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Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine

An Autobiography by Huston Smith with Jeffrey Paine

Tales of Wonder is the autobiography of Huston Smith, well known scholar, student and teacher of the great religious traditions of humankind.  Smith has authored countless works and is, perhaps, best known for The Religions of Man, originally published in 1964 and later reissued as The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions.  His most recent books prior to this autobiography are Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief and The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. The former, released just prior to the events of September 11, 2001, could not be more topical and significant, given not only the caricature of religion in much of the “secular” world but the abuse of the great traditions at the hands of fundamentalists of all stripes.  The latter is a personal and foundational apology for Christian faith from the mind and heart of a most dedicated adherent.

     Smith, who turned 90 and entered an assisted living facility in 2009 just as he was completing this autobiography, makes clear that this is his last book.  He opens the book, most appropriately for one who has always seen his life as response to the summons of mystery, by invoking a warning of a Hindu teacher of his.  The teacher, recounts Smith, “told me that if I did not write my life story I would be reborn pen in hand.”  And so, “I step from behind the curtains – from behind my previous books and subjects:  comparative religion, primordial wisdom, postmodernity, science versus scientism – to meet you, as it were, face-to-face.”  (p. xvii)  For the reader, this meeting is an extraordinary encounter, not only with the biographical details of Huston Smith’s life, but also, through the simple yet profound account of that life, with the awesome mystery in which “all of us are born, in which we live, and in which we die.”  Huston Smith is not primarily a scholar of religion but rather a “disciple” of it and, thus, a self-described “religious communicator.”

Truth in Advertising.  I am not a religious scholar.  What I do is try to show people how they can get something of value personally from religion, which is why I concentrate on its positive side.  How you might label me is “religious communicator.” (p. xxii)

As one reads this last and most personal of Smith’s books, one realizes the depth of his communication, not merely about the mystery in which we are born, live and die, but of the presence of that very mystery.

     The literary form of the autobiography or memoir is, at least in the western literary tradition, as old as St. Augustine’s Confessions.  Recent years have witnessed a tremendous surge in the publication of memoirs by persons from all walks of life and segments of society.  Given the pervasive influence of psychology in our self-understanding, many of these memoirs are highly introspective and analytical. In this literature, as well as in our culture at large, it is difficult to escape the sense that our mode of self-analysis and introspection have left us filled with anger and resentment.  We tend to be acutely aware of the ways in which others have failed us, and thus, too often, a memoir becomes an act of self-justification and even occasionally retribution.  But from the very beginning of Tales of Wonder, we are aware of being drawn into an experience of human life that is much more compelling than anger or resentment.  Huston Smith, much like St. Augustine before him, does not analyze his life in a search for self understanding but rather reflects on the key moments of his life as summonses to a uniquely personal call from God to service and responsibility.  This mode of transcendent reflection gives rise not to anger and resentment but rather to an all-pervasive gratitude for everything in his life, both past and present.  As Smith was leaving a monastery in Japan after a very intensive time of Zen practice, the Abbot said to him:

Make your whole life unceasing gratitude.  What is Zen?  Simple, simple, so simple.  Infinite gratitude toward all things past; infinite service to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future. (p. 134)

     In our secular and psychological age, we have come to know only the introspective mode of attending to our lives and our life experiences.  For this mode of presence “unceasing gratitude” seems inauthentic, if not impossible.  But not the least of the wonders in this extraordinary life story is that the omnipresent sense of unceasing gratitude lacks any tinge of falseness or sentimentality.

