my seat in the crowded synagogue, we all joyously sing the Shehechyanu--Praised are you, Adonai our God, for granting us life, for sustaining us, and for helping us to reach this day. The solemnity of the Kol Nidrei lifts, and the sudden contrast jars me to attention and I wonder: Had I somehow been led deliberately on this painful and perplexing path that had once seemed so singular and clear? Had it all, somehow, been inevitable? Looking back over these years, can I discern the hand of God at work? As I moved back and forth from church to synagogue, searching for my spiritual identity and my sense of place in the world, I began to intentionally, deliberately, seek out and read spiritual autobiography. In short, I needed to find another kind of spiritual "company." Had anyone else ever searched the way I did? Made wrong turns? Tried to realize a deep calling? And, even more confusing and embarrassing perhaps, had not succeeded and needed then to re-create and reevaluate his or her life? I began to comb the religion section of my local bookstores, but I also explored the literature, memoir, biography, history, poetry, anthropology, and psychology shelves looking for the life stories of others who had tried to respond to a spiritual imperative. I needed to learn what had catalyzed as well as impeded them, and how they made spiritual sense out of outwardly random yet deeply connected events and occurrences. In the face of disappointment, I craved to know how they continued to serve and pray, watch and listen. I wanted to hear what had happened to their faith, to their families and communities, to their engagement with the world around them, to their sense of self, their experience of God, and to their response to the holy. What did they do with their pain and despair? During this process, I revisited the writings of Thomas Merton and Mohandas Gandhi that I'd read years earlier as a teenager, trying to make sense of my spiritual inclinations. I also discovered a whole range of new autobiographical writings on spirituality and religion that spoke to me with urgency. I pondered the many Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim mystics who offered profound testimonies of living lives in a state of deep longing for God. And I looked again at the early Church apologists and martyrs whom I had read in my divinity school classes, then only on the lookout for their theological constructions. As I read through these diverse stories, I began to notice familiar markers on the spiritual landscape. There were, indeed, patterns in the spiritual life that began to emerge as these writers, each in their own way, explored their lives. In 1994, I began to teach religious studies at the college level and, unsurprisingly, one of the first courses I put together was "Readings in Spiritual Autobiography." It seemed to me that my students, many of whom were returning to school at an older age, had more than just an academic interest in the topic. It soon became clear that their spiritual and existential questions sat right alongside of the more scholarly concerns that they hoped to pursue. But once again, just as when I began to read these accounts with my own circumstances in mind, there was no book, no compendium, of spiritual autobiographies which I could hand to them to read. It was then that the idea for this book was born. The spiritual autobiographies that follow offer reflections upon some of the most meaningful and most difficult questions many of us ask of ourselves: Who or what is God, or the holy, for me? What are the sources of my spirituality? Who are my spiritual "ancestors"? When did I begin to lose my sense of "connection" to the holy and to the world around me and how do I regain it? How do I "come home," spiritually speaking? What is my life for? What am I meant to express or do or be in this world? Is my life part of a greater plan? Who am I, truly, in God's sight? When I face a crisis, what inner resources will I have within me to help me through? What will endure from my life? What is my relationship to mainstream religious observance? If I don't pray or believe in God, can I still have something called a "spiritual life"? The majority of writings in this anthology are by contemporary Western writers from a range of beliefs and backgrounds. But historical voices are also included; concern with the state of one's soul and one's relationship to God is not just a preoccupation of the late twentieth century. I have cast the net of spiritual autobiography widely. While some writers refer to God in highly theistic terms and experience God as a central figure in their lives, for others, God is barely hinted at or even mentioned by any name at all. Some of these writers may have embraced a