“Writing and Prayer” was published in an earlier version as “Learning to Pray,” in The Christian Century, March 22nd, 2000. Reproduced in Religion Online, and many other places.
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Writing and Prayer. We read about them, write about them, talk about them, agonize about them, resolve to do them, wish we’d done them, more than we actually do them. In this they resemble other pursuits that people overestimate the intensity, frequency, and duration of–reading, and sex.
Both writing and prayer are archaic, anachronistic, against the grain of modern life, solitary and often heartbreaking, embarked on without the certainty of fruit. Both demand an expenditure, an apparent waste of time, that’s like a waste of self. Bill Gates in Time magazine: “In terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on Sunday morning.” Of course, of course. Making art is not the most efficient use of time either when it comes to tangible economic rewards. It’s working in the darkness with no guarantees of success, publication, or “fame, money, and the love of beautiful people.” Now or ever. It’s working with blind faith, stubborn hope, dumb love.
The tiny stunted wings of the flightless cormorant of the Galapagos are useless for flying. Yet with hazy, ancestral memories of flight, it spends much of its time standing on rocks near the shore spreading its vestigial wings out to dry in the sun, just as flying cormorants do. Flapping wings with a sense of futility, a foreboding of failure. That’s how we feel on the brink of something difficult, but exhilarating like writing or prayer. But if the wind suddenly lifted the bird and it sailed through the skies, effortlessly, beautifully–well, that’s like flight into the realm where the right words in the right order surprise like a free gift; ideas cascade, inevitable as a cataract; and each sentence sings; or in prayer when “so great a sweetness flows in the breast that we must laugh and we must sing, we are blest by everything, everything we look upon is blest.”
In both prayer and writing, these blessed states are partly a free gift, and partly earned: we travail to forge the metal which lightning may strike. Both take a quiet life, hard work, and sacrifice. Henry James captures the pain: “If one would do the best he can with his pen, there is one word he must inscribe on his banner, and that word is solitude.” Though there have, of course, been gregarious writers–I think of Trollope who treasured the social success, the club life, and the friends his writing brought him–and though friendships bring insight, knowledge, self-knowledge, and growth, my own experience echoes T.S. Eliot in “Ash Wednesday,” “Where shall the word be found, where will the word/ Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.” Conversations echo in my head, a dissonance drowning out my own thoughts. Too much extroversion robs me of the inner quiet necessary to view my life sanely, leave alone to revise it. In fact, my writing and my thinking are inversely proportional to my social life.
“Be still and know that I am God,” echoes an Old Testament imperative. In the Book of Kings, the Lord appeared to the prophet Elijah, not in “the great and powerful wind that tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks,” not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in “a gentle whisper.” A whisper, easily drowned in the tumult of an overambitious schedule. The Quaker writer, Richard Foster, extols the otium sanctum, “holy leisure,” of the Church Fathers. “If we expect to succeed in the contemplative arts, we must pursue “holy leisure” with a determination that is ruthless to our date books,” he says.
Holy Leisure. It is indeed the best soil for writing or prayer: a considered, underscheduled and life with fallow hours, and pruned activities, commitments, friends. It’s important especially for women, trained to be “nice,” to perfect the difficult art of saying No, resisting the blandishments to busyness, “giving back to the community,” taking your turn, doing your fair share. Not to do as much as–possibly–you can, but to live with “the broad margin to life,” Thoreau praises, thus making space for the new idea, the transforming insight. When I look at Vermeer’s paintings, the girl pausing in the midst of quiet work to gaze out of the window and muse, I think: That is how I want to live my life, softly, meditatively, reverently. Coming to the quietness has a cost, of course, the cost of the loneliness that wrenches you when the quietness you have courted seems more than you can bear. Precious, costly, and priceless, that holy loneliness, carved out and set apart from the dead wood of lunches, dinner parties, and talk, talk, talk.
