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.
The God portrayed in the stories of the Bible can seem far off if we are not aware of God’s presence in our own lives. The Bible seems only a history book, its characters trapped in antiquity, and God a bygone deity if we don’t sense that Emmanuel, who was near to Israel and dwelled among regular people in the person of Christ, is with us still today. One way to invigorate our Bible-reading is to draw our attention to our own life stories. This practice can help us to see God, ourselves, and others more clearly. In turn, it can send us back to the Bible with renewed recognition of the God therein depicted, and able to see ourselves and our neighbors reflected back to us in the stories of Scripture.
In the fourth gospel, John writes about the dramatic acts of restoration and the subtle, puzzling gestures that Jesus performed while he lived. At the gospel’s end, John concludes, “Now, there are many other things that Jesus did. If they were all written down one by one, I suppose that the whole world could not hold the books that would be written” (John 21:25). I read this as an invitation. The risen Christ continues the work he started in his human body, sometimes dramatically and sometimes subtly. John, the great story-writer, asks us to write what we have seen Jesus do.
Learning from a Tradition
We have many examples in the Christian tradition of those who have written of God’s movement in their lives—even beyond Scripture writers. There was Augustine in the fourth century and Teresa of Avila in the sixteenth. More recently, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis wrote their spiritual stories. And contemporary writers like Anne Lamott, Mary Karr, and Christian Wiman carry the torch of the tradition, writing about their own dramatic, subtle, and puzzling experiences of faith.
These writers use the genre of memoir, and we can learn from this genre as we accept John’s invitation to write our own stories. Spiritual memoirists are not just devotional journalers or chroniclers of fact. They use the tools of self-reflection and wordcraft to discover nuanced and honest stories about God, self, and neighbor. They practice the art of remembering, often noticing God at work in moments in the past from which God seemed absent. They delve beyond their own blind spots and defenses to discover the truth about themselves. And in their own histories, they discover truths about others, for even the most personal story can be universal.
We don’t have to be writers to take on this discipline. We can simply borrow writers’ tools, muster a little courage to face the truth, sit at the writing desk—or the Starbucks table, or the seat at the roots of the old oak tree—and get to work. You can begin by writing privately, as many writers do. And if you feel what you’ve written may be illuminating to others, you can share it. Perhaps along the way, you will find yourself in line in the great tradition of spiritual memoirists.
The Art of Remembering
If a painter works in paint, then a memoirist works in memory. That’s her medium. Memoir can be the length of a book, an essay, or a few paragraphs. While autobiography tells the story of a life, a memoir tells a story from a life. This approach releases some of the pressure: we don’t have to tell our entire stories in one swoop. Start with one episode, trying to understand how God was at work on a particular afternoon, or in a particular year—during grad school, after the break-up, amid the caregiving. What were Jesus’s dramatic movements and barely perceptible gestures?
In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr says that a memoirist must be a “person with an inner life big as Lake Superior and a passion for the watery element of memory.” She calls memory “watery” because it seems to slip through our fingers. Many of us struggle to remember the details of the past. Even those of us with vivid memories ought to regard them with suspicion: scientific studies show human memory to be largely unreliable.
How can we tell a true story with such dubious material? Seeking the Spirit’s inspiration, we must interrogate our memories. First, we can jog memory with imaginative exercises. Here’s one: Walk through your first home, beginning at the front door. Move through each room to make your way to your childhood bedroom. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch?
Then we must corroborate our memories. Call your mother. Email your sister. Was the front door green or navy? Were Dad’s magazines always stacked on the landing? Did he yell that way just once, or did it happen often? And did he soften as he aged? Do they remember it the way you do?
The Spirit hovered over the waters at creation, making order out of chaos; ask that same Spirit to hover over the waters of your memory, to help you to see the past more clearly.
Knowing God, Self, and Neighbor
The practice of Spirit-led remembering can be a form of prayer. Rather than asking God to accomplish some task in the future, in this form of prayer we ask to see God’s presence in the past. This helps us to know God. When was spirit of the risen Christ at work, doing the same sorts of things Jesus did here on earth? When was a body healed? Intimacy restored? Those years when God seemed silent—did a friend keep showing up with dinner? Writing these moments helps us to notice God with us, and in turn helps us to approach the Bible with renewed belief that the same God who was present at Sinai and Caesarea is present today. We’ll enjoy a flash of recognition, for we’ll see in these ancient stories the God whom we’re getting to know in our own stories.
God is often veiled until we seek divine revelation; likewise, our very selves can seem hidden from us. We are a mess of contradictions. A mélange of motivations. Philip Lopate, who edited The Art of the Personal Essay, writes, “So often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.”
So memoirists interrogate their blind spots. If you find yourself blaming someone in your story, probe that blame. Try writing the scene from the other’s perspective. Or perhaps you’ve heaped all the blame on yourself. Is there another story to be told? You might discover a cultural blind spot. Use third-person perspective to show yourself in action. Does the story change when you tell it from the vantage of your atheist brother? Your Muslim workmate? A Christian from Zimbabwe? You might find Jesus there, offering one of those barely perceptible gestures of grace.
And when you return to read the Bible, you might begin to see yourself reflected in its complex characters, its heroes and anti-heroes, for understanding ourselves can help us to understand others. Some call this the we of memoir. Whether in Bible characters or our own neighbors, our personal narratives “can serve to elucidate a more widespread human trait,” says Lopate—and should you choose to share your writing, it might also serve as a mirror for your readers, helping them to feel “a little less lonely and freakish.”
As we embark on this work, using the tools of memoir to get closer to the truth, we are learning how to see. Paul foretells one of the great promises of the gospel when he says that, though now, our knowledge is only partial and our vision is “like a dim image in a mirror,” one day “we shall see face-to-face,” and our knowledge shall be complete. We shall know God, ourselves, and others with the crystal-clear perception that only God now possesses. Writing our stories can help us to glimpse the world as God sees it.
Write and Read Using These Prompts
- Write: Consider a period of your life in which God seemed absent. Write a single scene from that period. What was its color palette? What did it smell like? What did you hear: Cicadas? Fire? Silence? Use dialogue—between you and a friend, a pastor, or a parent; between you and God. What do you notice in retrospect? What grace was peeking through?
- Read: Read Exodus 3. God often appears in disguise, and we must stop to notice in order to see God with us and to hear God’s call. Is your reading different after unveiling God in your own story? If so, how?
Up Next: “Meeting God at the Edge of Our Understanding” and “Finding God in Life’s Ambiguity.” Often, probing our memories can stir confusion, for we don’t understand how God was at work. Not every episode from our lives resolves happily, but in writing we can feel pressure to find a moral to every story. The second and third parts of this series will address these difficult dimensions of writing spiritual memoir.
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