How to Write Your Own Gospel

How to Write Your Own Gospel August 14, 2023

Erasmus at his desk (detail) Albrecht Durer













Memory is such a tricky thing. I have a memory that some gnostic schools, perhaps it was the Valentinian school, which required potential initiates to compose their own gospel. However, I’m having a little trouble finding the citation. And I notice among the charges of novelty laid against Valentinus was that he composed his own gospel, some speculate it’s the “Gospel of Truth.” And I notice a general charge against his school that they possess “more gospels than there really are.”

I suppose one could say that while the Synoptic gospels have agendas, they’re also trying to tell the story of a real person. The Gospel of John seems totally unconcerned with such trivialities as history, and instead jumps right into presenting the author’s deepest insights into the great mysteries of life and death. And I think of John as the first example of the project of writing one’s own gospel. Perhaps.

I do find myself inspired. And I’ve found what has become an important spiritual practice for my own life. And I thought I’d share it here.

I should say that like with any matter of spiritual investigation I undertake it is rooted in a regular practice of seated silent meditation. For me aligned with a sort of koan, “sit down and become Buddha.” It is itself rooted in mindfulness of breath, and then expanding that to a practice of presence. Where whatever arises, whatever floats across the screen of consciousness, is noticed, but then allowed to move on. Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. In my old age I usually add in an extended outbreath.

With this foundation I’ve gone on to what has been the most important thing in my spiritual life, the lifetime investigation of the great koans of the Zen tradition, first formally in the early twentieth century reform curriculum developed by Daiun Sogaku Harada from the eighteenth century program associated with Hakuin Ekaku. And since then, in reviewing those classic koans, but also looking at other matters in what I think of us a “koanic way.”

Aitken Roshi once said a koan is a matter to be made clear. I go a bit further into the weeds and suggest a koan points to some truth and invites a person to be present in that place. The koanic way is to investigate truths, although most especially the truths of intimacy with what is. It is both an imaginative exercise and a body practice.

So, this is where I find the project of writing one’s own gospel. I would say both in the sense of koan as presentation and invitation and as gospel, good news, or God’s word.

Inspired by that fragment of a memory about writing a gospel, and in something of the spirit of the Lectio Divina disciplines, I started looking at texts that were especially important to me. My first serious attempt at doing this was through an extended reflection on the Heart Sutra. Later I found myself drawn into an extended reflection and exploration of the 2nd case in the Gateless Gate, the so-called Fox koan.

Recently I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the Psalms. For instance, Psalm 24.

The earth belongs to the Divine
and everything on it.
For the Divine wove it out of the emptiness of space
and breathed life into every corner,
bringing forth all life,
and all of it precious.
Who is fit to care for this
and worthy to act as God’s representative?
Those passionate for truth,
who are horrified by injustice,
who stand with the poor,
and take up the cause of the helpless.
Those who let go of selfishness,
and see the sacred hoop of the world,
refusing exploitation of any creature,
or the fouling of her waters and land
Their strength is in compassion.
Divine light shines through their hearts,
and their children’s children will be blessed 
and bless the world.

With that, a few pointers on what I see as a good way to try it for yourself.

First, always first, you really do need to ground the practice. Well, depending on what you’re hoping to find. You can just play. And play brings its own rewards. But to advance toward what I think of as a spiritual practice, that is something that brings you closer to the fundamental matters of life and death, and reveals the secrets hidden in your heart; this needs grounding. I recommend something like what I described at the top. Sit down, shut up, pay attention. Do this for a while, do this regularly. Maybe with others. Can help a lot.

With that as a foundation, then allow your heart to tell you what text you want to consider. It can be from any spiritual tradition, or perhaps it’s not obviously associated with a spiritual tradition, but it calls to you. That’s the secret. Does it call to you?

It should be short. Taking on longer texts is a somewhat different project. This practice invites investigations of texts up to a page or two. Ideally, shorter. I’ve found texts pulled from the Dao de Ching, the sayings of Jesus, and the Psalms, personally important.

Select one. Or, better yet, let it select you.

Live with the text. There is no time limit here. Personally I have a terrible time memorizing anything. If you can do. Especially if the text is written in your native language. If it is itself a translation it can be helpful that the text you select has several or more translations. Part of the value for me in picking from the Dao de Ching, the sayings of Jesus, and the Psalms. Numerous translations are available.

Read as many versions of the text as you can. Take your time. Savor them. Read them aloud. Many times.

Allow the text to settle into your silences, especially into your formal meditation time.

Read what scholars have to say about the texts.

Return to sitting.

And continue.

At some point sit down and begin to write.

Examine it. See how it rests in your heart.

And let it go. Set it aside for a while.

Again the baseline practice is that of presence. Do that.

Then return to the text. And see if it can’t be improved by rewriting. Almost always it can be improved. I’ve noticed how the holy spirit comes to rest most commonly on a third or fourth draft.

Set it aside.

Return to your baseline practice.

Then take it up, maybe polish it a bit more. When it tells you you’re done, you’re done.

Maybe share it with a friend, or post it somewhere, or publish it. Maybe not. It’s your practice.

Sound interesting? Then give it a try. If not, well, again, the true point is a presence of the heart. Find the shape of that practice which is most helpful.


About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Unitarian minister and a Zen teacher. His sixth book, the "Intimate Way of Zen" is forthcoming from Shambhala Publications. You can read more about the author here.

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