We enter the realm of paradoxes. Though we need solitude to pray, prayer returns to the engagement of love. The refrain of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” long embroidered into samplers declares, “He prayeth well who loveth well/ Both man and bird and beast./ He prayeth best who loveth best/ All things both great and small.” John, Jesus’ beloved friend, gives us two yardsticks to gauge our spirituality–growing love for God, growing love for the people in our lives. Real prayer does not so much change God’s mind as it changes us, slowly, almost imperceptibly. And in the quietness of prayer, we learn the arts of kindness. Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation: “It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am, the more affection I have for them. It is pure affection and filled with reverence for the solitude of others. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say.”
And though there have been splendid lyric poets like Emily Dickinson who were essentially recluses, drawing inspiration from the certain slant of light on winter afternoons, much of the inexhaustible art like Hamlet, Lear, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, or Wuthering Heights that shares its wisdom and beauty with you afresh on each encounter, springs from the empathy from which Flaubert declares, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” That’s interesting considering a writer’s actual work, faced with the blank page, is quiet to the point of sensory deprivation. Just as a foreigner sees the quirks and oddities of a country more clearly than the native, the person who deliberately seeks solitude gains clear-sightedness. I like that line of Yeats, “And eyes by solitary thought made aquiline.”
Whether one seeks to be an artist or a contemplative, discipline, mundane word, must channel the streams of sweetness that surprise, whether “inspiration,” or the rapturous insights of contemplation. We’ve heard the metaphor: inspiration, like lightning, strikes where it wills, whom it wills. But if anything lasting, anything lovely, is to remain after its sudden blazing descent, there is no substitute for the long hours of learning a craft. This apprenticeship teaches us to tame a torrent of ideas in sinuous, sinewy sentences, in the essay’s narrow room. (And, as with any craft, and this is one of life’s unfairnesses, there are the naturals who absorb the tricks of the trade rapidly, as if by osmosis, and others, of whom I am one, who learn them slowly, arduously).
In fact, inspiration is a way of seeing, a loving perception of the mystery, the magic, the tiny miracles in daily life that we can train ourselves to acquire. It takes slowing down. Consider the subjects that the house-bound Emily Dickinson made poetry of–the fly, the bird, the worm, the snake. Traveling through the hours lightly, looking, thinking, helps our eyes cultivate the retina of wonder, the ability to “see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
Writing a literary book feels like tunneling through the Himalayas with a spade. You work in the darkness with no surety that you’ll ever succeed, just wild hope. You just do it, and do it, and do it, and you probably do it best when you do it without hope of reward–for its own sake. In “Writing in the Cold,” his brilliant essay on the writing life, the editor Ted Solotaroff suggests that “the turning point in many people’s writing lives was when the intrinsic interest of what they were doing began to take over, and generate a sense of necessity.” The intrinsic interest rather than ambition, or restlessness for reward: money, praise, “the buzz.”
There’s always the intermittent temptation to abandon being a writer, or being a Christian. I have, at moments of crushing discouragement, contemplated giving up writing altogether. But then I know I cannot. There will always be empty hours. I cannot imagine living without a passion to fill them, and nothing for me is more interesting. And so I continue like Macbeth after the first murder that necessitated sequential crimes: “I am steeped in blood so far, that returning were as tedious as going o’er.” So I work dumbly, doggedly, like a ox plodding in circles, treading grain. To modify Eliot’s stricture in “The Four Quartets,” I work and “wait without hope/ For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; work and wait without love/ For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith/ But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting./ For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business,” Eliot concludes.
Writing early drafts feels like groping in the darkness–like reaching for God who is somewhere in the shadows, loving and good, powerful and wise. And amid the griefs of life–a precious friendship dissolves amid gossip and misunderstandings, the book manuscript I’ve worked on for five years is not viable, when I feel pierced by “the arrow that flies by night,” inexplicable malice, envy, betrayal, the human depravity scripture details–I grope for him, trying to see the meaning, the final draft, when all around me is a mess of manuscript, haphazard, crossed-out, added-to. And I try to revise myself and my life beyond the first draft, believing that with the help of the sovereign wise artificer, this manuscript of aspirations will eventually become the finished, completed, perfect book.
