REFLECTING ON your life journey is a profound and deepening experience.
Gandhi, Augustine, Basho, al-Ghazālī, Black Elk, Thoreau, and Karen Armstrong are among the great spiritual thinkers who have shared their odysseys. Some, like the eminent paleontologist philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, have posed large questions about these journeys: Are we human beings having a spiritual journey? Or are we spiritual beings having a human journey?
As a group, the MCWRET Board has journeyed together for almost 20 years. As in any spiritual endeavor, we have discovered the importance of doing work that is both outer and inner. We focus some of our efforts on our community, some on our interfaith group, and some on our individual lives and practices. The public arena is an appropriate place for some, but not all, of our work together.
Almost half of our core interfaith group has now shared the stories of their individual paths.Some experience their spiritual life as a personal quest or journey, often independent of a particular faith community. Others have cultivated and expressed their spirituality within a religious community. We are gaining a deeper sense of each other’s lives and our similarities and differences.
Individuals’ life journeys are never just their journeys. What is most deeply personal is also most universal. A few Board members have agreed to share their spiritual journeys in this section of the website as examples. The objective is to encourage interested individuals and interfaith groups to explore their own journeys.
In this section you will find:
Some First Hand Reports: (Click on the Titles to Go to the Reports)
Dr. Roshan Chaddha, Coordinator Emeritus MCWRET Board
Ellen Chaddha, MCWRET Board Advisor
Rev Elizabeth Congdon, Co-President MCWRET Board
Dr. Stevi Lischin, Co-President MCWRET Board
Dr. Robert Smith, Board Member MCWRET
ClaraGee Kastner Stamaty Ziment, MCWRET Board Advisor
Joanne Ivy Stankievich, MCWRET Board Advisor
Some Resources on Spiritual Journeys
● On Spiritual Autobiography:
From: McGraw Hill-Tell It Slant–Additional Material on Creative Non-Fiction—Writing the Spiritual Autobiography–Brenda Miller
Writing the Spiritual Autobiography
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions like locked rooms or like books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them….Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. — Rainer Maria Rilke
The Tradition of Spiritual Autobiography
The Quest Narrative
Personal Renditions of The Sacred
What Is Your “Koan”?
Writing as a Spiritual Practice
Before I sit down at my desk, I look out my window and notice the light as it reflects off the bay. I light a candle and a stick of incense, reaching over the small statue of a Buddha, sitting on the windowsill. On a shelf above my desk sits a menorah my parents gave me for Hanukkah one year. A St. Christopher medal lies coiled in a small compartment in a drawer of my desk. Photographs of my four great-grandmothers bear witness to all this spiritual paraphernalia, gazing down at me with what I interpret as amused benevolence.
All of these things — the light off the bay, the incense, the meditating Buddha, the menorah, St. Christopher, my ancestors — create an atmosphere of eclectic spirituality that has come to inform much of my writing. From the very beginning, my writing has tended to chronicle the sometimes baffling turns my spiritual path has taken: from acting as the earnest president of my Jewish youth group, to drifting through days of Grateful Dead concerts in the eighties (convinced of the divinity of Jerry Garcia), to backpacking solo in the meadows around Mt. Rainier, to meditating in silence for weeks at a time in California farmhouses. I’ve settled down a bit in my staid middle age, but I’ve never lost that sense of spiritual quest driving the trajectory of my life.
Now, writing itself seems to be deepest spiritual act I can perform. So I sit down at my desk. I light my incense. I look out my window and take a deep breath. I feel the presence of my great grandmothers cheering me on. I write one word and then another. Who knows where it will lead? What kind of faith can I muster to continue? I don’t know. It’s a little like prayer, a little like meditation, a little like walking an unknown trail in the high country. — Brenda
The Tradition of Spiritual Autobiography
Spirituality, though oftentimes invisible in our lives, seems to follow us everywhere. From the moment we’re born, we’re initiated into a world that relies on many different rituals to guide us. Or, if we’re born into a family more secular, we become aware of ourselves in opposition to predominant modes of religious belief. Perhaps that is why we’ve lately noticed a renaissance in memoirs that use either religion or spirituality as a guiding narrative or metaphor.
But the impulse to write spiritual autobiography has been around as long as human consciousness. The form keeps adapting to fit whatever culture and society demand of it-these works range from devotional narratives to science writing that finds spiritual fodder in the cells of the human body — but the basic structure usually wins out: these narratives tend to focus on moments of insight that lead the narrator in a new direction. By their very nature, many spiritual autobiographies appear to mimic or echo classic “conversion” stories found in religious texts: the protagonist is lost and then found, and the narratives hinge on precise moments of “turning,” either away or toward points of reference identified as God, Allah, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, and so on.
