By Joan Curtis
Several months ago, I transferred my membership from my home church of forty-three years to a local congregation, thirty miles closer to my current home. As a lifelong Presbyterian, we go before the Session (local ruling body of a church) to join that church. On this occasion, I was asked, in advance of speaking to the Session, to think about how my relationship to God had grown through the years. For several evenings, I sat down and wrote about events in my life, which gave me the opportunity to see God in new ways and resulted in a growth of my relationship with God. I had given thought to these events many times, but it was in writing them down where I saw connections I had not previously seen. This act of writing had made clear the active role God has had in my life from my earliest memories. The writing was not inspirational to me; this act of writing had freed me to have a deeper understanding of God and my relationship with God, which, in turn, frees me in becoming closer to my authentic self.
Spiritual guides have used the written word, frequently in the form of letters, to accompany others from a distance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote letters while imprisoned, and Henri Nouwen and Teresa of Avila used letters offering spiritual guidance. Since letters are meant to be read, I wondered if any spiritual companions used other forms of writing or journaling within spiritual direction. Kent Ira Groff (2009) in Writing in the Dark to Love: Using a Pen as a Tool in Spiritual Companioningstates, “I alternate between the rhythms of writing as a tool for keeping the guide’s heart open and writing for opening the heart of the journeyer.” Writing as a spiritual practice does not need to be formal writing. Scribbles, words, doodles—anything “bubbling up” can hold meaning. Journals can be used the save these scribbles, these words, these doodles, and, over time, other meanings can be found in the accumulation of the writings.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, in his book Writing the Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice (2012), states in the preface, “You aren’t writing to be read; you are writing to be freed. Writing as spiritual practice is conspiratorial rather than inspirational. It conspires to strip away everything you use to maintain the illusion of certainty, security and self-identity. Where spiritual writing seeks to bind you all the more tightly to the self you imagine yourself to be, writing as spiritual practice intends to free you from it.” I did not think of writing as a spiritual practice for me in earlier years, but there are journals in my house documenting my writing during difficult time periods, as well as the most joyful of times. Writing has always helped me to have a clearer understanding of events as well as a clearer understanding of myself within the context of those events. Also giving me a safe place to express both my outrage at God and my deepest gratitude to God, writing has freed me to move closer to the person God intends me to be.
Why would I choose to use writing in a journal as a tool in my spiritual direction sessions and even offer writing as a spiritual practice to my directees? As spiritual directors, we are companions to those seeking a closer relationship to God or maybe a deeper understanding of God’s work in their lives. There have been moments in spiritual direction when I have suggested prayer, and my directee, though agreeing, has responded, “but I don’t really know what to pray about.” Perhaps a few moments writing in a journal would help. Kent Ira Groff (2009) says, “To yearn is to pray, and writing is a way to give voice to our yearning.”
Groff asks his directees if they keep a journal within the first couple of sessions. No matter the answer—no, occasionally, yes—he suggests they bring one each time they come see him. He explains there may be moments when an insight is discovered during conversation, and so it is not lost, the insight is recorded in the journal. Other times a poem, a book, a movie is recorded in the journal because the directee wants to remember to tell Groff.
As both a writer and a teacher of writing, I always tell my students the first draft of a piece of writing is written from the heart. Do not worry about grammar or punctuation; just write what your heart tells you to write. Groff suggests we begin with an invitation to our directees to make a record of everyday joys and blessings. This act of writing joys and blessings can be the opening to what Henri Nouwen describes as “deep wells of hidden treasures that are beautiful for us as well as for others to see” (136).
Aware many people are intimidated by the thought of writing, I would offer poetry as a way to begin an entry. Often referred to as the language of the soul, there is a freedom in poetry because it can use or not use fewer words, can have or not have punctuation, can be short or long, can have form or no form, and can rhyme or not rhyme. Groff (2009) suggests to his directees, upon disclosure of margins of discomfort, begin to write in those edges of uncertainty in order to discover a gift. Words or phrases with little thought given the complete sentences or left to right can encourage “ordinary folks to write poetically.” It was in an adaptation of George Ella Lyons’ Where I’m Fromformat when I discovered why I make my bed and get dressed upon awakening. Understanding why I did this loosened the bindings of behaviors I had for over fifty years.