non-theistic spiritual path, such as Buddhism. Others may be more comfortable focusing on their ethnic or cultural heritage and their storehouse of family customs and memories. All describe a profound search and process of self-transformation that is, in my view, spiritual in nature. Written by women and men from a wide range of backgrounds, these autobiographies illustrate lives filled with questioning and quest. Some are raw and disturbing; others are transporting in their lyrical, poetic power. Markers of identity such as race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability, location in time, and a sense of place often play a significant role in their narratives, helping to frame and give context to their experiences. Yet despite the diversity and differences in the backgrounds of these writers, a number of common themes emerge, and these themes have inspired the five sections that organize this book. What is central to all the autobiographies found in the first section, "Secrets and Revelation," is the quest for, or the discovery of, concealed information about ourselves and others that has the ability to affect our spiritual identity and sense of self. There are three "kinds" of secrets found in this section. In the excerpts from books by Julius Lester, Mary Gordon, and Louise Kehoe, we read about the secrets that others, sometimes our families, keep from us about who they really are in terms of religious background or heritage, and the spiritual "detective work" that finally reveals what we have inherited. And then there are those secrets about ourselves which we know, consciously or unconsciously, but do not fully reveal--to others or to ourselves. For Jan Morris, Antonio Feliz, and Lauren Slater, secrets about self-identity and spirituality are interwoven. Finally, as we read in Nancy Mairs's essay, there are those devastating secrets that others reveal to us, catching us totally unaware and unsuspecting. Once disclosed, we are forced to use all our spiritual resources to cope and respond. The second section, "Ancestors and Tradition," focuses on our spiritual and religious lineage and background; those connections and customs, rites, and rituals that we have inherited from our families and the religion into which we were born. Looking back, how do we locate our spiritual selves in relation to where we came from? What have we held on to and what have we left behind? Sometimes our spiritual and religious lineage is centered on a specific place or time. Beverly Coyle, bell hooks, James McBride, Mary McCarthy, and Rita Dove all bring us back to their early years, offering moving recollections of their childhood faith and worshipping communities. Charles Fenyvesi, Kathleen Norris, and Albert Raboteau travel to ancestral homelands in search of the sources of their spirituality. Our connections to the religious traditions of our birth can often be touched with sadness and estrangement. The selections by Randall Balmer and Carl Jung relate the often painful process of disenchantment--moving away from the religious traditions in which they were each raised. Yet the late Paul Cowan describes the joyous reconnection with the religious roots and spiritual "home" he had never really, fully, known. And Margot Adler, who grew up with multiple traditions and influences, shows us that we can be powerfully linked to another kind of spiritual lineage, perhaps not of birth, but of soul or temperament. The stories in "Flesh and Spirit," the third section, describe the complex and often uneasy relationship between the physical longings of the body and the spiritual longings of the soul. Many of the writers explore the tension between their desire for sensual, sexual, embodied love and companionship with another person, and their desire to renounce those yearnings and commit themselves wholly to God. Mohandas Gandhi, so filled with shame because of his lust, finally takes a vow of celibacy so that he might focus all his energy on the struggle for India's freedom and on his own quest for God. Though separated by centuries, Thomas Merton and St. Augustine, as well as the married medieval mystic Margery Kempe, are all united in their holy callings, leaving behind the pleasures of physical relationships. Social activist Dorothy Day painfully recounts the relationship that she sacrificed when she decided to be baptized. Kim Barnes struggles with the prohibitions of her strict Christian family and church community while her adolescent desire for the boy in the next pew blossomed. