I recently shared panel space at an AWP conference with three writers much smarter, more prolific, and better looking than me. I was lucky to be among them. We all weighed in on the pitfalls of spiritual writing, and we called the panel “I and Thou: The Dangers of Self in Writing About Religion.”
Thankfully, our focus was NOT Martin Buber, who intellectually gridlocks my brain every time I read him. Instead, we talked about the language of the transcendent, and how writing about our relationships or run-ins with the divine requires “sharper language, ethical diligence, and wide eyes.”
And it made me think of Rilke, who spent most of his life trying to find new ways to describe the indescribable, who spoke of God, saying: “With my half-mouth I stammer you, who are eternal in your symmetry.”
And that about sums it up for me, all of my feeble attempts to turn into narrative this lifelong, messy, mercurial relationship with an invisible God.
With my half-mouth I have stammered him, over and over again.
The problem is, though, I feel like I have stammered everything I’ve ever tried to write about, including grief and addiction and love. Coming of age and fear. Mental illness and my incredibly robust messiah complex. My entire life as a writer has been an attempt to wrap language around the ineffable. To describe what it feels like to be human, every aspect, including standing at the feet of a God who I sometimes have faith in, and sometimes want to forget.
So I’m not so sure that the language of spiritual writing has a kind of elevated risk of cliché or hackery, and therefore necessitates a deeper ethic or deeper wellspring than, for example, writing about feelings of grief and loss as one buries a favorite pet.
I have experienced the same pitfalls and temptations toward limp prose and even dogmatism in just about every piece of writing I’ve ever attempted, regardless of subject. I, the self, am a perpetual danger to good writing in general. I am hyperbolic, obvious, sentimental, didactic and, more often than I’d care to admit, just plain dumb.
This angle, of course, would have changed the panel markedly. It would have become something like: How to Not Be a Hack When You Write About Stuff. I would have politely, with fear and trembling, declined to be on that panel.
But back to Rilke, who I discovered when I was a young Christian, still entrenched in youth group ideas of Jesus and deep grooves of evangelical jargon. Mine was a vocabulary filled with the “Father heart of God” and “prayer closets” and “Jesus coming into my heart to be my personal lord and savior.”
Through his language and imagery Rilke started to tweak the ways in which I allowed myself to see the divine.
“My God is dark,” he writes, “and like a webbing made of a hundred roots, that drink in silence.”
And of himself, he says: “I know that my trunk rose from his warmth, but that’s all, because my branches hardly move…, near the ground, and only wave a little in the wind.”
Rilke’s language was like an internal key that set me loose to reimagine God and who I am in his shadow. In many ways, it kick-started my desire to be a writer: the power to reshape my known world into something that felt sublime.
So inasmuch as our particular faith traditions can deaden our writing with worn language, I agree that we need to be diligent in seeking out new angles and imagery.
And I think that writing with an agenda to convert or proselytize should be deeply scrutinized to make sure it successfully hops that mysterious line between literature and, oh, I don’t know, pamphlets or sermons. A former professor of mine, Clyde Edgerton, used to say that to write a good story you can never start with a moral, or even end up on one. Otherwise, you should probably find yourself a pulpit.
Of course Tolstoy and Thoreau and Baldwin complicate that notion a bit, but generally, yes, may we never write religious tracts, which attempt to simplify complex theological concepts into their most palatable forms, if we’re trying to write good essays, which are wonderfully exploratory and questioning and usually more about the circling journey than an arrival. I don’t ever want to read the four-part sermon of Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse,” for example, which might reduce that white-knuckled transcendent experience to an analogy on how sin blots out the light of God.
But Fredrick Beuchner said that “all theology… is at its heart autobiography…if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into our personal lives that he speaks.”
There is no human experience of God that falls outside of our senses, it seems. It is through eyes and ears and hearts and nostrils and fingertips on sacred pages that we behold and make sense of the divine. These are the only tools we have.
And these are the exact tools I employ when I bury Gideon the Springer Spaniel beneath the white oak tree, feel something break inside, and try to turn the experience into prose. It all begins sensory, and then becomes the same old agonizing at my desk for the right words and imagery and flow.
But that’s a hell of a vocation; the wrapping of words around God and our experiences as his creation.
When I was a kid, I was told that God wanted praise so he gathered up the dust and gave it shape and received his fair share. In other words, he built us to worship.
But based on the spiritual urgency and elation I’ve experienced trying to get the words right, I sometimes wonder if God instead created us as vessels of nomenclature.
“Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky,” says Genesis, “and He brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.”
Maybe God is still looking to see what words we’ll come up with. The names we will give things, including our descriptions of the creator himself. Maybe he actually uses us — the human body as divine periscope into the sensory experience — to holistically see this universe he has set spinning in the ether, his own reflection in the scattered dust.
I feel it now, writes Rilke. There’s power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.