These “conversions” may also work the opposite way, especially after defining events such as the Holocaust or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001: the narrator moves from a place of religious or spiritual certainty to one that is more fragmented or full of doubt.
We can call these moments “epiphanies” (sudden insights), but they don’t necessarily arrive with the bang an epiphany suggests. They may be quiet moments, barely noticeable until the act of writing magnifies their significance. A turning point can be as subtle as Emily Dickinson’s “certain slant of light” into a room, or Virginia Woolf’s contemplation of a dying moth in her study (see “The Death of the Moth” in the Anthology.)
The Quest Narrative
Full-length spiritual autobiographies essentially take the form of a quest narrative, propelled by burning questions, a journey toward an unclear destination. The protagonist sets herself on a path, encounters obstacles and unexpected guides, and is transformed along the way. For example, The Wizard of Oz could be the most traditional and metaphoric of spiritual autobiographies: the protagonist, Dorothy, driven by deep, inchoate longing, finds herself on a journey in an unknown country. Essentially alone, she must rely on guidance from unexpected sources to find her way toward a vague, promised land. She encounters many obstacles along the way, many turning points, but finally arrives at Oz, only to find the destination nothing like what she imagines. When she finally returns home, she is the same person, but transformed by her quest. As T.S. Eliot would have it, in his succinct summary of the spiritual autobiography/quest:
We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
The “forefather” of spiritual autobiography, St. Augustine, took his Confessions as an opportunity to detail both the worst and the best about himself, and the narrative focuses on the turning points that finally lead him toward his religious vocation. A man who once prayed “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet!,” Augustine struggles with his bodily desires throughout the book, and gradually finds himself in a small garden, consumed with doubt and indecision. And then, seemingly from nowhere, he hears the voice of children chanting: “Take up and read. Take up and read.” He picks up the Bible, opens it at random, and of course the passage he chooses strikes him to the core. He dedicates his life to God from that point on.
Jean-Paul Sartre, on the other hand, details a progression in just the opposite direction. “Only once did I have the feeling that He existed,” he writes in his autobiography The Words:
I had been playing with matches and burned a small rug. I was in the process of covering up my crime when suddenly God saw me. I felt His gaze inside my head and on my hands. I whirled about in the bathroom, horribly visible, a live target. Indignation saved me. I flew into a rage against so crude an indiscretion, I blasphemed, I muttered like my grandfather: God damn it, God damn it, God damn it. He never looked at me again.
Sartre does not leave spirituality behind; he channels it in a different direction. He details how writing itself becomes his spiritual vocation: “By writing I was existing. I was escaping from the grown-ups, but I existed only in order to write, and if I said ‘I,’ that meant ‘I who write.’ In any case, I knew joy.” And later in the narrative: “I thought I was devoting myself to literature, whereas I was actually taking Holy Orders.”
Nature writer John Muir takes a different tack altogether. Rather than turning away or toward an external spiritual figure, he includes spirituality in all of nature. In My First Summer in the Sierra, Muir writes: “In our best times everything turns into religion, all the world seems a church and the mountains altars.” How interesting everything is, he muses throughout the book, a good mantra any writer can take to heart.
Personal Renditions of the Sacred
As with any strong work of creative nonfiction, the successful spiritual autobiography hinges on discovery through the writing process itself. The writer does not set out to give us predetermined answers, but instead allows us some insight into the questions that drive him. Spiritual autobiographies, in particular, “find interesting” the turns in the road, and the roadside attractions; they do not necessarily follow a straight line, but proceed more intuitively, meandering from point to point in a way that may seem digressive, but actually form a clear path in retrospect.
Anne Lamott, in her wry account of her own spiritual process, Traveling Mercies, puts it this way:
My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pads, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew…When I look back on some of these early resting places — the boisterous home of the Catholics, the soft armchair of the Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews — I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.
If you look on your life as a series of “lily pads,” the way Anne Lamott does, you may be able to begin an essay structured around these turning points in your spiritual narrative.
Once you set out to examine your own spiritual inclinations, you will find yourself with a new set of writerly dilemmas: spirituality can be an arena fraught with pre-fabricated rhetoric and tired clichés. Your challenge, as a writer, is to find a language and a form so personal that only you can give us this rendition of the spiritual life. You must remain aware of how your brand of spirituality has been depicted in the past, and find a way to circumvent the expectations and resistance of your reader. How do you even begin to discuss spirituality without immediately using language that has lost its meaning from overuse?
There are two answers to this question, the same ones we provide throughout this book at every step of the way: 1) You use very specific, sensory details that reveal the self and its particular voice; and 2) You read the writers who have come before you for help and guidance.