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison recalls the stirrings that filled her with the fear of sin and the judgment of God as a teenage Jehovah's Witness. For some, such as Don Belton, Jyl Lynn Felman, and bell hooks, the themes of flesh and spirit are interwoven with their spirituality rather than in opposition to it. The powerful, same-sex longings of Belton and of Felman are tied to their families' respective religious and cultural expectations of what makes a real--that is, a heterosexual--man or woman. bell hooks, however, offers a sensual, poetic description of her preparation for baptism in which flesh and spirit, body and soul, at last come together. Finally, the excerpt from Richard Gilman's memoir treats this theme in yet another way--focusing on the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, embodied and united in the sacraments of bread and wine, body and blood, and consumed to assuage both physical and spiritual hunger. "Suffering and Mortality" groups the essays in the fourth section, which includes a range of human experiences involving physical and emotional pain, loss, and crisis. Bradford Morrow recollects, moment by moment, thought by thought, the illness that delivered him close to death while the long-forgotten verses of the 23rd Psalm streamed through his mind. Jarvis Jay Masters, on San Quentin's Death Row, relies on the Buddhist practice of meditation and compassion to get him peacefully through whatever is left of his life. Dan Wakefield faced despair, depression, and addiction prior to his own spiritual transformation. Martin Luther King, Jr., who so often preached about the sufferings of a people, writes of his own faith in light of personal difficulties and danger. Jeanne DuPrau turns to the non-theistic teachings of Zen Buddhism to help her face the loss of Sylvia, her beloved life partner. Kathryn Harrison, a convert to Catholicism, creates a complex "Trinitarian" narrative that unites "Mother, Death, and God." When Terry Tempest Williams's mother dies of cancer, her faith and tradition provide her with comfort and strength; but when Letty Cottin Pogrebin's mother dies all-too-suddenly from cancer, the boundaries of her religion, policed by her father, deny her from truly mourning this profound loss. In the final section, "Exploration and Encounter," we see what can happen when we venture forth from the "safe harbor" of the religion in which we were raised, to encounter another tradition and a different set of beliefs. Some of the writers in this section--Lawrence Shainberg, Sue Bender--are spiritual seekers, intentionally exploring religious traditions or practices other than the ones in which they were raised. Perhaps they are responding to feelings of spiritual dissatisfaction or restlessness. Or perhaps unexpected circumstances bring them into contact with new religious experiences, such as when journalist Dennis Covington goes to rural Appalachia to cover a murder trial and finds himself worshipping in a snake handling Holiness church. James Oakley, the youngest writer in this collection, recalls his search for God in the midst of perilous encounters with Christian fundamentalism followed by years of drugs and then rehabilitation. Encountering a different religious tradition can often force us to look more closely and more deliberately at who we are and what we believe. Roman Catholic George Dardess's encounter with Islam, and Methodist Christian Diana Eck's and James Karpen's encounters with Hinduism and Judaism, respectively, bring them right up to the edge of their own beliefs. Ari Goldman, an Orthodox Jew who goes to Harvard to study religion, faces the spiritual challenge of "the Other" with trepidation and wariness. Mohja Kahf, a Syrian Muslim who grew up isolated in the Midwest, experiences years of racial and religious slurs aimed at her "otherness"; yet when she and her family relocate to a more diverse city, she finds herself ill-prepared and reluctant to reach out beyond her Muslim community. Karen McCarthy Brown, a professor of anthropology, pushes past the boundaries imposed by her scholarly work and is initiated into the Haitian vodou culture that she has studied for so long. In an excerpt from his autobiography, Malcolm X remembers the difficulty he faced within himself as he prepared to accept Islam. Finally, unlike the other writers in this section, Bernadette Roberts, a former nun, engages in spiritual exploration not through embracing different practices as Shainberg does with Zen Buddhism; or  through travels to other lands and cultures like Bender's visit to the Amish or Eck's sojourn in Banaras, but inwardly, through contemplation. There, Roberts encounters a vast Otherness, equal to any outward journey or spiritual challenge described here. It is probably clear by now that a number of these essays, slotted into one particular category might easily fit into another. In fact, the themes that divide this anthology also unite a great