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Washington Post, Wednesday, May 31, 2006; C04


By Scott Russell Sanders
North Point. 322 pp. $25

By Timothy K. Beal

Born two months after the bombing of Hiroshima, Scott Russell Sanders grew up in a church-going, working-class white family that lived in both the segregated South and the rural Midwest, in both military and civilian cultures; he came to political consciousness, to love and to fatherhood during the Cold War and Vietnam. Here he has written a brilliantly self-reflective memoir of post-World War II America, rich with a child's view of disturbing signs of the times, from "Whites Only" drinking fountains to Gideon Bibles to radioactive, glow-in-the-dark wristwatches.

Some will be tempted to herald this book as the recollected voice of the baby boomer generation. Thankfully, it is far less pretentious and far more profound than that. I am tempted to call it religious autobiography.

Granted, Sanders is no saint or ecstatic. Although he grew up a Protestant "churchy boy," and although his literary memory is steeped in the biblical pool of imagination, he no longer identifies with a particular religious tradition. Still, as in the best of religious autobiography, remembering here becomes a contemplative practice, using fragments of experience as a means of self-discovery. And the narrative is shaped by a series of momentary revelations of holy mystery -- interruptions of awe.

Borrowing from Quaker tradition, Sanders calls these interruptions "openings," in which the self-conscious, worrying, desiring ego loses itself within the awesome mystery of the "holy shimmer at the heart of things." Often these outbreaks of "Earth's prodigal energies" occur on the threshold between the domestic and the wild: thunderous lightning cracking open the sky and splitting a giant oak in the front yard, a planned weed fire jumping the ditch and nearly consuming the farmhouse, a pack of wild dogs whose howls call forth the wolf in his pet dog Rusty, prophetic images of divine wrath and pathos in the family Bible, making love for the first time on his wedding night, the birth of his daughter. Most unsettling and captivating are those moments when such awesome forces appear personified in his father, simultaneously sage and incendiary, whose humming accompanies the thunder, whose cigarette smoke mirrors that of the wildfire, and whose outbursts of anger recall those of the biblical God.

Though "A Private History of Awe" is deeply personal, Sanders believes that such extraordinary experiences are, paradoxically, utterly ordinary and available to all of us. Seeking to describe what is beyond naming, he draws on Buddhist concepts of interconnection, the physics of energy and the neuroscience of visual perception, William Blake's vision of the marriage of heaven and hell, and the biblical poetics of sublime power.

Not that Sanders's life has been one ecstasy after another. Such moments have been few and far between, yet they give meaning to existence. As a reader, I found myself waiting for the next interruption of awe but nonetheless surprised when it came.
Part of what makes Sanders's memoir so engaging is its frequent return to the present, in which he spends much of his time with his very elderly mother and his baby granddaughter, Elizabeth. As his mother's conscious self disintegrates, his granddaughter's is just emerging, and the child sends him back into his past with fresh eyes. Once, as he walked back to the car after visiting his mother in the nursing home, Elizabeth grabbed his chin and pointed his face to a kingfisher flying overhead. " 'Burr!' she cries, her whole body wriggling with excitement." I imagine Sanders knows Blake's question in "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cuts the airy way, Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" It is testimony to the brilliance of this book that he need not raise this question explicitly for it to come to mind. Moving between a private history of awe and a present rebirth of wonder, Sanders invites us to reflect on our own pasts and presents with like-minded openness.

Timothy K. Beal is professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University and author of "Roadside Religion: In Search of the Sacred, the Strange, and the Substance of Faith."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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