A Lenten discipline for word people

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

For the next 6 weeks or so I’ll be teaching a seminary course I call “Contemplative Writing.” This year’s run coincides almost exactly with the season of Lent. It teaches a discipline that can help us “word-people” – teachers, preachers, bloggers — to let our words take us beyond words, and center our lives more fully in God.

My working definition of contemplative writing is “writing that is for no audience but yourself and God.” That is the hardest part for word-people, since so much of what we think about is how to make our ideas available to a particular audience of readers or listeners. But how do we write when no one else will read what we’re writing? What happens when we say to God: “these words are for me and You only.” They may be “me talking to myself in the presence of God” or they may be words to God. But there is no other audience. The title poem of Mary Oliver’s wonderful recent volume Thirst gives us a glimpse of the contemplative writing experience as we overhear the poet speaking to God: “Love for you and love for the earth are having such a long conversation in my heart,” she writes. Contemplative writing uses words to ground those “long conversations” that go on in our hearts, in the listening presence of God.

I like to distinguish contemplative writing from other kinds of writing that we do in “not for publication” mode especially journaling, creative writing, and now, blogging.

Most of us writers probably practice journaling/freewriting/prewriting in some form. Journaling is “reflective” writing: the audience for it is myself — I write so as to see myself more clearly, reflected back. This can be an important tool in the spiritual life, but ultimately, self-understanding is not the goal of contemplation, however important it may be as a step toward honesty with God (what the spiritual tradition calls “purgation”). Contemplation in the spiritual life is ultimately contemplation of God, not of oneself. Journaling melds into contemplative writing when we move away from talking to ourselves and find ourselves saying “You” to our God.

Contemplative writing is also not “creative writing.” Again, it’s about audience. Creative writing encourages people to release and explore their intuitive, imaginative side, to see things in a new way, to approach life creatively — and to shape these experiences into literary form, for a particular audience. The best creative writing shows real respect for the disciplines of poetic form, the properties of language itself as a material, and the best creative writers submit themselves to the disciplines and challenges posed by their materials, uncovering new richness in words that embody and show imaginative insights. Contemplative writing can become “creative writing”—occasionally something will emerge that calls out to be shared. But the disciplines are different.

Some people now use blogging as another way of engaging the spiritual life with words: An online blog, of course, has an implicit audience, but I’ve known of people who blog on a website offline just to have a place to put their private thoughts, and the fluidity of the keyboard-to-screen medium can be freeing. I find, however, that there is a kind of “body prayer” involved in the exercise of putting pen to paper – a groundedness that we lose at the computer keyboard. The very clunkiness and messiness of pen and paper slows us down and forces pause, as the speed of electronic media does not.

The discipline I commend to my students is one that I also intend to take on, this Lenten season: Spend some time every day writing in a journal. Begin by placing yourself intentionally in the presence of God, and attending to what you see, hear, perceive around you – or to whatever conversation is going on in your heart. Let whatever comes, come: fill 3 pages, or spend 20 minutes – whichever frame fits your life better –but write in the presence of God, where whatever you write is acceptable, and spelling doesn’t count. Most important, leave some time after your writing time simply to rest in that loving Presence. On good days you may find that this practice of writing has become a preparatio for prayer: a doorway into the presence of the One who loves us, and always calls us deeper into that loving presence, in every moment of our lives.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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