Gerald J. Schiffhorst

The desert teaches many lessons. In Western spirituality, it is a place of danger and brokenness where, in the vastness of silence and solitude, the individual confronts the depths of pain and emptiness, relying only on God and the self. To live in the desert, Thomas Merton wrote, is to “wage war against despair unceasingly.” Along with the mountain, the desert is ultimately a landscape of transformation.

The Bread of Angels, a lyrical memoir by Stephanie Saldaña, explores some of this spiritual territory in original ways while also depicting the daily experiences of an American woman living alone in the Middle East during the Iraq war. Saldaña, a Catholic from Texas, comes to Damascus in 2004 for a year as a Fulbright scholar. Having completed graduate work at Harvard Divinity School, she wants to study the role of Jesus in Islam.

Saldaña also needs to heal a heart broken by family tragedies and by unhappy love affairs that she has escaped by courting danger. Although only 27, she has had extensive experience traveling alone in violent places, running from one country in turmoil—and one commitment—to another. Yet nothing prepares her for the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a 30-day encounter with God in the silence of Mar Musa monastery, high in the remote Syrian desert, under the guidance of the Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio.

The intensity of this experience and her “sickness of sadness” lead to a mystical experience in which her body “swells up with visions to the point of breaking open.” In the desert retreat, which forces her to stop avoiding commitments, Saldaña wonders how she “succeeded in falling so far, from God and from myself.” Meditating on the Gospel text line by line, she imagines the scenes so completely that she is there. “Sometimes,” she writes, “I feel like a mother, watching Jesus appearing out of the bones of the desert. He grows up so quickly.... I feel a kind of longing, a regret that so many chapters of his life go missing, for here in the desert those missing pages become concrete.”

Emptying herself in a dark night of the soul, Saldaña wonders if she has found prayer and God or only seen the meaninglessness of her life as she mourns “a thousand losses,” personal and global. Hoping to save the world, she wants to become a nun, then changes her mind, falling in love instead with the Koran and with Frédérick, an improbable French novice monk who keeps bees and sings Beatles songs. She waits for him, her “partner in loneliness,” to descend from his ethereal heights and appreciate her struggle to understand who she really is—one caught between devotion to the interior life and the realities of the external world.

While studying the Koran privately with a Sheikha, Saldaña values the Islamic depiction of the Virgin Mary in a story radically different from the narrative in Luke: Mary, an unmarried woman alone in the desert, delivers the child under a palm tree, “amazed that such an incredible gift could come now, so soon after falling down.” Saldaña easily identifies with this Mary, who after the annunciation “was so frightened and lonely that she left everything behind to walk in the desert, until she collapsed, wanting to die. That is the story I have lived. That long, excruciating battle back to life.”

Thus the author’s study of Islam has revived her spirit as well as her faith in God and others, irrespective of religious difference. Her immersion in this ancient land and its religions invests her book with a depth of feeling about faith itself.

The Bread of Angels is divided into four parts: The Fallen World, Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. And it operates on several levels: as a spiritual testament and journey of faith; as a Western woman’s positive encounter with Islam; as a writer’s successful quest to find poetry and beauty even in the midst of war; and as a love story, told with novelistic suspense and a refreshing humor that keeps the romanticism of her story as grounded in reality as possible.

Many readers will value the book for its cultural importance, for the sharp observations Saldaña makes about Americans in the Middle East, based on her knowledge of the region and her ability to demolish certain stereotypes about Christian-Islamic relations. Although she stands out as an American woman in an anti-American setting, she finds in individuals a common bond of humanity that disarms her. Teaching The Book of Islam in English at a Koranic school for girls, Saldaña has her misgivings allayed by the students’ cheerful acceptance of her as a Christian and the Sheikha’s assurance that non-Muslims “can go to heaven provided that they follow what is in their own holy books.”

Ultimately, she comes to understand what resurrection means for her; she learns that prayer is a “jihad of the soul,” a daily struggle “just to live,” as one of her neighbors in Damascus, a carpet seller, tells her.

Although readers might feel Saldaña devotes too much attention to her anguished feelings, this is the type of memoir, recounting a journey to the depths of the soul, that makes the personal universal. Her struggle to find meaning and faith in herself and in God is achieved through healing love from others, as her desert experience prepared her to understand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gerald J. Schiffhorst, emeritus professor of English at the University of Central Florida, is the author of John Milton (Continuum, 1990) and several articles on Thomas Merton.