While practicing both arts, you yearn for acceleration. You get fed up of this trying and failing; you want to write well; you want to master your craft. You want to savor the joy, and the peace that passeth understanding that lured you onwards. But spiritual growth is slow and gradual. The good man in the Psalms is compared to “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in due season.” Evolving as an artist is a similarly organic process. The natural can master her craft more rapidly by a ferocity of hours and will, diligence and discipline, but wisdom comes in its own time. That’s why it’s hard to think of a writer who has been a child prodigy, a Mozart.
Yet, though nothing but time can turn a sapling into the largest of trees, so that the birds of the air come and perch on its branches, there are organic fertilizers for one’s tender spiritual or artistic life, that will help it grow stronger, lovelier, and, yes, faster. Reading widely and deeply, the old masters as well as new ones; writing carefully and continually for writing is an art one learns by doing; seeking out smart criticism to show you your blind spots; creating time and space to work quietly–these help a writer develop. A fierce yearning–“God-hunger”–launches spiritual growth. “You shall seek me, and you shall find me when you seek me with all your heart:” Jeremiah’s words were engraved on a plaque in our dormitory when I was a novice with Mother Teresa at Calcutta. Yearning and seeking–but also making time to meditate on Scripture, discipline in obeying its wisdom. Though spiritual maturity will come in its own time, these practices might hasten that day.
And in both arts, like a shadow behind the bright yearning for perfection, is the inevitability of failure. The Apostle Paul laments this in a poignant, brilliant passage: “I do not understand what I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being, I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin. What a wretched man I am!
Failure–or, theologically, sin–is the antiphon to our yearning for goodness; to be loving; to be, in the Biblical word, righteous. But through it all, through the valley of failure, emerges a faint, pointillist likeness to Christ. You are changed as you seek to imitate Christ, and more, to be merged with him, to be blood brothers in the ancient sense, and have his sweet life flow through you as sap through a vine, in his metaphor.
When I write, I desire beauty in my inmost being. I want my sentences to be as iridescent as Nabokov’s, as grave and freighted and precise as Alice Munro’s, as haunting as Keats’ or Hopkins’ or Sylvia Plath’s. I want to create essays as lovely as a bough quivering with spring blossoms or glistening with icicles. I do not see this in my drafts. Wretched woman that I am, what will rescue me from this imperfect work? Time might, and hard work might, and reading constantly and critically might.
Or perhaps nothing will. I may never be Nabokov or Rushdie, my favorite prose stylists. John Gardner claims that more people fail at becoming successful businessmen than at becoming writers. If so, I must know many of the unsuccessful, for I know many who write hard, and read hard, and long hard for success, but whom success eludes, who have very minor careers at best. Solotaroff, less encouragingly, looks at the young writers full of bright promise that he published in the “New American Review,” and estimates that one-quarter go on to have reasonably successful careers; one-quarter have marginal ones in the alternative literary community of the little magazines and small presses; and one half simply disappear.
What separates the writer who emerges from the one who disappears? These help budding talent flower–the time and quiet to write, the stimulation and encouragement of the literary community, the support of family, adequate money and privacy: “500 pounds a year and a room of one’s own”–a concatenation of happy circumstances. When I read biographies of writers, I am struck by how their development as artists was aided by “luck”–a crucial nurturing friendship with a mentor or a fellow writer in their formative years, the zigzags of life leading to the books, paintings, cities, teachers, friends they needed to blossom. As the old weary book of Ecclesiastes observes, “The race is not to the swiftest, nor does food come to the wise, or wealth to the brilliant, or favor to the learned, but time and chance happen to them all.” On the other hand, luck does tend to happen to gifted people who work hard. And good writing is the best connection, the best “in” to the loop.
