In this three-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.
He never told me why he broke off the engagement.
We thought God told us to move here, but it’s been so hard that we wonder if we heard wrong.
How do we write about the episodes from our lives that don’t make sense? As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, we see much of our experience “like a dim image in a mirror.” Often, we don’t understand our loved one’s decisions, our own motivations, or God’s actions. Often, we don’t even know if God has acted. The process of writing spiritual memoir forces us to admit that we don’t understand parts of our own lives, and invites us to the edge of our understanding. There, the God who loves to reveal new insights to those who seek them, might help us to understand.
Like our own life stories, many episodes in the Bible are bewildering. The Bible is complex, full of stories that comfort us and stories that confound us. If we’re willing to seek new insights in the process of writing our own stories, perhaps we’ll also be courageous to explore confusing parts of Scripture, expecting that at the edge of our understanding, God will teach us something new.
How to Begin
Literary memoir teaches us that as writers, we don’t have to come to the page knowing what we will say. There is merit in just showing up to the work. Many of the best memoirists write in the form of the essay, and the very word essay comes from the French essayer, which means to try. To write an essay is to have a try, or to take a stab at it. For essayists, discovery happens during the writing process. “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” said Flannery O’Connor. What about your spiritual life don’t you understand? This might just be the best place to begin a spiritual memoir.
One way to set out into the wilderness of our experience is to interrogate the imagery that surfaces as we write. Often, we aren’t sure how we feel about a certain moment in our lives, though it happened long ago. The layoff. Grandpa’s death. The award that didn’t satisfy the way we expected it would. If part of your life feels too confusing to tackle on the page, start with a single scene from that period. How did that moment look, smell, taste, sound? What did it feel like in your body? Write freely. After you’ve written, study the imagery you’ve used—any word or phrase that conjures up a mental image. Imagery evokes a certain mood, and as you discover the emotional atmosphere of your writing, you might learn more about how you felt during that time in your life, and how you feel about it now. You might discover how you’ve grown.
Understand Your Experience Through Images
Sometimes the things we can see with our eyes tell us more than abstract concepts like the words we use for emotions. Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem uses imagery to evoke poignant emotion. The essay tells the story of how Didion came to New York enamored of the place and left New York disillusioned, and tries to discover what exactly went wrong in between. She writes this scene, of the bare sublet where she lived:
All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better, but I did not bother to weight the curtains correctly and all that summer the long panels of transparent golden silk would blow out the windows and get tangled and drenched in afternoon thunderstorms.
I imagine that as Didion wrote this essay, she didn’t know what she had to say about her New York years. Maybe she began with scenes, and discovered images that taught her a little more about her emotional experience. She recalled the silk curtains—those symbols of youthful idealism—then remembered them tangled in the midday storms. It’s an image of unexpected decay, of loss, of luxury turned tragedy. Perhaps in writing this scene, she discovered just how wistful and optimistic she once was, and just how jaded she had become. Maybe she recognized that she’d been foolish, that she was no longer foolish, and that she missed being foolish. As we write at the edges of our perception, God can reveal areas of growth—the distance between me then and me now—that can unearth new meaning to experiences that puzzle us.
Become a Better Reader of the Bible
As we practice noticing the images that emerge in our writing, we will become better readers of the Bible, which is itself full of imagery. When we come across an image in Scripture, we can ask, “Why might the writer have chosen this image? What emotion does this image evoke, and what does that teach us about the writer, the subject, or God?” Consider the image of the willow in this passage from Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down; there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows near by we hung up our harps … How can we sing a song to the LORD in a foreign land?
The writer could have included any details from this riverside scene: birds, reeds, reptiles on the shoreline. But the writer selects a willow. Willows are associated with weeping, so the willow here enhances our sense of the writer’s lament. Willow branches hang down to the ground, and much like the seated posture of the writer and his companions, the willow suggests fatigue, even defeat. Just as attention to imagery points us to the heart of our own stories, attention to imagery can deepen our understanding of Bible scenes.
Another way to unearth new meaning in our experiences is to interrogate our clichés. Liberal. Conservative. Salvation. Brokenness. God told me. God provided it. God allowed it. When we use jargon like this, we run the risk of obscuring truth behind well-worn phrases. Categorical terms like liberal and conservative diminish complex people to a single party. Theological jargon like salvation and brokenness can keep us from honestly assessing our unique experiences of these phenomena. And devotional clichés like God told me can presume too much certainty about divine action. When you catch yourself using the clichés particular to your own niche of culture, probe this language. Could you use a more precise or poignant phrase? What will you discover as you find the right words to match your wrestling, your affections, your rest?
Find a Fresh Phrase
Consider the following line from the poet Christian Wiman’s spiritual memoir, My Bright Abyss. Rather than simply saying “God,” Wiman strives for a fresher phrase: “that burn of being that drives us out of ourselves, that insistent, persistent, gravity of the ghost called God.” Fresh language can teach us something new about the mysterious persons in our lives—like God, our spouses, and our friends. The poetry of the line can evoke the awe-inspiring or enigmatic qualities of these persons.
The purpose of finding fresh language isn’t to be original or impressive, but to teach ourselves something new. Sometimes well-worn idioms say exactly what we mean. But we miss out on discovery if we don’t at least try out a new phrase, to see if God might use language to broaden the boundaries of our knowledge. The same principle can enhance our Bible reading. The many translations of the Bible offer countless fresh phrases. When we’re wrestling with a passage from Scripture that doesn’t make sense, a fresh translation might give us new insight. When a Bible story has become so familiar that it no longer astonishes us, a fresh translation might wake us anew to the text’s strange and startling beauty.
Back to the Bible
It’s scary to study the parts of Scripture that puzzle us, for confusion can make us feel out of control. The practice of writing spiritual memoir trains us to become comfortable at the fringes of our understanding. If through this spiritual discipline we sense that God has, time and again, broadened the boundaries of our knowledge, we may be bolder to explore those parts of the Bible that we don’t yet understand. The two practices—writing our own stories, and reading the stories of Scripture—work in tandem to enrich one another, and together they yield deeper insight about God and our own experiences.
Write and Read Using These Prompts
- Write: Recall a situation in your life that you don’t quite understand. It could be a relationship that fizzled, an irrational and undeniable sense of calling, a lost job, or a change of heart. Identify a scene that represents that situation and describe it in as much sensory detail as possible: focus on things like color, shapes, and facial expressions. Use metaphor if you like. Then interrogate your images: what do they tell you about that period of time? What emotional tone emerges from the way you wrote the scene? Do you discover anything new?
- Write: Write about a religious experience you’ve had without using any jargon.
- Read: Read John 21. Study the imagery in this passage—any words or phrases that evoke a mental image. What emotions do the images evoke? How does a close study of these images deepen your understanding of the passage?
- Read: Choose a passage from the Bible that’s an old favorite. Read it in two different translations (try one that is more word-for-word like NRSV, NKJV or NASB, and one that is more thought-for-thought like GNT, NLT, or the Message).
Write: List key phrases that differ from one another. Does reading this passage in a new translation deepen your understanding of the passage? If so, how?
Up Next: “Finding God in Life’s Ambiguity.” Not every episode from our lives resolves happily, but in writing we can feel pressure to find a moral to every story. The third part of this series will address this difficult dimension of writing spiritual memoir.
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