Deeper Meanings


“Sadly, spiritual is most commonly used by Christians to describe people who pray all day long, read their Bibles constantly, never get angry or rattled, possess special powers, and have the inside track to God. Spirituality, for most, has an other worldly ring to it, calling to mind eccentric ‘saints’ who have forsaken the world, taken vows of poverty, and isolated themselves in cloisters.
“Nothing wrong with the spirituality of monks. Monks certainly experience a
kind of spirituality, a way of seeking and knowing God, but what about the rest of us?” ~ Mike Yaconelli, in Messy Spirituality

This is one of my favorite books. It’s the kind I give people at Christmas and Birthdays, or when they seem to feel just like Mike, and just like me, that they will never measure up, no matter how they try.

This is one of those rare books that give voice to the unspoken things, the things we are afraid to think, though we feel them, nonetheless. I can hardly believe anyone dared to publish this book (God bless Zondervan), but if you dare to read it, it will lead you to a good, wide-open place.

How’s your day going? I almost hope you could use a little lift, because I’ve got one for you: Here’s a good chunk of Messy Spirituality for free. Really. Right here.

Just now I’m straddled between two novels: still on call to my publisher for edits to The Feast of Saint Bertie, and also putting together ideas and outlines for novel #3, which I’ve titled Honey, Bea & Sky. It’s a nice place to be, this between-place, a wide open field full of possibilities. A good place to consider what’s right about my fiction, and what could use some work. A space to fine tune my philosophy of writing.

If I ever get it all worked out, I’m sure I’ll end up writing a really spacey how-to about writing, one that says, go read this, this and this great book to hone your craft – but when you sit down to the keyboard, this is how you write something worth honing.

Then, whatever I end up saying about that, I think it will have everything to do with faith.

In 2006, on Mick Silva’s blog, in a sort of chicken/egg discussion about the sort of writing that best glorifies God, Susan Meissner made this comment:

We’ve (myself included) allowed the message to mess with the mechanics ’cause we think it’s “the message” that makes the book Christian. Why can’t it be the other way around? Why can’t it be astounding literary style that points to an astoundingly creative God?

To which I certainly agreed. “Astounding literary style.” Great. But “astounding” is a big word. It could send one screaming back to something easy, like “the message.”

But J. Mark Bertrand took it 57 light years higher, when he put in:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and if we aspire to something remotely similar for our work, we could learn something from how the heavens do this (and don’t).”

To which I mumbled, “Yes, go on…”

And he did go on. He rose to the challenge and created an unforgettable blog post that was so true and beautiful that, well, I never forgot it:

They are speaking, but you don’t know how to repeat what they’ve said. You hear it, though — not so much with your ears as with your nerve endings. They lead you to suspect so much, but they also humble you. They make you wonder if you know anything at all, or ever can. And yet, you do know something…

Because I never forgot what he wrote, and because I wanted to share it with you, I recently asked Mark to re-post it. And he did. (You can read the whole thing here.)

Not that Mark had made the whole “astounding literary style” thing any less intimidating. Quite the opposite, but through the power of his own style, and the beauty he described, he certainly made me want to try.

Still, the stars can make me feel pretty small … and so can a blank page.

But countless times, because of a promise made, I have squinted my eyes and started typing, and found that what came out on the computer screen was better stuff than I could write, and wiser than I have ever been in my life. It’s easy for me to believe that God intervenes someplace between my brain and my fingertips.

Sometimes I read a strangled bit of writing that just seems to be missing something – like oxygen, perhaps. I ask myself what the problem is and the answer that comes to me is “lack of faith.” The writer doesn’t trust that if he let go and wrote the wild, crazy things that come to him, that it would be good, no – amazing stuff that he himself could not actually have written. The writer doesn’t trust God.