For example, Andre Dubus, in his intensely personal essay “Love in the Morning” (see website), gives us a view of his dedication to morning Mass that goes beyond mere praise and devotion. In a wheelchair since an accident in the mid-eighties, Dubus’ version of Mass includes the exact dimensions it takes to fit his wheelchair in the aisle, and a detailed description of his exercise regime after Mass that takes him on a circuit around the church and the surrounding landscape. Throughout this routine he sings at the top of his voice because “pushing a wheelchair around a parking lot is not exciting, as running and walking were; but singing, combined with the work of muscles and blood, makes it joyful.” He spends a great deal of time in this essay with the details of one morning’s round, which gives us a clear sense of place and character, and gives Dubus the time to muse on the connections he feels with what surrounds him. He also ties his spirituality into his writing, detailing the process in the same tone and voice he uses to describe his rituals of faith:
I wrote the story in four days; it is very short, and I knew before starting it that it was coming like grace to me, and I could receive it or bungle it, but I could not hold it at bay; and if I were not able to receive it with an open heart and, with concentration, write it on paper, it would come anyway, and pass through me and through my room to dissipate in the air, and it might not come back.
The long sentence, the rhythm of the punctuation and clauses, the repeating sibilant sounds: all these techniques serve to create the very meditation Dubus describes. Before his death in 1999, Dubus wrote mainly fiction, and his techniques ring with the felicity of a fiction writer: he creates scenes and character and narratives that draw the reader in, bit by bit, until we’ve experienced this particular world along with him.
If you decide to write about spiritual experience — whether positive or negative — you will want to look closely at the physical elements that make up your spiritual life, whether those are incense in a church, chanting in a synagogue or the odor of cedar on your daily walk. Beginning there, ask yourself how your sense of spirituality informs your life and the lives of those around you. How have you moved forward? How have you moved back?
You could also approach your spiritual autobiography by becoming a “layperson’s expert.” Poet Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk and other books on faith, creates a lyrical, yet highly researched, version of spirituality when she immerses herself in the world of a Benedictine Monastery. Patricia Hampl, in Virgin Time, makes a pilgrimage to the roots of her spirituality and presents a “travelogue” of faith that includes not only her own experience but a great deal of “expert” information.
In contrast to Norris and Hampl, who become friendly experts and guides, Anne Lamott takes on the role of the endearing screw-up, a woman who tries her best, often falling short but able to recover. She becomes more of a buddy to the reader, articulating all those weaknesses we thought must be kept hidden. In her essay “Why I Don’t Meditate” (see Anthology), Lamott maintains a sense of irony throughout the piece, a conversational voice that trusts the reader as much as we grow to trust her. One pitfall of spiritual writing is that it can become too “heavy” and self-absorbed; Lamott provides a good model for an alternative voice, one that claims no perfection in the spiritual life.
What Is Your “Koan?”
In “The Mickey Mantle Koan” (see Anthology), David James Duncan sets himself a “koan,” a puzzle or riddle given to Zen students by their masters, the answer to which might lead to spiritual enlightenment. In Duncan’s case, the koan takes the form of a signed baseball, sent to his dying brother by Mickey Mantle. The brother dies before the baseball arrives, and for over twenty years it sits on Duncan’s shelf — intriguing, puzzling, infuriating. Duncan knows the ball offers some clue to sorting out his grief about his brother’s death, but he doesn’t really know how it will do so.
In the essay, Duncan pushes at this koan and works it out before our eyes. He takes a simple, almost mundane object — a signed baseball — and gazes at it until it yields some answers. He approaches spirituality not on the level of the abstract, but on the level of a grassy playing field, where dirty old balls “hiss and pop” into the gloves of teenage boys.
When you set about to write your personal rendition of spirituality, look for the concrete things of the world that will help you find your own “koan.” What are the essential questions these objects trigger in you? These questions will help you move, as a writer, from the abstract to the concrete.
Maintain, above all, honesty — with yourself and your reader. If it has been said before, don’t say it. If you veer into platitude and cliché, veer right out of it again. If you find yourself mired in complaint, laugh your way out of it. Render the spiritual life with the same intuition and intelligence you bring to all your work. Find the details, the tone, the rhythms that will separate your voice from the choir’s. Sing a solo. Be brave. Really belt it out.
