On Spiritual Writing

In less than two months, I’m going to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  I first heard of this festival shortly after I graduated college, where I had double-majored in Religious Studies and Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry.  Faith and writing were both obviously close to my heart, so I was immediately interested in the Festival.  Then seminary happened, and for several years schoolwork took precedent over writing for the sake of writing.  Now, I write mostly sermons and blogposts (here and for the House of St. Michael), but writing is still one of the most life-giving activities in which I engage. And I want to write more.

So, one of my goals for 2012 is to sharpen my writing skills. To do so I’ve both been writing more often and reading about writing.  Earlier this month, I read several essays from A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art (Paraclete Press 2008).  Some of my favorite writers have essays in this book, including Scott Cairns, whose essay on poetry made me hunger for The Lord’s Supper.  But the chapter that left me thinking the most was by Richard Foster.  In it, Foster describes the work of “spiritual writing.”  In this genre, you might include the great devotional writings of Church history, the sort of books listed in 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, as well as the hundreds of other spiritual classics that didn’t make that list.  They’re books that have shaped the Church as a whole by shaping the souls of countless individual Christians over the centuries.  Spiritual writing, as Foster puts it, is “heart writing. It aims at the interiority of the reader: the heart, the spirit, the will. Spiritual writing is highly relational.  It is personal.  It is in close.  It is intimate.  It is never at arm’s length. Never.” (p. 169). And because spiritual writing is up close and personal it cannot leave the reader untouched.  The best leaves the reader transformed.

So what advice is there for a young writer who wants to write works that transform people spiritually?   Foster says “As writers, our first incarnational task is to be ourselves filled with this life we are talking about” (p. 173).  To be a spiritual writer, you have to be spiritual.  So Foster advises that we learn to listen.  “The best spiritual writing comes out of the silence.  As writers, we learn to be quiet and still; listening, always listening” (p. 172).  And listening includes reading the works of those who were filled with the life they wrote about: The “best way to understand spiritual writing is to read the best of these writers throughout history” (p. 178).  Listening, praying, worshiping, acting, learning, submitting, reading – this is how we start to live the life we want to write.

I think the act of writing itself can be added to the list of practices one must live and internalize in order to become a spiritual writer. I have a long journey ahead of me as I seek maturity in Christ, but I take comfort in the fact that writing is also a process of discovery. And that means writing is a process that can be used by the Spirit to lead the writer to greater maturity in Christ. Every time I sit down to write, I’m surprised by the final product.   Henri Nouwen, one of the most well-known spiritual writers of the twentieth century, describes the act of writing as a process, a revelation, and a journey.  These sentences from Nouwen’s Reflections on Theological Education (as quoted in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor [Doubleday 2001] p. 298) show what this means:

Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, visions.  They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper.  For them writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach true writing is impossible.  Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.  The writing itself reveals what is alive. . . . The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write.  To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.

I want to embark on that sort of journey.  Or rather, I want to continue the journey the Holy Spirit is already leading me on, one which is still a process of discovery, opening up new spaces.  All I know about my destination is that I want to seek the Kingdom of God.  And I want to write as I travel the path that leads to Life.

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