And then there’s “talent,” arbitrary, undemocratic thing. In Christ’s parable of the talents, the master at random gives his three servants one, two, and five talents. The latter two servants work mightily, but limited by their “raw talent” produce four and ten talents respectively. If you start out with but two talents–of time, energy, intelligence, literary education, opportunity, flair–all your diligence will probably increase it to no more than four talents. And it may take ten talents to write a truly beautiful book. These are facts one accepts, then forgets about; they do not take away from your duty to work, nor from the joy of work. For there is no exact gauge for literary talent; you do not know how luminous a book you might write till you have written it.
You need luck, you need talent, and you need determination and perseverance which, finally, is crucial. “The writer’s main task is to persist. Her most important imperative is to be at work,” Solotaroff says. Through constant reading, writing, revision, a style is forged. To finish writing a difficult book, or to mature spiritually until you transcend your oldself as modern saints like Gandhi, or Mother Teresa, or Maximilian Kolbe, takes the stamina of a pilgrim walking across a continent, or a gold miner digging in the almost unendurable heat of the Kolar gold fields of India, his eyes on the prize.
Both writing and prayer require a strenuous attempt at detachment from our distracting world of dollars, demands, the telephone, mail, friends, false friends, and extended family–“the enemies of one’s own household,” Jesus calls them. The world that is too much with us. Entering the world of the imagination is like gazing into the enchanted universe of an intertidal pool in which purple sea urchins and emerald sea anemones glow, along with hermit crabs hiding in other creature’s shells, and sea stars, black, white, and orange. I must tiptoe into this world–leaving behind the nagging Old World of people and their irritations, mess in the house, to-do lists, the jagged edges of life jabbing me–slowly, gingerly, like an immigrant unsure of the language, the customs, the geography of a country.
So spiritual directors suggest rituals to nudge the spirit into the presence of God–reading scripture, or breathing deeply to calm the body and concentrate thought before floating free. I offer myself absolution for the bumpy hours of easing into the zone, the priming rituals of reading great stylists until my pulse throbs in a complex rhythm I’ve unconsciously absorbed–or mechanically rereading the last few pages I’ve written to reenter the imaginative field of my piece. And then when ideas race from my neurons to my fingers, when my mind starts connecting all the scattered leaves of my universe, and I begin writing, almost instinctively, the language of literature: metaphor, imagery, alliteration, assonance, poetry, and my sentences sing, a car pulls into the driveway, my husband and daughters are home, and I am back to my old life, blinking like Lazarus, summarily summoned from death’s dark kingdom to the blithe goings-on of the everyday, to the crowd that gapes at him, quite unaware of the shadow world of beauty and terror (if Dante is to believed). I return shakily, a bit uncertainly, like one roused from a vivid dream, dazzled in the light.
Both writing and prayer are best done in the same place, at the same time. When I walk up to my familiar writing place–my armchair facing the woods–and see it waiting, quiet and ready, I start feeling calm. I feel like writing. An inner voice says, “Hurry up now; it’s time.” And contrary to romantic myth, a steady, scheduled life helps writers as much as it helps pray-ers. Flaubert: “It is good to be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
So too, the memories of the previous times we have met with God on our habitual holy ground usher us into an expectant quietness. Merton describes prayer in his accustomed sacred spot: My chief joy is to escape to the attic of the garden house and the little broken window that looks out over the valley. There in the silence, I love the green grass. The tortured gestures of the apple trees have become part of my prayer…. So much do I love this solitude that when I walk out along the road to the old barns that stand alone, delight begins to overpower me from head to foot, and peace smiles even in the marrow of my bones.”
Praying is like talking a foreign language. The nouns and verbs in this holy terra incognita are in a softer, lower timbre–patience, quietness, humility, self-denial, or turning the other cheek. When I read the New Testament, I’m struck by this “upside-down kingdom,” its reversal of the values of even good people. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you. Give secretly so that your right hand does not know what your left hand is doing. Invite those to your home who cannot invite you back.
