A Book Review
Tales of Wonder: Adventures in Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography – by Huston Smith
I had never heard of Huston Smith before I picked up this book at the library. Reading the inside flap, I was intrigued by his beginnings as a child of missionaries in China and decided to check it out.
Dr. Smith led a truly amazing life. The condensed version: Born to Methodist missionaries in China in 1919; at 12 went to boarding school at the Shanghai American School; at 16 sent to the United States to attend college. Intended to become a missionary like his parents but decided a life in pursuit of knowledge was his desire, and so pursued a career teaching at various prestigous universities and traveling the world learning from and about world religions. He was in all the right places at all the right times such as the founding of the United Nations, Tiananmen Square and the March on Washington with Martin Luther King. Friend of scholars, religious icons, and mystics. Dropped acid with Timothy Leary and took peyote with Native Americans. Husband, father, grandfather. All these and more influenced and steered his life. With his Christian beliefs as a base he explored and experienced the world’s religions and sects. To me it seems he could not gain knowledge fast enough.
This book is exhausting and fascinating. Dr. Smith packed so much into his life and this book – it’s almost too much to take in. But then – the last chapter. In ill health, Dr. Smith leaves his wife and home and checks into an assisted living facility. After a night of loneliness and some days of adjustment when he grieves for his old life, he decides to accept and adjust. This is where the pace of the book slows, as Dr. Smith’s life slows. The other chapters in the book are intriguing, but this last chapter is my favorite. We will all age, we won’t like some the limitations, but we can accept the changes with grace and dignity. My favorite passage from this book:
“Gratitude – what I learned from the roshi at the Kyoto monastery half a lifetime ago. I could obsess about my ailments and be an old man in misery. Instead I forget them and wonder how I became so fortunate and what I am even doing in an assisted-living facility. Gratitude? If I fail to mention something in a letter but remember before I put it in the mailbox I feel gratitude. The day sings its song of small grace notes. In the bathroom or the elevator I whisper under my breath, “God you are so good to me” – thirty five or forty times a day I say it. It seems I finally have a mantra. … After a lifetime of studying and teaching and writing, of investigating, and deliberating, and philosophizing, of heaping qualification upon qualification, how simple it can finally become.”
You may not agree with Dr. Smith’s beliefs or world view, but this book is still worth your time as an example of a life fully led. And it asks the question, what more can we hope for, if not to experience the divine in this life, and finally, gratitude.
–Dr. Smith’s other books include, but are not limited to: The World’s Religions; The Worlds Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions; Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief