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There it is, right before me: sometimes inviting, sometimes mystifying, sometimes terrifying. Sometimes I dive into it with gusto, and things seem to blossom and flow. Sometimes it baffles and resists my most heroic exertions. Most often, however, it is just a matter of plodding ahead, pausing, going back, trying again.
But what is “it”?
That blank page! Be it a yellow legal pad of the kind on which I used to do all my writing, or the light blue tinted screen of the word processor now before me, or the back of a crumpled envelope I pull out on the subway so I can scratch out a fleeting thought: there it is, inescapable, featureless, refusing to divulge any of its secrets.
Well, is writing more like prayer, or more like life itself, or a little like both? I am not sure. They all seem remarkably akin to me.They all exact something from us, but it is hard — maybe impossible — to know in advance what that something is. My wife, Nina, an eloquent writer, has a little sign on her desk. It says: “Writing is easy. You just sit and stare at the blank page until the drops of blood form on your brow.” Those who remember the gospel account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, however, know that when the drops of blood formed on his brow, he was not writing. He was trying to pray. He was facing the biggest crisis of his life, and he was trying, if at all possible, not to go ahead with what seemed to lie before him.
Writing, prayer, life: they meld and fuse for me, although if I had to choose, I would surely dispense with the writing before the other two. But so far I have not been required to make that choice, so it is hard to think of any one of them without the other two peeping in from the wings. Consequently, I have come to think of writing as a kind of spiritual discipline. Linger with me awhile as I try to explain why.
A spiritual discipline is something you engage in on a regular basis, and you do it whether you feel like it or not. Of course, prayer can be spontaneous, and some of the most heartfelt prayers are: “God, please get me out of this!” “Please make it stop hurting!” “Thank you for this dazzling day.” Some prayers may be traditional ones, even written in books. These were the ones my very low church Baptist parents disdained (“Pray? Out of a book?”). But I no longer share their disdain since gradually, and to my surprise, some of these oldies but goodies, like the ones in the Book of Common Prayer, now speak for me, despite centuries of repetition. After all, does Hamlet or Mozart’s Requiem become less powerful because it has been around awhile? Besides, when we pray a prayer that has been around a long time, we sense that we are praying with a lot of company, past and present, and often that company feels very good.
But the discipline in spiritual discipline kicks in, I have learned, when spontaneity slumbers, and traditional prayers begin to sound like what my parents, and many like them, said they were: “vain repetitions.” You need discipline when the skies turn leaden, when God is absent, when no desire for communion with the great mystery claws inside, when no birds sing. You need it when what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” smothers you and when you have begun to wonder whether the light will ever again appear.
I have never written a book without suffering through the writer’s equivalent of the “dark night of the soul,” that ghastly moment — or hour, day, week, or more — when nothing comes to mind. This paralysis has crept over me during the writing of every book from The Secular City to When Jesus Came to Harvard. What to do? Good writers I know tell me that when they feel stalled (as we all do sometimes), they just start writing, anything, even “Well here I sit and can’t get started writing.” I find that a good tactic. Usually something then begins to come to mind. But not always. Then what?
When St. Jerome tried to write in the desert, he was assailed by demonic visions, sometimes — it is reported — of beautiful, scantily clad women. When Martin Luther was trying to translate the Bible in his cold chamber in Wartburg castle, the devil reviled him from across the room, so he hurled an inkpot at Old Harry. I think what these wonderful stories tell us is that when we are treading water in the dark night of writer’s block, the biggest danger we face is distractions. I know that is true with me. Mine are — alas — not as colorful as Luther’s or St. Jerome’s, but when I am in such a state it is terribly easy to get distracted. What to do?
I don’t think the inkwell strategy is a good one. It just isn’t useful to try to drive the distractions away. That just empowers them. One of the most valluable things I learned from Trungpa Rinpoche at Naropa was that when I am meditating and stray thoughts pop in, as they always do, noticcccce them. Do not follow them or try to expel them. Just watch them with the aloof attitude of a detached observer watching flotsam float by under a bridge. It took me a while to develop this skill, but eventually it helped me to be less distracted by the distractions. Treated gently, they lose their power to befuddle us. On a more terrestrial level, it also helps sometimes to take a trip to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, do a couple of stretches. Sometimes, when I’ve done that, then return to my desk, the stream of flotsam has moved on.
This is a point at which prayer and writing almost exactly coincide. Maybe I am too verbal, but if I mumble something similar to the blocked writer’s mantra, it often helps. “Well, God, if you are really out there or in there, here I sit with nothing much to say.” It sounds vacuous, and it undoubtedly is, but if God hears the prayers of both the verbose and the stammering, I am sure God also hears the prayers of the vacuous.
