Writing as what some would call a “spiritual discipline” is one of the things that most fascinates me and that keeps me pen-in-hand and pen-on-page for much of my writing time. I discovered writing before I discovered prayer – even though I grew up in a very committed, church-involved Christian family. I was taught prayer as something rather static, the same way I was taught life in general. Prayer was one more place with behavioural rules to adhere to and clear expectations to meet, and to begin with, prayer was very much a script learned by heart (I remember getting ‘stage-fright’ when I was the one to pray in the evening, scared to forget the “text”…).
I realised that I could write early in my teenage years, a sudden epiphany I remember well – the realisation that I could have writing as a space to myself, my own sphere, where I was free to think and imagine and say things I would not have been free to explore elsewhere.
I also began to explore what faith meant to me as a teenager. Before my confirmation, when I was 14, I had decided that I was going to leave my parent’s church. My mother talked me round, however, and I stayed – for another ten years. But while the church became less my focus of attention, God came into the picture, slowly and rather more on God’s initiative than on mine. I needed this relationship quite badly during those years, and I think I hung on to the little faith I had more from desperation than anything else. My idea of God was still deeply influenced by what had been preached to me since birth, a God rather a lot like the men in authority in that church, and rather less like the God of the gospel. This experience was punctured from time to time with God being present to me in a rather different way. The God I experienced on a few memorable occasions during those years, and who sustained me throughout without my knowing, was so full of tenderness that there was a completely different world to explore from what I had been taught I could expect from that relationship. There was something there that didn’t fit the “theory”… In the end, I had to leave this church before being able to search for the God who had come to meet me.
The first retreat I ever went on, two years after leaving home, and about a year after leaving my parent’s church, changed me and the way I looked at the world and at God and at prayer for good. Suddenly all these doors opened, and there was this vast space I had never known existed. And there was room for me.
This retreat was at a Jesuit house, and when I left I had been given much by the people there that I still draw from daily. I can’t give a comprehensive introduction into the thoughts of St Ignatius of Loyola, but I want to mention two ideas that were given to me there to help me deepen my prayer life, because they have shaped my writing – the monastic practice of “Lectio Divina” and Ignatius’ concept of “Contemplation” (which is different to the use of the word in other spiritual traditions). I’ll keep this basic – please refer to the links I add for more detailed reading.
I will quote the website of the Jesuits on Ignatian spirituality on this (the website draws from “Finding God in All Things: A Marquette Prayer Book” © 2009 Marquette University Press):
“First one goes to a quiet place and recalls that one is about to listen to the Word of God. Then one reads the scripture passage aloud to let oneself hear with his or her own ears the words. When one finishes reading, pause and recall if some word or phrase stood out or something touched one’s heart. If so, pause and savor the insight, feeling, or understanding. Then go back and read the passage again because it will have a fuller meaning. Pause again and note what happened. If one wants to dialogue with God or Jesus in response to the word, one should follow the prompting of one’s heart. This kind of reflective listening allows the Holy Spirit to deepen awareness of God’s taking the initiative to speak with us.”
Lectio Divina helped me enormously to slow down and take time for the reading of the text. Having grown up with a very literal understanding of the bible, all I had ever approached scripture with had been logic, the mind, and no other part of me – neither my experience nor my feelings nor my imagination. None of these had a place in the world view that I had been taught. What I felt had never been important in any way. And here I was, faced with the completely new thought that my experience and my feelings and my self were exactly that – important. Essential, in Ignatius’ view, to connecting me to the living God. It turned my world upside down – into a rather more liveable shape.
The other way of praying Ignatius suggests in his “Spiritual Exercises”, Contemplation, is “a prayer form in which one uses his or her senses in an imaginative way to reflect on a Gospel passage. One uses the senses, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, and smelling to make the Gospel scene real and alive.”
What better way to do that than in writing… I found that in writing the biblical narrative in my own words, in a more extensive and descriptive way, I often discovered a deeper access into the story, a much greater realisation of its impact and meaning. And we cannot write in a way that is not personal, this discovery always correlates with accessing a deeper level of truth about myself and my own experience. To write these gospel stories in our own words, in our own ways, reveals their relevance and significance to us.
I would like to share this experience with you, and I invite you to try it for yourself:
In the following posts, I will write about my writing – about praying with my imagination and experience, with poetry, with words that are alive and drawn from an imagined, prayerful experience of a gospel narrative.
Maybe you have tried it before, maybe this is as new to you as it was to me a few years ago. It’s definitely best learned by experience – so try it out:
Choose a text, maybe a gospel narrative to begin with. (For this and the upcoming posts, I will use John 9 for my examples.)
When you begin, I suggest you first find a quiet space and a little undisturbed time. Have a bible, pen and paper at hand.
Now take a moment to become still.
Maybe begin with a short prayer, or just let yourself become aware of God’s presence. Then read the text you chose.
Then read it again, slowly.
Read it aloud.
Write it out in longhand.
(Yes – the whole of it. Don’t type it. Writing by hand involves your senses, it’s slower; you process every word more deeply.)
Return to the text daily for several days. Maybe start reading it on Sunday evening, and then return to it every day until the weekend. Let it sink into you, let yourself sink into the text. Just keep it around, near you. Leave the bible open. Leave the longhand copy on your desk. Re-read it online in-between work things. Let your mind take it in, let it be the background to your week, without analysis. Read it, slowly, every day. Make a few minutes time for it, every day.
(For the next step – follow on to the post called “Prayer and Creative Writing II”. And keep reading in the meantime!)
More information other aspects of Ignatian spirituality can be found here.