Monday, October 21, 2013

"How the Light Gets In": How Writing Can Be a Spiritual Practice

I recently read Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2013). It’s a wonderful book, full of hope and inspiration that comes from Schneider’s long life of writing and teaching.  I've written about it as a book that's a great resource for writers (see this blog post).  But it's also a great book for people looking for information about deepening their spiritual lives.
She talks about the different ways that writing helps us get to the truths of our lives, with chapters titled to let us know what she’ll be exploring, with labels like “Forgiving,” “The Body,” “Doing Good,” and “Death. Each chapter is full of experiences from Schneider’s own life and those of her family, friends, and students; each chapter ends with a poem by a famous poet.

The book concerns itself with how to live a good life, and with how various writing practices might help us live better lives. Schneider has been a part of many different kinds of Christian communities, as well as some communities that are spiritual, yet not distinctly Christian.  I envision her work having appeal to people from a wide variety of faiths and spiritual practices.
I found myself scanning some of the autobiographical material. Much of it plumbs painful depths, painful to Schneider, and I just didn’t want to dwell there. In my younger years, I’d have devoured it. But I was able to scan those parts and not lose the thread of the book.  I imagine that some readers will find the painful parts of this book a comfort, as it can give the knowledge that we're not alone out there.
I enjoyed seeing Schneider’s writing process and writing life. We get poems-in-progress, journal entries, all sorts of writing. I enjoyed reading about her publication progress. I also enjoyed reading about her spiritual journeys, especially about the retreats she’s led.  She does a great job of showing how she tries to balance all of these components.
It’s the kind of book that you could read straight through, or just dip in and out as the chapters call out to you. It’s the kind of book that gives comfort and succor. It does what too few books on writing do: it shows writing as part of an integrated life, a life that isn’t afraid of spiritual elements or family duties and joys.

And the book does what too few spiritual books do:  it shows that we don't live in perfect, spiritual bubbles, with everything working to point us to God.  Plus, Schneider is painfully honest about how those kind of religious communities, the encapsulating kind, can be suffocating.  I liked seeing Schneider's struggles with her faith communities.  I also liked seeing that she had to spend a great deal of time to get to the integrated place where she seems to dwell today.  It comforts me to know that I'm not doing anything wrong, that the fact that I have to work hard to achieve a slippy balance doesn't necessarily mean that I'm incompetent.

In short, this is a book that’s worth your time.  Even if you know that writing will never be your spiritual discipline, it's a book with much to offer.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

“The word ‘prayer; evokes strong feelings for many people, depending on past experience—positive for some of us, negative for others. Any other word that I might choose—‘contemplation,’ ‘meditation’—would come with its own set of varying reactions, and so I choose the word that I have used since childhood: prayer. Prayer is, for me, an intentional openness to the presence of mystery in my life. Sometimes it is labor, sometimes ecstatic surprise. Sometimes both.” (p. 10)

“For both the writer and the spiritual pilgrim, an ‘answer’ is not always the greatest gift. Rather, coming to deeper and deeper understanding of the question itself can give us a place to stand in the presence of mystery, in the cloud of unknowing. Answers build walls that sometimes seem protective, bu they may shut out the light.” (p. 64)

“Each of us has a private inner life, and in that life there are secrets that drive us to bbe who we are. Writing is not the only way for a pilgrim to identify, name, and find his or her way through the dark night of the soul. But writing, I suggest, is where we humans most make our own minds visible to ourselves and to others. There, on the faint lines of our pages, we can take down our masks. Ironically, even when we think we are building masks, creating entirely fictional characters, our very mask-making reveals us. In writing, we see, sometimes with fear and trembling, who we have been, who we really are, and we glimpse now and then who we might become.” (p. 99)

“Sometimes tradition holds us when we cannot hold ourselves.” (p. 101)

“Writing as a spiritual practice sometimes necessitates going where the door is locked and the key has been misplaced. A lot of things may need to be turned over, looked under, opened up, to find the key that will open the door. It is clear to me that I can’t write about forgiving only from the perspective of the one who needs to forgive.” (p. 150)

“If you write the truth, you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publicly, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming. If you help someone else to write the truth, you may not live long enough to know it, but you will have changed the world.” (p. 178-179)
“Elizabeth O’Connor has written that we are not called to our own soul work by ‘ought’ or should.’ Rather, we are called by joy. She says that if we are working out of ought or should, we are not only in the wrong place ourselves; we are blocking someone else whose joy it might be to be where we are.” (p. 264)

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