I use “prayer” here in a broad sense. It includes speaking; the “groaning” that St. Paul speaks about, in his Epistle to the Romans; sitting in (sometimes sullen) silence; raging; listening; and much more. Let’s start with the speaking. My first rule is this: it does not have to be eloquent, or even coherent. Martin Buber somewhere tells the story of a Hasidic rebbe who was becoming discouraged because the prayers of his congregation seemed flat. They sprawled, inert and bloodless, just over the heads of his people and never rose to the heavens. Then one day he noticed a poor shepherd who always stood in the back of the synagogue and never joined in the prayers. Was he the problem? Eventually the rebbe asked him why he never said the prayers. Shifting from one foot to the other, the shepherd confessed that he could not read and could say only the first few letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbi’s heart was touched. He said, “Then just pray those letters, and God will understand.” So the shepherd prayed, “Aleph, beth, gimmel . . .” Suddenly, the prayers of the whole congregation began to soar up to the divine throne. The point of this story, and of St. Paul’s words about “groaning,” is that God does not require good grammar or even comprehensibility. The Pentecostals know this; so do the Quakers.
Did I also say “raging”? Yes, I did. But is that an appropriate thing to do in prayer? Well, just read the Psalms. They are mostly prayers, and they include literally hundreds of curses and imprecations, some of them quite imaginative, aimed at the enemies of Israel. The Hebrews seemed amused at the idea, for example, that their enemies would “fall into their own traps.” Sometimes, in a less sardonic mood, they called upon God simply to destroy their adversaries, including the women, the children, and the livestock. Spiritualize the Psalms as we do, nonetheless they brim and seethe with volcanic anger. What is going on here?
Anger is a part of being human. It is also a part of being God, although scripture assures us that God’s wrath does not last forever. It was also part of the repertory of Jesus’ emotions. Remember that unfortunate fig tree, and the sharpies selling pigeons in the Temple courtyard? But why bother God with our anger?
It is true that we say God is one from whom “no secrets are hid,” so presumably God already knows when we are at a slow boil. But I think God wants us to know about our anger too because often we do not, at least consciously. Does God want us to share all our thoughts and feelings with him, even the nasty, questionable, and socially improper ones? I think the answer is yes. He is the one who “maketh the wrath of man to praise him.” Women too. Some years ago a friend of mine found herself suddenly abandoned by her husband of many years. At first, good Christian that she was, she tried nobly to “understand” him, to put herself in his place. But she still woke up in the middle of the night with a pounding headache, grinding her teeth. After a while she talked candidly with her spiritual counselor. He urged her to spend a few minutes each day reading the most rancorous, hard-edged Psalms. She did, and little by little it helped her get through the jungle and avoid expensive dental work. She has since told me she now believes that tidying up prayers so as to censor our rage and resentment really amounts to a kind of distrust of God. I think she is right.
Only in recent years have I learned that prayer can be simply listening, and that listening itself can be a spiritual discipline. I learned this from the Buddhists when I spent a couple of summers teaching (and learning) at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. It was headed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who had acquired a reputation as both an inspired teacher and something of a rogue. He was indeed both, but what was critical at Naropa was “the practice,” as they called it, which involved hours and hours of sitting, watching your breath, and paying attention to what was going on inside. One of the great ironies of my life, incidentally, was that the fellow faculty member who gave me my first instruction in this Vajrayana (Tibetan) style of “sitting” was Allen Ginsberg, who at that time was head of the poetry department. Maybe I should write an article someday on how the author of “Howl” taught me to meditate.
At first I found the silent sitting practice — awkwardly perched cross-legged on a cushion — virtually unendurable. But gradually I learned to watch and listen — without judgment — to what was galloping through my mind. The next step was to listen more carefully to everything around me, even when I was not on the cushion, to “tune in,” in Timothy Leary’s phrase, but in a very different way. After that I discovered something I should have known before, that there is a long tradition of listening prayer in Christian spirituality. Nowadays I find I often listen more than I speak. “Be still,” the Bible says, “and know that I am God,” or more colloquially, “Shut up and listen; let your creator get a word in.” Writing demands an awful lot of listening. If you are trying to learn something from people, you have to listen to them and stifle the impulse to think about what you are going to say next. If you are writing fiction, something I would love to do but so far cannot, you have to listen carefully to how people say things, to their pace and tone. If you are writing poetry, you learn to listen to the music of words. Whatever you are writing, some formof disciplined listening is utterly essential.
I invite the reader to peruse the following pages not just as fine writing, which much of it surely is, but also as a series of examples of spiritual discipline. The writers represented in this volume are a varied lot. Their approaches to spirituality differ greatly, but they have one thing in common. They all write, or they would not be included in these pages. Some may have pondered the relationship between writing and spirituality, and some perhaps have not. It really doesn’t matter that much. There is a danger that we can sometimes take either our writing or our spiritual disciplines too seriously. We can distort and even smother them if we become too self- conscious about them. Like dancing or swimming or riding a bike, both are at their best when they become habitual. Still, even then, there will inevitably be times when we will sweat blood. If Jesus himself did not avoid it, why should we?
Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2007 by Harvey Cox. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.