Beautiful Work
A Meditation on Pain
Sharon Cameron
Duke University Press: Durham, 2000
121 pp.; $18.95 (cloth)

“Inside of pain is the whole world,” comments Sharon Cameron. To get inside pain—to move around freely in it, and to pay sustained attention to it—is the point of her confidently elliptical book. If pain is “the whole world,” then can it offer us an open pathway, and not the usual dead end?

At times Cameron, a literary scholar and critic who has written previously on Henry James and Emily Dickinson, chooses the right word with quiet pleasure. At other times she foregoes elegance for simpler language and the writing plainly expresses spiritual hesitation and struggle. And sometimes insights, disarmingly honest, interrupt her sentences.

Cameron’s book gives us Anna who, as a novice, undertakes three meditation retreats over a two-year period. She’s led to do so after visiting the desert, whose landscape’s demanding heat and clarity awe her, awakening her own wish to see things more clearly. Anna tells of her experiences while on retreat in a first-person voice that also muses on her childhood and on her current personal life.

We hear Anna’s thinking directly. We also overhear her conversations with Isaac, her mentor during retreat. We’re privy to her observations, hostile or admiring, of others on retreat with her. Like Isaac, we listen, too, as she reads aloud to him from her journal.

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