In this 3-part series, essayist Catherine Ricketts walks us through the spiritual practice of writing our stories. This practice draws on a long tradition of courageous Christians and truth-tellers. Find out how writing your story can help you better understand yourself and God’s presence in your life, leading to a more faithful reading of the Bible.
The process of writing spiritual memoir invites us out to the edges of what we know, where we may discover in writing what has not yet taken shape in our minds. There, we may find new meaning in situations that have, until now, seemed meaningless. We may recognize that God was present all along, growing us even through hardship. We may feel a new sense of resolution about episodes in our lives that did not tie up tidily.
But what happens when resolution continues to elude us?
The Spiritual Danger of Mustering Meaning
In the Bible and in our own lives, there are some stories that will never feel resolved, try as we might to find meaning in them. In her essay “The White Album” (in her book The White Album) Joan Didion considers our need to find meaning in tragedy. “We look for the sermon in the suicide,” she writes, “for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
This essay is collected in the anthology entitled We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order To Live—and don’t we? We arrange our experiences into narratives with moral structure because suffering is more bearable when there seems to be meaning in it. But in some cases, no meaning has yet been revealed. This is true as we study our own life stories, and as we study Scripture. And to try to muster up meaning in such cases is actually spiritually dangerous, for it warps our understanding of God.
The Harrowing Center of Loss
Notoriously, stories of addiction and depression can’t be summed up in cause-and-effect, if-then statements. My brother died of a drug overdose, after years of drug use and attempted sobriety. Afterwards, I couldn’t discern any moral to his story, or any resolution. It was terrible, and that’s all there was to say. To try to reason my way through the loss—God allowed Joe to die to relieve him from pain, or God allowed Joe to die to make me a stronger person, or Joe died as a natural consequence of poor choices—diminished the capaciousness of the tragedy. It belittled the pain at the harrowing center of loss. It presumed too much about divine action, and presented God as neglectful, passive, or short on solutions.
Writing about my brother’s death, all I could reason was that Joe died, and that God was with me. I discovered God’s presence as I wrote about the people who cared for me in that time—the way they embraced me in the receiving line, the way they cleaned my home, did my laundry, stocked my fridge, placed tissue boxes in every room. The way they pressed flowers from his funeral, and gave them to me months later, when the cards stopped coming in the mail, and the visitors had all gone home. God was present in those subtle gestures of grace. But what I wanted was a dramatic act of restoration: I wanted my brother back. That God was present didn’t offer closure; it barely offered comfort. And that was the truth, as far as it had been revealed to me, and that’s what I wrote.
In Praise of Ambiguity
In some Christian traditions, a common practice is to share one’s testimony. This practice of oral storytelling originates in the Bible itself, which could be called one grand testimony: Exodus tells how God liberated the Israelites from slavery. The Psalms include records of God’s continued faithfulness to Israel. The Gospels and letters bear witness to the person of Jesus. Our contemporary practice of sharing testimonies, though, often ignores the tones of unresolved lament in Scripture—the resounding and unanswered why, God? Too often, the speaker feels pressure to deliver a tidy story with a strong narrative arc that points only to God’s goodness. This is not the work of spiritual memoir. While spiritual memoir aims for understanding, turning over every rock in search of truth about God, self, and neighbor, when it reaches the limits of truth as it’s been revealed, spiritual memoir tolerates ambiguity.
In instances of catastrophic loss, as well as in happy instances of miraculous restoration, we must honor the mystery of circumstance, and approach storytelling humbly. When an experience from your past or present has not resolved, don’t force a resolution in the writing. This doesn’t mean that you should cease to seek reconciliation and restoration off of the page. It just means that it’s unwise to write a resolution into your story if it is not a true portrayal of your experience.
The Bible’s Ambiguity and the Promise of Resolution
Many stories in Scripture don’t resolve. John 8 recalls the episode in which a crowd has gathered to stone an adulterous woman. Jesus disperses the crowd and forgives the woman. But we never learn how she responds. Is she changed? Are the judgmental stone-throwers changed? Matthew 19 tells of a rich young man who comes to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to receive eternal life?” Jesus instructs him to give away all that he has, and the man walks away, downcast. Does he return, pockets empty, ready to follow Jesus? We do not know.
And why does catastrophe come upon Job? What sin merited such loss? His friends want to know. What greater purpose will the loss serve? God never says. He says only that in all things, he is present. At the foundation of the world, I was there. When the stars sang together, I was there. When the hawk learned to fly, I was there. And when you, Job, lost everything, I was there. Job’s life ends prosperously, but we never learn the reason for his earlier suffering. The book’s end is perplexing, even troubling in its refusal to answer the primal question why?
Learning to honor ambiguity in our own stories can train us to be better readers of the Bible. Having released our compulsion to see every plot resolved, to find a moral in every story, we can open ourselves to scripture’s complex characters and circumstances. We’ll tolerate that heroes are deeply flawed, that justice does not prevail in Israel, that Jesus heals some who come to him in the crowd, but not all. We can tolerate this ambiguity because we know that God is resolving the Great Story—that every fragment of our histories will be made whole in the time that Revelation 21 foretells, when God will make his home with his people. God’s presence, now so hard for us to perceive, will be made plain. And in God’s glorious company, “there will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.” In this we rejoice, even as we wait.
Try Writing Spiritual Memoir Using This Prompt:
- Write: It can be overwhelming to write about an experience that feels unresolved, and it can help to focus on a single object. Write about a gift given to you by someone who is no longer in your life. Describe this gift and the memories it stirs, with no pressure to impose a narrative arc on what you write. If this writing is painful, seek support from family, friends, a counselor, or a pastor throughout the writing process, or save this prompt for another time.
- Read: Read one of the Scripture examples above: John 8:1-11, Matthew 19:16-30, or, if you’re feeling ambitious, the book of Job. How does it feel to sit in the ambiguity, to not resolve the problem of the story? How do you feel towards God? In what ways is God present, even if God has not offered a clear solution?
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