In our world, we trust in our ability to work, network, charm, maneuver. But “the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” the Apostle Paul says. In God’s world, the person who trusts in God will be as blessed as “a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought, and never fails to bear fruit.” Our world values action, quick success–grabbing our desire from the jaws of hostile fate, battering down doors with our will. In God’s realm, we work quietly, knowing success will come according to his will, and in his perfect timing. In the world we know, we blow our own trumpet for fear that no one else will do it for us. If we try to walk Christ’s way, we do not exalt ourselves, believing Jesus: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” We wait, feeding off the wise, strong, sweet life of Jesus, God made flesh, metaphorically eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And when we glimpse the quietness and wisdom of God, and even momentarily take a God’s eye view of our life, our internal chatter of anxiety and annoyance is silenced as our perspective shifts, and our spirit sings in worship.
Humility, an acceptance of unknowing, is a shortcut in both paths. “If the angel comes, it will be because you have wooed him by your grim resolve to be always a beginner,” Rilke muses. I have grown as a writer through the humility that rejection brings. A publisher turns down my work, I do not get the fellowship I applied for, and I realize that my writing is probably not good enough–yet. In the first humbling, I feel I know nothing about literature or writing, nothing at all. Then I read with an alert hunger, studying again Speak Memory or Midnight’s Children. I study the craft of writing; I let books on tape murmur to me at fallow moments in the car, on the treadmill. I revise my manuscript with renewed rigor, a rekindled passion for beauty. And through this starting again as a beginner with fresh joy, trying again to say in as few words as possible exactly what I mean; once more reading continually the books that are truly great, I learn, I grow; my writing changes, matures. Rejection is a disguised friend, freezing me in my onward motion, forcing me to rethink my essay, my vocation.
The support of a community strengthens one in both quests because they are counter-cultural; in fact, senseless judged by the efficient values of the marketplace. We invest much time in seeking God, without any scientific certainty that he exists, just the knowledge of the heart. And when with twentieth century rationality, I query: Do I really believe that God invaded human history 2000 years ago; walked our mountains and waters teaching, was crucified for uttering uncompromising truth; it helps me believe when I see Jesus’ great insights proved true, not only in the wrinkles of my own life, but in the lives of other Christians. That joy comes not from gratifying every clamorous desire, but in silencing the frog chorus, I, I, I, and losing oneself in contemplating Christ and in loving–spouse, children, friends; in seeking righteousness rather than the gratifications of money or success. In my Christian friends too, I often observe increasing goodness and a slow deepening, as they are transformed from glory to glory, in the Apostle Paul’s phrase. And though I do believe, deeply, as one does when faith is verified by experience, I am an existentialist Christian when assailed by doubt. I choose to believe like Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle in The Chronicles of Narnia who says: “I’m on Aslan’s side, even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.” And so I go to my small church most Sundays to pray and worship with other believers, refiring my weary distracted heart with other’s fervor.
Few writers evolve in solitude. At some point, even the martyrs of art–like Emily Dickinson, Keats or Thoreau–met other writers who shared the twin passions of the love of literature and their own ambition. It is reinforcing to have other writers in our lives to share the glow of that first publication in a literary journal for which we made fifteen dollars, but which meant that our craft had begun to take that miraculous leap from saggy, unpublishable writing to publishable, published writing. It strengthens our passion to have people to talk to about books and writing, and esoteric conditions like writer’s block, who understand our anguish when the chapter, the book we worked on for so long miscarries. Our fellow-travelers bolster our conviction that our vocation, often dismissed as a pleasing hobby, an indulgence–Oh how nice! You write! Have you published anything I might have seen?--rather than the disciplined pursuit of an art is significant, worthwhile work for grown-up people.
