Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I had planned to take a small chunk out of my Hebrew drowning immersion class to hear a guest "book talk" at Union's library, given by a recent alum of the institution whose first book was recently published, on the subject of "Writing As a Spiritual Practice."  With some of the things that have occupied my time and thoughts over year one here it was a subject in which I was interested and seeking opportunity for reflection.  Unfortunately, events prevented me from being able to stay, but I was somewhat able to stream the talk live from Union's website (I say "somewhat" because I saw/heard as much buffering as talking, no matter which computer I used -- my MacBook, on wifi, or the laptop that is directly plugged in with an ethernet cable).  Still I heard some snatches of the talk, and even got a question in via the online feed.

One snatch I did hear was the encouragement to "write every day."  Sounds familiar to me.  As a musicologist expected to produce research in order to survive and advance in the discipline, I got the same advice.  Sometimes I was good at following it, even if what I wrote on a given day gave way to the "delete" or "don't save" button (which was a frequent fate of my research writing efforts).  It is hard advice to take when eyebrow-deep in Hebrew vocabulary that refuses to memorize itself for me, but there is truth in it; because of all those deleted daily drivelings I occasionally produced something worthwhile.  So, I suppose now I am tasked, if I truly want to explore the idea of writing as part of my spiritual practice or even vocation/calling, to put that same instruction into practice here.  For today's writing, the seven of you who read this blog suffer.  My apologies.  ;-)

Probably the most thoughtful and profound piece I have read on writing -- at least to me; your mileage may vary -- is by Frederick Buechner.  I hope I don't have to introduce Buechner to most of you (for those not familiar: ordained Presbyterian pastor, writer of novels including the Book of Bebb series -- hit-and-miss for me -- and others including Godric, a thoroughly amazing book; also author of devotional works, collections, essays, etc.  Buechner can be a litmus test for any "Christian" bookstore you might patronize; if they don't have any Buechner on their shelves don't give them any of your money for any reason).  Of his writings those that have most de-cleated me, to borrow a strange football term, are the aforementioned Godric, an imagining of the life of the saint of that name exploring the both saintly and unsaintly qualities any person may possess (my description does not do it justice), and a collection of essays and sermons under the title A Room Called Remember.  Within that latter collection is an essay with the unprepossessing title "The Speaking and Writing of Words."

Were it not for copyright issues I'd simply reproduce the whole thing here.  There are so many ideas, turned in that way that only Buechner can do, that still knock me sideways even this many years later.  For one: is an experience truly experienced until one can begin to name it?  He describes "the sense I had of something trying to be born in me that could not be born without the midwifery of expressing it" (p. 165; these are from the 1984 edition of the collection).  Oh, yes, I know that frustration well.  What is it until I have called it by name?  Hebrew class reminds me of Adam in the Garden, tasked with giving names to all those creatures around him.  Even John the Evangelist has something to say about the significance of words, in Buechner's reading: "'In the beginning was the Word,' John writes, and perhaps part of what that means is that until there is a word, there can be no beginning" (p. 165).

Rather than giving in to the temptation to reproduce the whole essay, I will limit myself to one more thought of Buechner's, one which concludes the essay and puts the business of writing in a way that hopefully anyone who plays with the dynamite of words can appreciate.  The final paragraph offers that:

"Words written fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, can have as much of this power today as ever they had it then to come alive for us and in us and to make us more alive within ourselves.  That, I suppose, is the final mystery as well as the final power of words: that not even across great distances of time and space do they ever lose their capacity for becoming incarnate.  And when these words tell of virtue and nobility, when they move us closer to that truth and gentleness of spirit by which we become fully human, the reading of them is sacramental; and a library is as holy a place as any temple is holy because through the words which are treasured in it the Word itself becomes flesh again and again and dwells among us and within us, full of grace and truth" (p. 181).

And this is what I'm getting myself into.  Take those words and place them into the very context of worship, then, and mystery upon mystery and power upon power empowers and overwhelms.  The notion that I have any business writing, for example, a hymn that might be used as the words by which many (o.k., few) might worship weakens my knees (particularly when considering that those words are paired with that other great and mysterious power, music).  Best simply to beat a hasty retreat and go play with my homemade Hebrew flash cards.

But no.  This is, as Schubert has it in his setting of M├╝ller's "Der Wegweiser" in Winterreise, the signpost I must follow, from which there is no turning back.  Whether or not I ever publish a word of writing, the notion of getting up to speak such words on any regular basis is challenging enough.  At any rate it is far too late to turn back now, not just from the vocation in general, but from the particular challenge that increasingly eats at me even when Hebrew verb roots are monopolizing my brainpower.

I suspect there are more thoughts on this to come.

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