In Spiritual Genius, journalist Winifred Gallagher, the acclaimed author of Working on God, asks Rabbi Lawrence Kushner to define holiness. "Standing in the presence of God," he says. "Everyone has it, but some people seem to have more of a knack for accessing it." Like holiness, the gift that Gallagher calls "spiritual genius"--which she defines as "the uniquely human ability to search for and find life's meaning, then express it in our lives as only each of us can"--is one we all possess but don't necessarily recognize. Whether they are called saints, gurus, tzaddiks, or shamans, there have always been people who possess exceptional insight, altruism, and charisma. In this disarmingly inspirational book, Gallagher investigates what ordinary people trying to live decent, meaningful lives can learn from such extraordinary men and women, who are specially attuned to the deepest truths, and who exemplify-and radiate-spiritual genius. In a clear-eyed, ecumenical approach that's free of dogma and bias and suffused with profound respect, Winifred Gallagher highlights the common wisdom-and down-to-earth good humor-of these religious leaders, revels in their differences, and identifies the capacity for spiritual genius that all of us share with them.
This is an astonishing, engrossing introduction to 10 human beings who seem to live with one foot in another plane. Gallagher, journalist and author of several books (Working on God; Just the Way You Are), defines spiritual genius as the "ability to seek life's meaning" and proposes that "all of us use spiritual genius some of the time, but some of us use it all of the time." From a goddess on an obscure Indian island to passionate scholars (Huston Smith), community activists (Tony Campolo), hermits and healing doctors, the individuals she highlights are deeply religious men and women with a gift for "combining mysticism and activism." These living saints are not household names, but they clearly belong in the same class as more famous individuals such as Mother Teresa. Each has emerged from major religious traditions (Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity), but this book is not a primer on world religions. Each chapter plunges the reader into deep, rich veins of religious thought and experience. The disciplined devotion and seemingly boundless compassion of these geniuses, combined with their indifference to limelight, make them utterly convincing and magnetic witnesses to the divine. Gallagher manages to insert enough of herself to draw out humor, irony and humility and to let the reader taste what an encounter with these geniuses might be like without inserting any kind of obscuring religious bias. Her reverence, curiosity and appreciation of these individuals flow from the pages. (Feb. 19) Forecast: This outstanding multibiography is poised to do well in a time when Americans are focusing less on celebrities and more on "everyday heroes." A four-city author tour and advertising in such periodicals as New Age Journal, Tricycle and Parabola should help with promotion efforts. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 25, 2002
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Excerpt from Spiritual Genius by Winifred Gallagher
Spiritual genius is the uniquely human ability to seek life's meaning. It's the voice inside us that keeps asking: What's it all about Who am I How can I make a difference This inclination to wonder why we exist is not rarefied, or even necessarily conventionally religious, but a basic human trait. Just as we're born yearning for relationships, we're born with a craving to know our larger purpose.
Over three hundred years ago the poet John Dryden observed that "Every age has a kind of universal genius, which inclines those that live in it to some particular studies." Beginning with those of Einstein, the twentieth century had a special genius for exploring the material world -- walking on the moon, performing medical miracles, computerizing the global village. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, all of this scientific and technological genius has highlighted one of our most ancient questions: Is there something more Something that underlies and unifies life, including the bits and pieces of our own That can sustain us through the promise and peril of the new century The answer calls for spiritual genius, which inclines the individuals in these pages along with many others to "particular studies" of our search for meaning, both as individuals and as a society.
We think of "genius" as meaning both extraordinary talent and the person who has it. The Latin word's original, ancient definition, however, is an "animating spirit" that guides each of us to a special destiny -- not just the entries on our r sum s, our social roles, or the gratification of our egos but a uniquely meaningful life. To find that larger purpose, that thing that makes it all make sense, we can, like the men and women in this book, use our spiritual genius to do three things.
First we can follow our animating spirits into a hidden reality that exists, as the dictionary wonderfully puts it, "above the categories and predicaments" of the everyday world. Next we can choose to root ourselves in this "ground of being," whose names include God and the transcendent, Buddha nature and Truth. Then we can express or even embody this mystery in the world as only each of us can -- often not so much by what we do as by how we do it. Spiritual genius enables us to do all of these things according to our own lights, which guide us to a unique place within a vast, sacred scheme of things that puts our ups and downs into perspective and illumines even our inevitable sorrows with a peculiar joy.
All of us use our spiritual genius some of the time. We might not recognize it as such, but we tap it whenever we "just know" that something is happening for a reason that, to paraphrase Blaise Pascal, "reason does not know." Spiritual genius tells us that, despite the chaos and confusion around us, everything is all right, so we might as well be nice. It tells us that if we take on a worthwhile challenge, we'll somehow find the necessary strength and help. It tells us that our true self is more than a bunch of personality traits and problems. Like a compass, spiritual genius always points us toward a reality larger than the ego and the status quo. Once we members of the meaning-seeking species find our place in the grand design, we're able to gather up the pieces of our everyday lives, making a coherent picture out of what can seem like an impossible puzzle.