Writing the Spiritual Life

Writing the Spiritual Life February 3, 2016

Last night, as I laid the hearth for my family’s celebration of Imbolc, I found myself reaching for my camera, to take a quick shot of the altar… and then I hesitated.  I’d laid that altar for Brigid; what did it say about me that my instinct had been to photograph it for a blog?

Imbolc Altar, Cat Chapin-Bishop, 2013.
Not This Year’s Altar, Cat Chapin-Bishop, 2013.

I realized it didn’t feel right to snap a picture of the hearth–that, in a way, it was no different than drinking the offering we’d left there.  The altar was not for me, and it wasn’t even for my community, but for my gods. It felt like photographing the altar would have been a kind of theft.

In the end, I left the picture untaken.

One of the dangers of writing about my spiritual life is that I risk getting my priorities scrambled.  It’s the “here I am wasn’t I” of meditation raised to a near-infinite degree; by recording my spiritual life, I risk making the recording, and not the life, the center of my acts.  And it is true that in the middle of meditation, in the middle of worship, in the middle of a walk in the woods or a ritual or a Tarot reading, part of me is always asking, “How can I write about this?”  And part of me is taking notes… not participating in the moment at all.

That’s a loss.

It’s not just spiritual writing that can lead to this, of course.  When my husband and I were courting, we lived about a hundred miles apart… and this was in the bad old days before the Internet, when words took days to travel from one city to another.  Perhaps because of that, we managed to pen over five hundred letters to one another.  We also each kept a journal, and like Dr. Who and River Song, when we met, we traded journals.

For over a year, virtually every word I wrote I wrote with Peter hovering invisibly over my shoulder.  Eventually, I felt it changing how I lived in the world.  Everything around me became grist for another letter, another journal entry.  Was I looking up at the stars to see them, or to see them so that I could write to Peter about them? And of course, every experience had to be remolded slightly, repackaged, in order to fit into a container of words to share.

I’ve long said there’s no such thing as non-fiction.

Blue Tide.  Bruce Anderson, 2007.
Blue Tide. Bruce Anderson, 2007.

The very act of writing changes experiences; turn them into stories, and you make a hundred tiny decisions about which parts of the story to bring forward and which to let fall away.  Try to describe the ineffable quality of a spiritual experience, whether it’s watching a sunrise or the bioluminescence of the ocean at night, and you wind up creating an altered version of the experience… One that has been simplified, flattened for transit from brain to brain.

Don’t think that’s so?  Think about recording your dreams.  Before you write them down, they have layers of resonance and significance that defy explanation.  After you write them down, though, there’s a false certainty in all the details.  In your dream, it might have been a book, or a scroll, or–just possibly–a take-out menu that you were handed (by a god?  your best friend?  or your great-grandmother?). But once you’ve written it down, the words on the page will record a version of your memories that seems so absolute that it may replace the fading memory of the dream itself.

To write about Spirit is to risk distorting or distracting from the experience itself, whether of ritual, dream, or gnosis.  Words are two dimensional, even when they create the illusion of more, and we always change the map of the world when we render it flat.

Given all that, the risk of distorting or distracting from the realities of my spiritual life, why do I write about it?

I’ve had a lot of different reasons to blog, over the years.  I’ve half-joked with members of my Quaker meeting that they should all be grateful that I blog, because it is an outlet for the messages that don’t quite rise to the level of vocal ministry, but which I’d probably blurt out in meeting for worship if I didn’t have a blog.  That’s true enough, I suppose… but it doesn’t answer the question of why I feel that pressure to speak in the first place.

I suppose the truth is, with writing and with spoken ministry, I just really love the feeling of Spirit flowing through me in words.  There is a sensuousness in being a conduit for even glimmers of what’s sacred, and I deeply love the feeling when I have done it well–when I’ve found words for a numinous experience that doesn’t fit into words precisely, and when I’ve done it well enough that another person has felt what I did.

I don’t mean to oversell what I do here.  Of course, a lot of the time, I’m not so much conveying a spark of Spirit as I am groping for some matches in the dark.  And even on those days when I am responding to something bigger than myself, as Quakers say, “the water always tastes of the pipes.”  My personality, warts and all, seeps into whatever I write, Spirit-led or no.  I can’t help but muddy the water I’m trying to share.

Cold Winter Sunrise.  BLM, 2014.
Cold Winter Sunrise. BLM, 2014.

Still, that instinct, the instinct to write, is deeply-rooted in me, after all these years.  I have been blogging since 2006, and journaling about my spiritual journey for twenty years before that.  So when I see the firelight reflected on the altar chalice… when I watch one neon streak in a sunrise otherwise lost in gray… even though I know I will fail, my impulse is to at least try to catch that flash of wonder.

For better or for worse, I am always trying to bottle the lightning, and to share it with the world.


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