The National Catholic Review

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? Thus does Winifred Gallagher begin this insightful and important book. Her thesis is that all human beings are endowed with such spiritual genius but that only some of us take it seriously and use it all the time. She undertakes interviews with such people so that we can see our own potential writ large. Gallagher believes that we can, like the men and women in this book, use our spiritual genius to do three things: to let ourselves be drawn into the ground of being, to root ourselves in this reality and to express or even to embody this mystery in the world as only each of us can.

Her subjects range across all religious traditions and include very active and very contemplative people. Through her interviews and her time spent in practice with these geniuses we meet some extraordinary human beings. One catches the warmth, passion and drive of James Kimpton, an English Christian Brother, who founded and directs Reaching the Unreached in one of India’s poorest states. We listen to the profound Hasidic teaching of Lawrence Kushner, rabbi at a large Reformed Jewish synagogue in a suburb of Boston and teacher of rabbinical students. One breathes in the serenity and desire for holiness of Tenzin Palmo, an English woman, a living legend among Tibetan Buddhists because of her heroic practice of meditation. We feel the passionate hope of Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani woman and pioneering scholar of Islamic feminist theology, who works tirelessly to help Islamic women realize their value as human beings according to Koranic teaching.

With Gallagher we hear the passionate preaching and observe the frenetic activity of Baptist minister Tony Campolo, considered one of the best preachers in the United States, who works tirelessly for the poor of Camden and Philadelphia. The chapter on Adin Steinsaltz introduces us to the wisdom of one of Judaism’s greatest scholars, who is producing the first edition of the Talmud in centuries that any literate person can read like a normal book. In a chapter called Sisters we meet some vivacious, humorous and holy contemplative members, mostly Roman Catholic, of the Association of Contemplative Sisters at their annual convention. Govindappa Venkataswamy, M.D., a legendary Indian eye surgeon, now in his 80’s, has made it his life work to wipe out blindness on the planet; Gallagher’s chapter gives us a feel for his methods and insight into what makes him tick. Finally we spend time with Huston Smith, America’s pioneering scholar of comparative religion.

What are the unifying threads of these interviews with spiritual genius? Gallagher writes of three elements: holiness, or intense awareness of transcendent reality; goodness, or compassion for others; and charisma, or the ability to inspire others. These geniuses have allowed the Mystery to come close and, in the process, have become divinized, to use a word coined by the early Christian theologians of the East referring to the effects of grace. I was impressed by the fact that all these religious geniuses developed in a strong religious tradition or community; they are just the opposite of the caricature of the religious genius as one who is alone with the Alone. Second, they illustrate a truth that is often lost in our postmodern age, namely that the religious quest has to do with the real world, not with a chimera or an opiate. Third, all of them reveal the appositeness of a remark by Huston Smith: ...religion isn’t only the search for the real’ but also the effort to approximate one’s life to it. Religious experience that doesn’t increase your compassion for others is an illusion.’ Faith, in other words, is a verb, not a noun; it leads to a way of life. Finally, what comes through in each of these persons is a pervading joy that remains in spite of, or perhaps because of, their immersion in the harsh realities of this world. Perhaps they mirror God’s joy that perdures through all the vicissitudes of God’s creation.

This is an important book for our age, an age in which religious fault lines seem to imperil world peace, yet where religion may point the way forward. It shows that spiritual hunger transcends cultures and religious traditions and will help readers to look for the common ground that underlies all spiritual seeking, namely the hunger for the Mystery we Christians call God.

William A. Barry, S.J., is the author of numerous books on prayer and spiritual direction.