More artful spiritual writing has been written and published over the past millennia than can ever be covered in a single class, or one lifetime of self-study. Notice I said, artful. This is the kind of spiritual writing we’ll be covering in my upcoming 49 Writers class.
I was born into a secular family in a secular tradition in a secular time. I never took a religious studies course and didn’t buy my first Bible until I was in my late 40s. As a college student, if anyone uttered the word spiritual in my presence, I would either scoff or take off running out of fear some ecstatic, bead-toting, New Age cultist would try and recruit me to their next meeting. I lived happily in my ill-defined, elusive “catch-and-release” spirituality. And as one of my good writer-friends said, “I wouldn’t touch spiritual writing with a ten-foot pole.”
But then something happened. As a reader and as a writer, I stumbled into a literary treasure trove and came under the spell of some great spiritual writers and thinkers. In time, I began viewing the genre in a refreshingly new way.
The best of the best in spiritual writing walks the tightrope between art and religious propaganda, as Phillip Yancey says in his introduction to the Best Spiritual Writing 2012. Translation: the spiritual and religious content can’t be laid on too thick, it should be sincere but without diluting its content and message.
In the religious subculture, Yancey observes, “there are readers who applaud books and essays in which every prayer is answered and every disease is healed.” To which I would add, and every neurotic, schizophrenic lost soul reaches nirvana or maybe just some sort of transitory, fleeting inner calm. (I keep looking for that book, in particular.)
But the kind of spiritual writing I’m most drawn to lacks that kind of “I-have-seen-the-light” kind of sentimentality. Imagine an agent is talking right now. You know how agents love to ask for those dreaded comparative titles, right? In that vein, I could put it this way: I want Woody Allen meets the Dalai Lama, Richard Dawkins meets Thomas Merton, and The Terminator meets The Apostle.
In the kind of inspired spiritual writing we’ll be reading and discussing, there are no solutions or holier-than-thou pieties. No easily-acquired, formulaic spiritual elixirs. Frankly, many times the authors are just psychologically screwed up, battered by sin, troubled by doubt, and wandering down feckless paths, full of questions, wrong turns, and nowhere close to reaching inner enlightenment. (Who knew monks could be stricken by such inner noise and turmoil?)
In the works we’ll examine, what does abound is endless tension, conflict, struggle, discernment, paradox, investigation, exploration—with less sterile analysis and more mystery.
Rabbis, saints, monks, pilgrims, seekers, sojourners, starets, theologians, bodisattvas, philosophers, social activists, priests, sages, seers, mystics, nuns and non-believers. From all of them—notable, memorable, literary works of art have been given to the world.
Patricia Hampl writes poignantly about the powerful scope of spiritual memoir, testimonies such as the poems of the great Jewish poets of the Holocaust Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, the memoirs of Primo Levi—these, Hampl says, have extended the meaning of the spiritual.
“They remind us that the journey is to history’s hell as well as to our imagined heaven. And that the voice of the spirit is always a singular human being, a beloved creature lost forever, consigned by blind hatred to oblivion. The voice is personal, interior.”
I don’t know where you’ll encounter more profound truths, more universal connections than from individuals writing true stories about their inner hell. The personal narratives about a person’s raw longings and struggles to know their soul’s desires. To know their authentic selves. To unravel the hidden in the interior self.
After all, isn’t this a description of the earliest roots of Western literature from
to Leo Tolstoy to Dorothy Day to the pages of your own journal? Isn’t this what
spiritual writing is and has been?
Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being is a deeply meditative book which partially recounts impressions of her travels to
It’s infused with spiritual wisdoms, but she is never heavy-handed about it.
While the book is deeply philosophical, she can also be self-deprecating, and
is not afraid to “lighten up” when discussing serious religious matters. As she
reflects about the puzzles of life and existence and God, she conjures writings
and wisdoms from an eclectic array of sources: a paleontologist-priest who
wanders the Gobi desert, various rabbinical leaders
through the ages, and a man she describes as an endearing religious crank.
In one section, she ends with this: “Every human being sucks the living strength of God from a different place, said Rabbi Pinhas, and together they make up
Perhaps as humans deepen and widen their understanding of God, it takes more
people to see the whole of Him. Or it could be that there is a universal mind
for whom we are all stringers.”
I’m pretty sure I can make this statement without controversy and without scaring anyone off: All writing is a spiritual act.
If you’re curious about what constitutes the best in spiritual writing today across faith traditions and through the centuries, please join me for some stimulating readings and discussion. The experience might lead you down some unforeseen literary and spiritual paths.
Spiritual Writing: An Introduction will meet four times from to on Tues/Thurs, Feb. 19/21 and Tues/Thurs, Feb. 26/28 at the 49 Alaska Writing Center.
Kathleen Tarr was the featured monthly author in September. You can find her four blog posts in the49 Writers archive—one of them was recognized as the best guest blog post of 2012. She is the former Program Coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA Program in creative writing. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, TriQuarterly, Cirque,
Airlines Magazine, and a chapter from her
book-in-progress is forthcoming in the Sewanee Review. She earned her MFA in
creative nonfiction from the Alaska . University