Gus Gordon is a priest of the Diocese of St. Lucia in the West Indies. For the past 30 years, he has lived in a hermitage in Tennessee. For over 20 years he has traveled part of each year to preach on behalf of the organization Food for the Poor. Reflections on the combination of solitude and solidarity with the poor form the subject matter of this book. Gordon begins his book with a strong critique of contemporary culture in the United States. As a person becomes accustomed to solitude, he says, "you become increasingly sensitive to what is fake, vapid, and vacuous. It becomes harder and harder, for example, to watch TVů.And if you make the mistake of turning on one of the so-called Christian stations, you are often flabbergasted by what passes as religion." (p. 5) Gordon argues that despite living in a so-called information age "most Americans have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world," particularly with regard to realities such as extreme poverty, hunger, and growing inequality. (p. 6)
The bulk of the book is made up of reflections on the dialectic of solitude and solidarity or compassion, primarily in the Buddhist and "Judeo-Christian" traditions (though his attention to the Jewish tradition is largely confined to the Hebrew Scriptures.) Most of the chapters include extensive quotation of an eclectic mix of religious figures on these themes, along with interspersed commentary by Gordon. Among the persons that Gordon quotes and by whom he has been most influenced are Thomas Merton, Raimon Panikkar, Martin Buber, Chogyam Trungpa, Emmanuel Levinas, Joseph Campbell, Johann Baptist Metz, Pedro Casaldaliga, Aloysius Pieris, SJ, and Ibn Al Arabi (a 12th/13th century Sufi Muslim who Gordon describes as "one of the greatest mystics of all time" - p. 8).
In his overviews of the Judeo-Christian tradition and Buddhism, Gordon highlights contrasting features. He asserts, for example, that Buddhism is more "intellective" and inner-focused, while the Judeo-Christian tradition is more affective, personal, and communal. The Buddhist hero, he argues, is the enlightened, serene one whose primary praxis is meditation, while the Judeo-Christian hero is the servant whose primary praxis is unconditional love of neighbor. Gordon points out that some Buddhists find problematic the portrayal of Jesus as weeping and getting angry. He also stresses that there is no central role for history in the Buddhist tradition as there is in Judaism and Christianity. Gordon sees weaknesses in each tradition, such as certain interpretations of karma in Buddhism that give rise to a fatalistic acceptance of poverty and injustice and certain forms of Christianity that have accepted violence or reduced a prophetic religion to an emphasis on cult, creed, and dogma.
Rather than focusing on the negative, however, it is the deep prophetic and mystical dimensions of these traditions that Gordon seeks to highlight, as well as the ways that each tradition can complement the other. In the end, it is the rich combination of solitude and compassionate solidarity that includes attention to issues of justice that Gordon holds up as the ideal. He stresses the need to focus not just on one form of liberation, but rather "to take responsibility for what could be called a seamless web of liberations." (p. 156)
Overall, this is a book with much valuable insight. The many quotes alone make it a treasure chest of wisdom. At the same time, the book is not without some serious drawbacks. For example, the contrasts between Christianity and Buddhism that the author asserts are sometimes inadequately nuanced. Also, the style of the book may make it rather difficult for undergraduates or the general reader. It is often quite wordy and the endless strings of quotations can become hard to follow. The fundamental ideas that the author expresses are profound and important, but better editing would have further enhanced the value of the book.