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Desert Devotional 

Phyllis Strupp is conspicuously absent from her work on spirituality

Spiritual books are about humanity's most fundamental questions. Most of these books are concerned with answers, but the best ones show how these answers play out in people's actual lives. Unconnected to everyday living, answers lose their meaning and power.

In The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert, Phyllis Strupp, a writer living in Carefree, Ariz., engages what Einstein called the most important question facing mankind: Is the universe a friendly place? Drawing on the teachings of the Bible, a myriad of Western thinkers and the lessons of the Arizona desert, Strupp has answered that question with a qualified "yes." However, her answer is based more on theory than experience, and lacks the sincerity that illustrations from her own life would give it.

After reading this book, I know a lot about how Strupp thinks, but I don't know much about her. She's a spiritual nomad who was brought up Catholic, spent two decades outside organized religion and is now an Episcopalian, recently graduated from a ministerial education program. She is well-read, and her book reads like it could have been adapted from a master's thesis in theology.

This is a book deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, not surprisingly, it manifests a highly dichotomized view of the universe. She writes that the cosmos is a friendly place, but only in the spiritual sense. It is her belief that physical reality is "bi-polar," the stage for a perpetual Armageddon between forces of self-destruction and collaboration. "Dark energy" attempts to overcome gravity, and Satan battles God, she attests, in a universe in which violence, decay and death are governing principles.

On the other hand, she says, there is also a spiritual realm that offers peace and security. It can be accessed, she writes, by faith, reflection and the forging of good relationships with God, nature, others and ourselves.

If this book was simply a discourse on the travails of the physical world and the promise of a spiritual escape hatch, it wouldn't be much different from the Jimmy Swaggart Hour. However, Strupp's spiritual dimension is not so much an otherworldly Disneyland as it is a mystical awareness of the world's underlying unity.

Strupp writes that if we believe in God, we have to believe that everything in the cosmos has a purpose. She weaves science and theology, pointing to signs of a purposeful connection between nature's self-destructive streak and its life-sustaining side: supernovas explode and die, but seed the galaxies with the building-blocks of life; violent tectonic collisions beneath the Earth's surface revitalize the Earth's crust; the relentless cycle of predation among species sustains a delicately-balanced food chain.

Additionally, she takes a page from Goethe and Jung, and writes that even the devil, "the cruel, indifferent streak in Nature--and in us," may serve a useful purpose.

"Does Satan serve God," she asks, "by bringing crisis into our lives to force conscious choices?"

This book is replete with photographs and observations of the Sonoran Desert that illustrate Strupp's views. Noting that several of the world's religions have emerged from desert regions, she contends that the desert can be a powerful catalyst for spiritual transformation.

"The desert's harshness forces us," she writes, "to confront the spiritual discomfort that is inherent in the human condition."

In addition to the Bible, Strupp quotes a number of Western philosophers, poets and mystics to flesh-out her points. These voices include Walt Whitman, William James, Charles Darwin, Marcus Aurelius, Thoreau, Teresa of Avila and Richard Maurice Bucke, whose book, Cosmic Consciousness, suggests that humans are evolving into a race of super-spiritual beings on the level of Jesus and the Buddha. (Strupp believes that evolution is a tool of God, and that human consciousness is evolving in a spiritual direction.)

One of the book's more noticeable weaknesses is its limited range--it relies solely on Western sources. The mystical impulses that flicker throughout the text would be greatly served by an exploration of other traditions such as the teachings of the Sufis and the monistic philosophies of the East.

However, the biggest missing element is Strupp herself. Aside from her role as an observer of desert scenes and synthesizer of ideas, she's nowhere to be found. We never learn about the crises she's weathered, the doubts she's struggled with, the grace that she's encountered. In short, we never know how her answers have changed her life.

Still, while this book may seem, at times, to be too far up in the clouds, Strupp's curious spirit and infectious optimism will likely encourage some readers to begin spiritual odysseys of their own.

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