A few weeks ago I participated in an “Orthodox Synchroblog” with a group of Orthodox Christians who blog. My post, “How We Use Our Words: ‘Christian’ is Not an Adjective,” addressed the issue of tacking the word, ‘Christian’ onto art, writing, music, and other venues for art.
I was thinking about the topic again today after reading an essay by Richard J. Foster in A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art. Foster’s essay, “Made Visible and Plain: On Spiritual Writing,” gets deeper into the heart of the matter. If I had read his essay before writing my post for the synchroblog, I would have definitely mentioned some of his concepts.
Foster discusses three elements of spiritual writing: heart writing, incarnational writing, and risky writing. Although most of his writing has a strong Christian message, I think his discussion of spiritual writing is applicable to people like me, who are Christians writing about many subjects, not just Christianity. So, whether I’m writing a blog post, an essay, or fiction—like the novel I’m revising right now—I think his observations are helpful. I’ll share a quote about each concept and make a brief observation of my own.
“Spiritual writing is heart writing. It aims at the interiority of the reader: the heart, the spirit, the will…. It is personal. It is intimate.”
I have received both criticism and praise for the personal nature of my writing. There are people who don’t appreciate it, calling it “overly confessional.” While I understand where they are coming from, I also wonder if they approach all writing, all art, with such a hands-off stance. As Foster says:
“With spiritual writing we hope to make it untenable for our readers to remain bystanders. Instead, we want them to feel drawn into the action…. Some readers are not prepared for this openness into spiritual participation.”
His words about the reader’s participation remind me of some things I shared in my essay in First Things a few years, ago, “Icons Will Save the World.” I was writing about the place of iconography is our spiritual lives, and I quoted Henri J. Nouwen on this subject. Nouwen wrote a reflection on the time he spent quietly meditating on four icons, which was published as Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying With Icons. Nouwen found that icons are “not easy to see.” He even called them “rigid, lifeless, schematic and dull” at first. But he gazed at these four icons for hours at a time, and, after patient, prayerful stillness on his part, they began to speak to him. As a man who loved the art of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Marc Chagall, he could have chosen any of these Western treasures for his meditations. But he chose icons. Why?
“I have chosen icons because they are created for the sole purpose of offering access, through the gate of the visible, to the mystery of the invisible. Icons are painted to lead us into the inner room of prayer and bring us close to the heart of God.”
That’s what spiritual writing should do for the reader who is willing to give it more than a cursory reading. And if it doesn’t bring the reader close to the heart of God, it should at least bring him close to his own heart—help him get in touch with his interior thoughts and feelings.
“Spiritual writing is incarnational writing…. In the way we learn to stand with our readers in all their confusion and wonder and fear and joy and sorrow and hope and pain… We handle words as treasured…. Words are the place where zeal and wisdom meet in friendship, in which truth and beauty kiss each other…. Our desire is to love words—to love their sound, to love their meaning, to love their history, to love their rhythm…We are willing to hurt, to cry, to sweat in order to capture the great image….. This is the agony and the ecstasy of spiritual writing.”
And maybe because of the incarnational nature of spiritual writing, it is also “risky writing”:
“Spiritual writing always has a prophetic edge to it. We begin by watching the culture carefully and discerning where that watching will lead us. Then we cast an alternative vision…. We step out where others dare not go…. We inch out on a dangerous limb….”
Sometimes casting that alternative vision brings rejection. Sometimes we can become self-indulgent. And a third risk—and the one that scares me most—is that we “run roughshod over people, treating them as objects to be manipulated rather than precious persons to be treasured.”
While Foster names among his favorite spiritual writing St. Augustine’s Confessions and Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle (and I think both are excellent), I would also include writing that isn’t necessarily Christian in nature. Including writing that does not have as part of its purpose to convert readers to its point of view, but to delve deeply into events of the human heart and allow the reader to form his own conclusions, feel his own feelings. A few of my favorites:
Lit and Facing Altars, both by Mary Karr
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy
Appetites: Why Women Want, and Drinking, A Love Story, both by Caroline Knapp
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Sunday Wife by Cassandra King (Conroy)
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, and The Secret Life of Bees, both by Sue Monk Kidd