     The persons past and present who constitute the interpersonal dimension of Smith’s formation field are described both realistically and appreciatively.  Depreciation and resentment come from an introspective mode of presence that is separate from the horizon of mystery out of which every moment comes forth.  There is a profound sanity evident in Smith’s capacity to describe the coolness and distance of his father while recognizing that his own recognition of the call to “infinite service to all things present” comes from his father.  This capacity to, as Theresa of Avila said, “live in the truth of who we are” is present as Smith relates his experiences of encountering so many of the extraordinary people of our age as well as his description of the most painful experiences of his life.  These include the death of his daughter Karen at age fifty and the murder of his granddaughter Serena in her early twenties.  When Smith is asked by a reporter if these tragedies had shaken his faith in God, he finds the question ridiculous.  He thinks:

What about the Holocaust and all the other catastrophes we know as history?  They did not make my own loss less but kept me from imagining that I had suffered a unique vengeance that impugned the idea of God instead of making God more necessary. . . . The fact that all the things we hold dear and love are transient does not mean that we should love them less but – as I do Karen and Serena – love them even more.  Suffering, the Buddha said, if it does not diminish love, will transport you to the farthest shore. (p. 94)

It is a great act of courage to keep our hearts open to life and mystery as it comes to us in all its manifestations, including suffering.  Much or our anger and resentment is a refusal to continue to be taught by suffering to “love even more.”

     Smith dedicates the book to his beloved wife Kendra, quoting in his dedication from a love poem of the Sixth Dalai Lama:

I asked so much of you

in this brief lifetime,

Perhaps we’ll meet again

in the childhood of the next.

After sixty-five years of marriage, Smith writes that “I am the way I am because she is the way she is. . . . If Kendra and I, different as we are, were united in the same person, that person would be, I believe, a complete human being.”  (p. 93)  In the middle of their marriage, however, Smith experienced the one life event that made him “both scared and afraid. . . .  It was the night that Kendra said, ‘You know I am thinking of leaving you.’”  The very different nature of this memoir can be seen in the brief paragraph that details this significant experience.  Smith relates, quite simply, that the night Kendra told him this he sobbed himself to sleep.  Instead of falling into self-pity or sentimentality, Smith proceeds to offer an example of transcendent presence to experience and of the call to responsibility that comes out of such presence.

It is painful, even now, to admit Kendra had reasons for leaving.  I am a workaholic. . . .There are worse kinds of infidelity than the sexual.  I was living with one of the most interesting women in the world, and too often my attention was elsewhere.  In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne cautions us to show the world, if not our worst, at least that by which our worst can be inferred.  I regret that I showed my worst to, of all people, Kendra.  Fortunately, she did not leave; I attempted to make amends and began of all difficult challenges perhaps the most difficult – to actually change. (p. 88)

Absent embarrassing personal details and morbid introspection, this simple relating of a pivotal life experience becomes in its honesty and responsibility and profound teaching in the most necessary disposition for committed relationship – the willingness to change.

     The second half of the book takes up “the vertical dimension” of Smith’s life, that is his “religious” life as a practitioner first of Christianity but then of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  Finally he speaks of what he calls “three final frontiers,” his exposure later in life to what he calls primary religions, entheogens, and ultimate reality (or psychic experiences).   In each case we are introduced to how each tradition or viewpoint opened for Smith new perspectives on the mystery.  In the final chapter “Reflections upon Turning Ninety” we see how all that has gone before has prepared Huston Smith for this challenging but still wondrous final stage of his life.

     I left Kendra, my intimate companion of sixty-five years, to cohabit with people in wheelchairs or depressed or with Alzheimer’s. . . . The first night after the move was a dark night of the soul. Religion relies on that successful plot device, the happy ending.  I still believed in one, but after my first night in the assisted-living residence I thought, the happy ending will now have to wait until I am dead.

     And then, after three days here, it became acceptable, perfectly fine.  The move seemed no more than turning the page of a book.  On the previous page I had been on Colusa Avenue and on this page I am here, but the story itself has not changed.  And ninety, I discover, is a good age for making new friends. (pp. 177-8)

      “We become persons in the fullest sense to the extent that we allow the formation mystery to sound through our dispositional life-form as it develops in dialogue with our successive life situations.”  (Adrian van Kaam, Formation of the Human Heart, p. 51)  It is through attention to and responsibility toward the mystery that we become distinctively human persons.  Tales of Wonder offers us stories of the formation of one who by attention, gratitude, service and responsibility continues to be formed into an extraordinary human person.  The greater service, however, may be this beautiful text’s invitation to each reader to discover the wonders that constitute his or her own life

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Last updated: 11/24/10.