Thomas Merton connects the two vocations in his essay, “Integrity.” “Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious men are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves. They never get around to being the particular poet or the particular monk they are intended to be by God. They never become the man or the artist who is called for by all the circumstances of their lives.
They waste their years in vain efforts to be some other poet, some other saint. They wear out their minds and bodies in a hopeless endeavor to write somebody else’s poems or possess somebody else’s spirituality.
There can be an intense egoism in following everybody else. People are in a hurry to magnify themselves by imitating what is popular–and too lazy to think of anything better.
Hurry ruins saints as well as artists. They want quick success and they are in such haste to get it that they cannot take time to be true to themselves.”
Writers begin as babies or mockingbirds–by imitating. Partly because of the mimicry involved in the extended process of finding their own voice and subject matter, many writers–consciously or unconsciously–sound like someone else while in their apprenticeship. The fashionable, with its lures of quick success or fame, tempts. However, once the writer grows in confidence and begin to tell the truth, she slowly discovers her own quirky, original voice. A distinctive style begins to shape itself. She begins to draw, truthfully, on her own ideas, convictions, emotions, family, and biography, unfashionable and squirmy though they may be, not on what has been published or is popular, and so finds the memoir that she alone can write, that is like no other memoir ever written, just as the inner geography of her life in its hills and valleys, heartbreak and delight, is like no other life. If she dips her pen into the sore of her own grief, her shame, her secrets, she will add electricity to her memoir, or to the more disguised forms of autobiographical writing like poems, novels, or short stories. Rushdie–“A writer’s injuries are his strengths, and from his wounds will flow his sweetest, most startling dreams.”
And from the molten lava of her own guilt, her hypocrisy, her pangs of despised love, and yes, stabs at virtue, self-forgetting love, longing for transcendence, the writer can mold powerful art–with this six inches of ivory, this postage stamp of earth. In The Enigma of Arrival, V.S. Naipaul describes how he tried to sound cosmopolitan when he first started to write, while striving to edit out his past in his Asian community in Trinidad, his naivete and clodhopperish inexperience, and the humiliations attendant on his transplantation to the West, not realizing that in his peasant background and behaviors lay his most authentic story. Later in his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, he lingers on the things he was most ashamed of. He writes, “Man and writer were the same person. But that is a writer’s greatest discovery. It took time–and how much writing!–to arrive at that synthesis.”
Both writing and prayer are disciplines of little things. I love this poem by Robert Francis:
Excellence is millimeters and not miles.
From poor to good is great. From good to best is small.
From almost best to best sometimes not measurable.
The man who leaps the highest leaps perhaps an inch
Above the runner-up. How glorious that inch
And that split-second longer in the air before the fall.
What are the millimeters from almost best to best? Spare writing with every unnecessary word shaken off the page. Details almost invisible to the rapid reader: the imagistic verb, the painterly image, a sentence that sings. Writing that in Conrad’s phrase, “makes you hear, makes you feel–that is, before all, makes you see.” So too, it’s in the details of love that spiritual transformation occurs and exhibits itself–not so much in the showy dahlias and cannas, but in violets and bluebells. The Apostle Paul declares in, probably, the most famous passage in the New Testament: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” He explicates the tiny virtues. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
A snide definition of a classic: a book which everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to actually read, today, tonight–the Iliad or The Remembrance of Things Past. We desire the blessings of God–life in its fullness, joy, peace, fruitfulness more than we desire God himself. We yearn for a book magical, lyrical, perfect, more than for the actual process of rewriting a chapter yet again, the long months and years before the finished book. And in both quests, the secret of joy is losing yourself in the pleasure of the present, in the play of words, in learning Christ, his quirky values, and imitating him.
How crass this sounds, but in both endeavors, quality springs from quantity! “If you want to pray better, you should pray more,” Mother Teresa says. Somerset Maugham writes: “I venture the opinion that you cannot write well unless you write much.” The more we write–if we do so critically, learning from good teachers, getting insightful feedback, reading, reading, practicing, practicing–the better we write. As loving-heartedness is the touchstone of the verity of our prayers, the market is the red light in writing. Rejection slips speak their own language. Of admonition. You are not there yet. Seize the day. Work as hard as you can.