many of these essays. Therefore, I invite you to read some of these pieces through the "lens" of a different category and see what emerges through a second, or even a third, reading. Yet even on the printed page, we are, ultimately, "works in progress," and what I believe these stories demonstrate is that the spiritual life is much more nuanced, and much more riddled with trepidation and ambiguity, than we might have ever imagined or foreseen. Spiritual autobiographies often resound with what we might call "outsiderness." Many of the people whose work we read here experience themselves to be significantly different in some way, not "fitting in," or even alienated from the world around them--a state that sometimes seems to be caused or exacerbated by their quest. Frequently, they maintain an uneasy relationship to organized religion, and their seeking takes place "on the margins." While a few authors describe a strong sense of "having arrived" at a place of spiritual stasis, many more suggest that the spiritual life is dynamic, always in flux. We read of transcendence and enlightenment that lasts for a millisecond and ecstasy that is fleeting at best and very hard to sustain. The depression and feelings of immense loss that sometimes follow spiritual "highs" become, for many, intertwined with a relentless longing that, in turn, continues to fuel the search. Attempting to live a spiritual life can indeed be a confusing and painful experience beset with obstacles and detours, rather than filled with the bliss we might have expected. The autobiographies collected in this anthology offer companionship, helping us to understand our own frequently perplexing journeys. They recall moments of profound meaning and insight that are part of the process of human transformation, how we all get from "here to there"--even if we are only talking about the movement that takes place within our souls. These testimonies can inspire us when our own connection to anything spiritual seems just a vague memory. They can provide reassurance when we feel isolated and misunderstood in our quest. When we are about to stumble, they can be the "lookout" just ahead. When we get "uppity" or spiritually complacent or lazy, they challenge us to begin again. And in those moments of union when we are indeed filled with a sense of the holy, they echo our joy. Excerpted from Searching for Your Soul: Writers of Many Faiths Share Their Personal Stories of Spiritual Discovery by Katherine Kurs All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

IntroductionKatherine Kurs
I Secrets and Revelation Here: GraceNancy Mairs
FromIn This Dark HouseLouise Kehoe
FromConundrumJan Morris
FromThe Shadow ManMary Gordon
Three SpheresLauren Slater Personal Dichotomies and Antonio Feliz
FromLovesong: Becoming a JewJulius Lester II
Ancestors and Tradition FromBone Blackbell hooks
FromWhen the World Was WholeCharles Fenyvesi
Ghosts: A HistoryKathleen Norris
The Old Testament/The New TestamentJames McBride
FromMemories of a Catholic GirlhoodMary McCarthy
FromHeretic's Heart: A Journey Through Spirit and RevolutionMargot Adler
FromAn Orphan in HistoryPaul Cowan
FromMemories, Dreams, ReflectionsCarl Jung
TakingMartha with MeBeverly Coyle
The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the EphesiansRita Dove
The Generation of FaithRandall Balmer
In Search of the Thin PlaceAlbert Jordy Raboteau III
Flesh and Spirit My Father's HouseDon Belton
FromIn the WildernessKim Barnes
If Only I'd Been Born a Kosher ChickenJyl Lynn Felman
FromVisions of GloryBarbara Grizzuti Harrison
FromThe Story of My Experiments with TruthMohandas Gandhi
FromThe Book of Margery KempeMargery Kempe
FromThe Long LonelinessDorothy Day
FromBone Blackbell hooks
FromThe Seven Storey MountainThomas Merton
FromThe ConfessionsSt. Augustine
FromFaith, Sex, MysteryRichard Gilman IV
Suffering and Mortality Catherine Means PureKathryn Harrison
Meditations on a ShadowBradford Morrow
FromThe Earth HouseJeanne DuPrau
Suffering and FaithMartin Luther King, Jr. Tylenol
Prayer BeadsJarvis Jay Masters
FromReturning: A Spiritual JourneyDan Wakefield
FromDeborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in AmericaLetty Cottin Pogrebin
FromRefugeTerry Tempest Williams V
Exploration and Encounter FromSalvation on Sand MountainDennis Covington
FromThe Search for God at HarvardAri L. Goldman
Papa Ogou, Do You Take This Woman?Karen McCarthy Brown Satan
SavedMalcolm X
FromThe Experience of No-SelfBernadette Roberts
FromAmbivalent ZenLawrence Shainberg
Around the Ka'ba and Over the CrickMohja Kahf
FromPlain and Simple: A Woman's Journey to the AmishSue Bender
FromEncountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to BanarasDiana Eck
When a Christian Chants the Qur'anGeorge Dardess