So it pleased me recently to read this from a new, favorite, very funny, very wise blogger, John Shore:

Your normal, everyday brain is great for doing taxes, returning videos on time, and remembering why you shouldn’t attack your boss in an elevator with a stapler. It’s generally useless, though, when it comes to creative work. For creative work, you’ve got to get down and give it up for the source of all creativity.

I believe, Lord. Please help my unbelief.

(Thanks to Peter Roffey for the picture.)

“‘Strange are the uses of adversity.’ That’s a fact. When I’m up here in my study with the radio on and some old book in my hands and it’s nighttime and the wind blows and the house creaks, I forget where I am, and it’s as though I’m back in hard times for a minute or two, and there’s a sweetness in the experience which I don’t understand. But that only enhances the value of it. My point here is that you never do know the actual nature even of your own experience.”

~ Marilynne Robinson, in Gillead

(Thanks to a tai for the image.)

It keeps coming back to me, this call to silence. In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen writes about the eternal silence out of which God “spoke the Word, and through this Word created and recreated the world.” Nouwen goes on to say:

“By entering into the Egyptian desert, the monks wanted to participate in the divine silence. By speaking out of this silence to the needs of their people, they sought to participate in the creative and recreative power of the divine Word.”

Speaking out of silence. If you read the book, it makes wonderful sense, as contrasted to speaking out of all the noise, all the impulses and insecurities and drivenness that goes on in our heads most of the time.

So there was that. Then Image Journal did a lovely review of Into Great Silence, a beautiful, unusual film documenting a group of monks who have given their life over to divine silence. One passage in particular caught my eye:

“…in the silence, each thing has a chance to step out, to take upon itself the glory it was meant to have. In the way of paradox, it becomes clear how much more can be heard, and seen, in silence. Candlelight burning, the rustle of woolen sleeves and cowls, the knock of stone placed upon stone, pages of an old missal, turned–each sound rings clearer and each sight gains more shape, stepping out from their familiarity for a newfound claim upon our attentions–as though to say, ‘Look now; see, finally, what I am.'”

Also, last Saturday morning I read on Jeff Berryman’s blog:

“I’ve said many times that there is a hidden monk living in me, and while I don’t advocate a complete removal from the world for a lifetime, there is something deep to be said for silence and quiet and reflection…

“I remain convicted that much of how we live as Americans is too, too fast. This is a place to be counter-cultural, and I don’t have to tell anyone that it’s costly.”

And now I read in Tony Jones’ The Sacred Way this quote from Thomas Merton:

“The hermit, all day and all night, beats his head against a wall of doubt. It is not a question of intellectual doubt… It is something else, a kind of unknowing of his own self, a kind of doubt which undermines his very reasons for existing and for doing what he does. It is this doubt which reduces him finally to silence, and in the silence which ceases to ask questions, he receives the only certitude he knows: the presence of God in the midst of uncertainty and nothingness, as the only reality…”

I am a person who likes, even needs to be alone much of the time. On one level, I think I love silence. At least I love quiet, and the sounds I hear in quiet places: that flicker of the candle, that turning of the page. But true silence, where I sit still and listen with no goal, no mental project, no story to outline or story character to explore… That kind of silence just makes me nervous. And anyway, it’s hard enough to find the space for it. There are phones to answer, family to care for. Emails to answer. Stories to plan.

But when I put these quotes together, I come up with something like this: Real silence takes discipline, and resistance to my own compulsions. If I do resist though, if I turn aside into the divine silence, I enter into the deepest beauty, and come away with something closer to the truth about myself, and about God. I come away more able to live creatively, lovingly.

Tony Jones says he tries “to schedule one half-day of silence per month, a day-long silent retreat per year, a week-long silent retreat every five years and – God willing – a 30-day Ignatian retreat before I die.”

Part of me thinks those 30 days would kill me. And part of me wants to find out.

But I’ll start small: I’ll schedule a half-day. Soon. Or (yikes!) maybe just a half hour. I’ll let you know.

