Ebert brings wit, insight to his own spirituality

"The conditions of my life are precarious," film critic Roger Ebert wrote last week in a posting on his online journal, "Fall from Grace."

Ebert, 69, perhaps the pre-eminent film critic in the United States and a longtime colleague of mine at the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper, where he's been a staff writer since 1966, has rather famously been battling a series of health crises in recent years.

Diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, Ebert has since battled cancer in his salivary gland and jaw bone, undergoing grueling treatments and numerous surgeries. While today he is cancer-free, he can no longer speak or eat and wears a prosthetic chin for his appearances on his television program, "Ebert Presents: At the Movies."

While his body may be weaker and his audible voice gone (but for the nifty text-to-voice computer he uses, named "Alex," to vocalize his thoughts now), as trite as it may sound, Ebert's spirit is as vibrant, alive and engaged as ever.

In that blog post earlier this month about a nasty fall he took reaching for a book that had dropped to the floor next to his bed late one night, Ebert, as he so often does, spoke honestly, with great wit, from the heart.

On a recent fall: "It is humiliating for an adult to fall out of bed, and still worse if he has done it not by accident but by stupidity. Why didn't I simply sit up in bed and bend over? The fall portrayed me as vulnerable, and I prefer to think of myself as enduring."

Ebert may feel physically vulnerable, but he certainly endures.

Most recently, Ebert, who has published more than a dozen books - not including his annual movie guides - has written a memoir titled "Life Itself." As I understand it, the book grew out of his online blog and diary, and it maintains the same compelling voice, august wit, virtuoso sarcasm and exquisite writing that have been his hallmark.

Living inside a movie

He starts at the beginning with his childhood in Urbana, Ill. "I was born inside the movie of my life," he writes in the first lines of the memoir.

In the last few chapters of "Life Itself," Ebert, a cradle Catholic who often invokes his childhood religious training and beliefs in his reviews - and who regularly and quite deftly writes about spiritual issues in film - turns his attention to eternal (or maybe not) matters.

Content with questions

The chapter "How I Believe in God," is one of the more self-aware, humble and eloquent accounts of personal belief I've ever read. "I have no interest in megachurches with jocular millionaire pastors," he writes. "I think what happens in them is sociopolitical, not spiritual ... . I have no patience for churches that evangelize aggressively.

"I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved. ... If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve."

Ebert will not affix a label to his spirituality, instead preferring to give more complicated, more fully honest responses to spiritual questions.

"I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic," he writes. "I am more content with questions than with answers."

"Life Itself" concludes with the chapter, "Go Gently," in which Ebert contemplates what comes next, if anything. He looks forward by looking back.

"To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts," he says. "We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances.

"We must try," he says. "I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

Amen, Mr. Ebert.