Seeking the Sacred - Stephanie Dowrick - A Review

Reviewing a respected friend and colleague's book is always a perilous business. Especially when it has previously been reviewed so well by another colleague. But Stephanie Dowrick's latest book Seeking the Sacred has been my constant companion for three months now, and I have read it repeatedly and carefully, so would like to share some of what I have learned from it.

Over the weekend I had it with me while I was doing a silent retreat, and it proved to be the perfect companion for such an undertaking. Every time I left the meditation hall I would pick up this book and almost instantly would be reading something that was completely relevant to my thoughts and contemplations at the time. Of course, this was bound to happen as Seeking the Sacred deals with some of the really big questions of life, and with most of the abiding concerns of the "spiritual" person. Among them include, love, belonging, forgiveness (a constant theme in Stephanie's books), humility and vulnerability. And these were just the things I was dealing with on the weekend!

Of course, I should declare an interest in this review: both my partner and myself are quoted in the book, and I am a longtime attendee at Stephanie's Interfaith services at the Pitt St. Uniting Church in Sydney. That said, I hope I am not an uncritical reader of her writing. I am, however, an unashamed enthusiast.

It is a big book dealing with big themes, and in its way it works as a spiritual autobiography - a fascinating enough exercise in itself when you consider that Stephanie Dowrick is one of Australia's most successful and influential writers. In fact, these autobiographical moments were among the things that drew me most closely into the text - perhaps out of a natural human interest in gossip, perhaps out of a desire to identify more closely with the author, or perhaps simply because Dowrick's skill as a writer becomes most thrillingly apparent in these moments. I can't help but hope that one day there might be a more complete, more exclusive memoir - for in many ways I think that Stephanie Dowrick's great genius is in being everywoman. She does not posit herself as the exemplar of spiritual attainment - on the contrary she is at pains to highlight her failings in Seeking the Sacred, thereby reassuring her other merely mortal readers that the path of the sacred does not necessitate a complete saintliness. Her own journey and struggle echoes that of the reader's. The humility of her own journey functions, ironically, as a great inspiration.

Seeking the Sacred is about the drift towards spirituality, not just in the writer's own life and work, but in society at large. Dowrick notes that there is an abiding, and perhaps growing interest in the sacred at the exact same time that people in the West drift further and further away from institutionalised forms of religion. At the same time that we reject dogma we seem ever more fascinated with the life of spirituality. Perhaps we yearn for a community, for an experience of communal oneness or interbeing that transcends selfish interest in our own concerns and anxieties. Seeking the Sacred encourages us to inhabit a space both shared and intensely private, a complex idea of self where:

"...need to find ways to remind ourselves that from a spiritual perspective personal good and common good are never separate."

It is this concern with the common good that seems so absent from our contemporary culture, and yet which Dowrick so cannily identifies as a great yearning within us. Not only do we seek to be better people, we seek to help and improve the lives of others. We have consciences and we care about how others live, despite the abiding political and economic tropes that seemingly rule our day-to-day decisions and dominate the media.

There is a great richness in this book, and its concerns are far-ranging. I won't bore you with a chapter-by-chapter analysis because there is really no need for that kind of review. It is a book best read slowly and meditatively, and, as in my case, repeatedly. It works best, perhaps, as an awakener of our own awareness as spiritual beings. The possibilities that Stephanie opens up are great, but also achievable and intensely practical. We too, she is saying, are capable of spiritual growth, despite our faults and our lack of patience with our struggling selves. The reader is handled gently but honestly, and the resultant text is neither didactic nor sanctimonious. Dowrick's spiritual maturity is evident in her willingness to be totally honest about her own struggles, and in her acknowledgenment of the inevitable shortcomings of others. But what makes the book so interesting, and so counter-cultural, is that it encourages us to see beyond these differences and shortcomings in order to connect on another, deeper, level. Our surface disagreements, while powerful, are also arbitrary, and pale in comparison to the strength of what connects us.

There will be some readers who, perhaps, are looking for something more easily palatable, more instantly recognisable, in the spiritual landscape Dowrick describes. Those seeking prescription, advice and exhortation may be disappointed by Seeking the Sacred because, as its title might suggest, it is a book about searching, questioning, challenging and acknowledging reality. And Stephanie Dowrick wants us to challenge even our "innermost stories," our cherished identities, and build something new, something altogether more transcendent and, dare I say it, mystical.

This is a book that speaks of experience and a lifetime of asking the really big questions. It is brave and touching and, in Dowrick's inimitable fashion, constantly readable. And it is also unashamedly spiritual and resolutely non-sectarian. As would befit a book written by an Interfaith minister, it draws on wisdom and literature across many different religious traditions. But it draws on them deeply, not grazing and browsing, but dwelling and mining into the real context, the real applicability to twenty-first century lives.

The book is a disarmingly modern artefact; evidence of both our insecurities as a culture and our secret yearnings for the metaphysical. And it provides us with no easy answers, no soft sops to our anxieties - Dowrick seeks not to lecture, but to challenge. Ultimately it is a book about the vulnerability and unease currently at work in our psyche; the exact place, perhaps where a true spirituality is spawned. Ultimately the book offers us hope, as we are reassured about our own internal capacity for growth, renewal and sacred recognition. In Stephanie's words:

"It is as we gain familiarity with our spiritual resources, and most particularly with our capacity to care consistently that we will most effectively be freed from the twin tyrannies of insecurity and self-absorption."


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