“Always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered. As I read, I began to call them together again and, as it were, laid a bait for my soul.”

~ Saint Theresa of Avila

(Thanks to Lili Vieira de Carvalho for the image)

In The Sacred Way, Tony Jones quotes this from Henri Nouwen:

In the spiritual life, the word “discipline” means “the effort to create some space in which God can act. “Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied. In the spiritual life, discipline means to create the space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.

For some time, the thought has haunted me, that there is so little space in the lives of most of the people I know and see around me. Up to a few years ago, there was so little space in my own life. So little quiet, so little peace. So little sleep. And as a consequence, so little undirected thought.

So little prayer.

In fact the truth is, while my days have calmed down some, my mind often churns as though nothing has changed at all.

I nurse the suspicion that people once had more space in their lives. In our formerly agrarian society, people may have worked hard, but wasn’t much of it manual, often solitary work, the kind that left the mind free to think its own thoughts? When we lived in the light of candles and oil lamps at night, didn’t we turn in earlier? Didn’t we rest more?

Or am I only romanticizing the past? It’s possible. America wasn’t overweight back then, but I have photos of ancestors who were bone thin, and hollow eyed. I could be wrong about this.

It’s just that people seem so bereft to me. I catch the eyes of the them when I drive down the street. Everyone seems so numb, and I think of something Edna St. Vincent Millay said once, in a play she wrote:

Man has never been the same since God died.
He has taken it very hard. Why, you’d think it was only yesterday,
The way he takes it.
Not that he says much, but he laughs much louder than he used to,
And he can’t bear to be left alone even for a minute, and he can’t
Sit still.

As Tony Jones says, people have been looking for answers for a very long time, so there must have been questions.

But what difference would it make if we made ourselves sit quiet awhile, just to listen? If we gave something unplanned a chance to happen?

I want to learn what this book has to teach.

Today at the bookstore I found myself in my favorite dilemma: “Should I buy this book? Or this one?” Of course, I bought them both.

Only when I got to the car and pulled my loot from the bag did I notice the titles: The Way of Story, and The Sacred Way. The Way… and The Way. Hmmm…

Even the authors’ names seemed significant: Catherine Ann Jones, and Tony Jones. Was there a message in this?

The next moment, I had a good notion that the message related to something I read in another book, one I’m listening to on my iPod, titled The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis, by Alan Jacobs – quite a good book, by the way. It’s hard to find anything original or informative about Lewis when so many books are written about him, but Jacobs found a way.

There was a passage in The Narnian that really stuck in my craw. In discussing Lewis’ approach to writing, he said:

What (the writer) has to do… is to trust the images that come into his mind – or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul. “… Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.”

Whatever spiritual roots I have succeeded in striking during the whole course of my life? Ouch. Just as I suspected. If my writing fails, at least half the reason is that I have failed in a much deeper, more profound way. The writing only displayed that failure to the public, got it down in black and white. For posterity.

A statement like that can scare you to death. So I grabbed those two books like flotation devices thrown from the deck from which I’d fallen. It just took me a while to realize what I’d done.

They do both look like good books. In the coffee shop, I plowed into The Sacred Way, a book about ancient spiritual practices such as Silence and Solitude, Sacred Reading, The Jesus Prayer, Centering Prayer. In the foreword written by Phyllis Tickle, she likens the present-day interest in such practices to the the thing we do when we’ve outgrown our rebellious stage and look back at our upbringing and realize that not everything we grew up with deserved to be jettisoned, and that our lives are the poorer for the loss of them. But we don’t go back home and re-create the past. We take up those things from our past and find new ways to use them to build a new present, and a new future.

The Way of Story begins by liking the writer to the ancient shaman, who descends into the depths of his own soul, and comes back with a message for the reader. Pretty clearly, the depths of my soul today were telling me to strike deep spiritual roots, and then figure out how to dive down… or dig down… oh, you know.

I’ll let you know how the books go, as I read them.

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