Novelist Dyja (Play for a Kingdom, 1997) collects 13 pieces that illustrate moments of spiritual and personal awakening, when the veil of the quotidian seems to fall away or become transparent for a potentially life-changing glimpse of reality—of what and who we are, and in what kind of universe we live.
It’s hard to know what to make of this volume or of the Illumina series (of which this is a part) itself. Dyja includes excerpts from Trappist monk Thomas Merton, soul singer (and now minister) Al Green, Eugen Herrigel, Anne Lamott, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, Jean Shepherd, Dennis Covington, and Bede Griffith—as well as from the work of Henry James, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, and Tolstoy. The editor’s introduction gives the impression that he intended the series to be a collection of inspirational, life-changing titles that could be consulted by readers at various points of crisis in their lives. Well and good, but most anthologies will point the reader to previously unknown writers, or try to change the way we read a piece by creating a context for it. But here, there are few surprises: Most of these selections, and certainly the most powerful, will be familiar to many readers. The great exception is Covington’s meticulously observed, subtly written, and profoundly disturbing account of his experience in a snake-handling Holiness church in rural Alabama: Anyone who missed this 1995 memoir will be well advised to read it in its entirety. If anything, however, some of these excerpts (e.g., from Merton, Joyce, Griffiths) lose a good deal by being removed form their original contexts—and others (Hesse, for instance) have their deficiencies exposed by the strengths of their neighbors.
A sad case: the whole seems somewhat less than the sum of its (considerable) parts.