Both writing and prayer usher us into the heart of mystery. From where do poems come? Or from where, indeed, does nature? Or God? The faces of the audience at the Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival at which I sought a total immersion into poetry, were rapt as at a religious service. For literature partially and temporarily slakes the religious yearning for beauty, order, truth. Both disciplines are therapeutic in their search for the difficult truth that frees. Like prayer, the very act of writing calms and focuses us. Often, the difficulty lies in just settling down and doing it. As with sex or exercise or good conversation, it can be hard to get going, but once we have, it’s as if we can keep going indefinitely. Good writing and good prayer, like good sex or good mothering, demand self-forgetfulness, losing ourselves in the other, our subject, our Lord. And the flow of creativity or prayer can be jammed and dammed by similar barricades–anxiety, hostility, anger, cherishing untruths, saying too many Noes.
We are lured into both by the dream, the promise of joy. The cost turns out to be more than we ever imagined: “not less than everything.” We begin to experience the disappointment, doubt, rejection, agony–and the ultimate triumph of sacrifice–involved in becoming an artist. And we learn the rending cost of denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily, breaking out of the prison of the self and its incessant needs and demands, choosing small deaths, in a sense, so as to transcend ourselves and have a richer, more fruitful life. Jesus understood it: “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it yields a mighty harvest.”
When we train ourselves in the scriptural precept to pray constantly, trying to be continually aware of the quiet presence of Christ: a radiance, a luminosity, like the silent, ever-present ghost in old movies, a quietness begins to sink over our beings, the quietness in which creative thought is engendered. We must persist in both disciplines until they become instinctive, until we convert every thought, desire and frustration into a prayer, turning to God as naturally as a flower turns its face to the sun and the butterflies. Similarly, the writer must keep writing until this inward work, this daily creation, becomes as necessary as thinking; so essential that a day in which she has not written will seem a day in which she has not fully lived.
A Chinese saying: “From boredom to fascination.” Though difficult at first, both quests lead to an awareness of joy, shimmering, pulsing through life. As I mature spiritually and psychologically, my values shift. Oh dear, they become more old-fashioned–the preciousness of the family I have chosen, my husband and my daughters; the balm of friendships; the durable self-forgetting pleasures in reading, art, nature, gardening. And writing? It remains my vocation, my duty and my desire, a precious strand in the tapestry of my life, a beloved pure note in its orchestra, a joyous obligation like those to my husband and children, who have no other wife, no other mother. And amid life’s richness in the busy season–two daughters, four years old, and four months old; a career; a husband with a career; a house, a garden, a dog, friends, a life–can writing wait? At times, it will have to. And in the forge of dreams deferred, other jewels might be crafted:ethos, character, undergirding and lighting the logos, words, and pathos, emotions they evoke–the three elements of great art Aristotle outlines in his Rhetoric. Writing with wisdom, depth, power. And now, in the season of duties, as I choose books to read or subjects to write on more for the pleasure that dwelling on them will bring rather than for rewards of glitter or success, I am recovering some of the joy I’d lost in my anxious, striving, ambitious twenties.
Though the gloomy may say that the life of a writer is simply “the exchange of one level of rejection, uncertainty, and disappointment for another,” persisting long enough to learn and master your craft gives you ever more of those moments of enchantment when your whole being is intensely alive; you are lost in the joy of work; sparks flash from your imagination and set the page on fire; and you read over a finished piece, and like God in the garden of Eden, behold what you have written, and–temporarily–decide that it is good.
“Writing and Prayer” was published in an earlier version as “Learning to Pray,” in The Christian Century, March 22nd, 2000. Reproduced in Religion Online, and many other places.