Lyn G. Brakeman (2016) in Writing Midrash as a Spiritual Practice describes she began using the Jewish method of going deeper into scripture for spiritual meaning, midrash, in her practice as a spiritual director. “Prayer-writing became my way of discerning myself in relation to God . . . This way, I soon learned, had a name: midrash.” (p.64) As she explains midrash, this is a way of expanding a biblical text and forcing it to reveal more, “to tell you more about yourself and about God” (p. 64). She has found “midrash provides a beautiful space for contemporary readers to identify and elaborate, using the power of creative spiritual imagination to make the stories live” (p. 64). Learning how to live in the present world, while making sense of confusions and seeing the holy patterns, is the gift of writing midrash.
For Brakeman, the following process is followed:
“ ‘I will tell you something about stories. They aren’t just entertainment. Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.’ (This was written by Leslie Marmon Silko in her 1977 book, Ceremony. She is a poet and Laguna Pueblo writer whom literary critics have called part of the first wave of a Native American Resistence.)” Historical stories provide the glue, which holds a community or church or family together.
Our stories also hold the clues to who we really are—the “me” beyond daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow, teacher, friend. Just as we gaze into a mirror and reflect, writing gives us the opportunity to gaze into the stories of our lives and discover God’s grace beyond all imagination. Henri J. M. Nouwen (2016) in Beyond the mirror: Reflections on Death and Life, recorded his thoughts following a near- death injury he received when struck by the outside mirror of a passing van. Injuries so severe, his recovery in doubt, he began writing the stories of interruptions in his life—solitude of a Trappist monk interrupting life as a teacher, confrontation with poverty in Latin America interrupting a life of comfort in North America. Nouwen writes,
These many interruptions calling me “beyond” compelled
me to write. First of all, I was compelled simply because
writing seemed the only way for me not to lose heart in
the frightening and often devastating interruptions and
to hold on to my innermost self while moving from known
to unknown places. Writing helped me remain somewhat
focused amid the turmoil and to discern better the small
guiding voice of God’s Spirit in the midst of the cacophony
of distracting voices (17, 18).
It is well documented writing can lead to healing (DeSalvo, 1999), and even if writing does not change the events of the past, a new perspective can be gained from putting pen to paper and examining one’s feelings about those events. Louise DeSalvo, describes a particular time of writing about trauma in her early life, and she examines her feelings about the trauma. Ending her writing with gratefulness, she realizes she is still feeling sad but there is a subtle difference—a shift in the way the sadness feels to her. Acknowledging her feelings and linking them to past events, she has transformed her sadness from overwhelming to something she can hold lightly. “A baker friend of mine calls it ‘yeasty’—alive and growing and changing.” Most people will, at some juncture in their lives, encounter some kind of trauma or difficulty or time of deep sadness. Many of these issues come to light during sessions of Spiritual Direction. When I think about using writing as a spiritual practice in Spiritual Direction, my hope is for my directees to see their relationship with God as “alive and growing and changing.”
Brakeman, L. (2016). Writing midrash as a spiritual practice.Presence, 22:3, 64-67.
DeSalvo, L. (1999). Writing as a way of Healing: How telling our stories transforms
our lives. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Groff, K. (2009). Writing in the dark to love: Using a pen as a tool in spiritual
companioning.Presence, 15:1, pp. 34-41.
Nouwen, H. (2016). Beyond the mirror: Reflections on death and life. New York:
(1996). Bread for the journey. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd.
Shapiro, R. & Shapiro, A. (2012). Writing—the sacred art: Beyond the page to
spiritual practice. Woodstock, Vermont: Skylight Paths Publishers.