Writing as a Spiritual Practice
Writing is the only way I know how to pray. — Helena Maria Viramontes
As we saw with Andre Dubus and Jean-Paul Sartre, often writers find that the writing process, itself, grows akin to spiritual practice. It requires the same kind of patience, ritual, and faith. Annie Dillard, in her book The Writing Life, compares writing to sitting at a desk thirty feet off the ground. “Your work,” she writes, “is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.” Poet Carolyn Forché has called the writer’s stance one of “meditative expectancy.” Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, sees writing as in integral part of her Zen practice: “Jack Kornfield, a Vipassana meditation teacher, said last week up at Lama, ‘you meditate by yourself, but not for yourself. You meditate for everyone.’ This is how we should write.”
If we begin to see our writing in this kind of context, it can become a little easier to maintain the patience and faith necessary for our work to be done. It’s a secular practice, available to anyone who feels compelled to put pen to paper. When you write this way, you are “living the questions now” and offering up possible pathways into the ineffable.
The Discovery Process
Describe a religious or semi-religious ritual that took place in your childhood with some regularity. Use quotes from this ritual as a frame within which you can describe memory, conflict, pleasure and pain. Move your reader through this ritual with you. Using present tense and vivid imagery, show the emotion you felt about this particular rite as a child.
Variation: Re-write the scene in the past tense, from an adult perspective. How does your attitude toward this rite change?
Try to remember a moment in your childhood when you were first aware of a spiritual “presence” in your life. This can be anything from a moment within your spiritual tradition, or a moment in nature, or a moment when you were alone in your room. Describe this experience from the child’s point of view, in the present tense.
Variation: Describe a moment when you were aware of the absence of a spiritual “presence” in your life. Where do these different moments lead you?
Put on a piece of music that has spiritual connotations for you: Gregorian chants, bamboo flutes, a Verdi opera, whatever puts you in a meditative mood. Write to this music, without ever mentioning the music at all.
Variation for a group: Each person brings in a piece of music; do the above, with as many pieces as you can in a writing session.
Personal Renditions of the Sacred
If you have a repeating spiritual ritual, give us one particular scene out of this rite (see Chapter One, “The Basics of Good Writing in Any Form,” for a discussion of scene-making.). Focus on one day, or one morning, or one hour that encapsulates what this ritual means to you. Try not to tell us what it means, but show us through the details you choose, the tone you create.
Imagine yourself into the mind of one of your spiritual ancestors. What scene or image provides a turning point in your spiritual life even before you’re born?
Do some research into your spiritual tradition: what are the controversies? How is it practiced in different parts of the world? Interview an elder, or participate in an intensive retreat. Write as both an observer and a participant. (see “Chapter Eleven: The Basics of Personal Reportage,” for a discussion of immersion research techniques.)
Using Anne Lamott as a model, write a scene of some spiritual “failure.”
Using David James Duncan as a model, think about the “koans” that exist in your own life. What objects, people, places, or situations have always puzzled you? How do these things represent emotions or ideas that you haven’t yet been able to articulate? Begin an essay whose goal is to “push” at these objects until they yield some unexpected answers.
For the duration of one or two writing sessions, ban certain words from your vocabulary that already have charged spiritual connotations (God, Lord, Allah, soul, scriptural language, etc.) Make a list of these words and keep it with you; often this kind of language becomes a crutch, enabling us to avoid going deeper into our material. See what moves you have to make to avoid using these words. What images or scenes arise to take their place?
Variation for a group: Make a group list of such words and promise to abide by the prohibition for whatever duration the group decides. When reading each other’s work, make note of when such words arise and their effect.
In the Anthology
Dubus, Andre, “Love in the Morning” (website)
Duncan, David James, “The Mickey Mantle Koan”
Woolf, Virginia, “The Death of the Moth”
Lamott, Anne, “Why I Don’t Meditate”
Miller, Brenda, “Basha Leah” (website)
Patricia Hampl, Virgin Time
Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and The Writing Life
Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway
St. Augustine, Confessions
Jean-Paul Sartre, The Words
N. Scott Momaday, The Names
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierras
Eli Wiesel, Night
13 Ways to Begin Your Writing:
1. Spiritual Stepping Stones
2. Dialogues with Spiritual Mentors
3. Your Spiritual Geography or Landscape
4. Objects that are your Spiritual Symbols
5. Extensions (incorporating into your own life) of ideas/messages in lectures, seminars. Reflections on readings that have had meaning for you.
6. Spiritual Moments or Times in Your Life
7. Letters to People Who have Inspired You (not necessarily mailed)
8. Your Experience of a Sacred or Inspirational Place
9. Your Reflection on a Fulfilling Act of Service you have Performed
10. Your Spiritual Teachers and Sacred/Honored Relationships
11. Seeing the Spirituality in Family Events and Rituals
12. Experiences of Community
13. Spiritual Messages in Everyday Life
From a MCWRET program presented by Drs. Stevi Lischin and Joyce Block
37 Spiritual Practices to Consider: