Poetry Friday (on Sunday)

Today’s Best Spiritual Writing 2012 selection is a poem by Betsy Sholl, “Pears, Unstolen” which first appeared in Image Journal.

Listen along to the poem read by Laura Mieko: http://soundcloud.com/lauramieko/pears-unstolen-betsy-scholl

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“Apparitions & Visitations” by Paul Myers (AKA: Good Ghost Stories to Tell at Your Next Slumber Party)

“Apparitions & Visitations” was perhaps one of my favorite in the collection of spiritual writing. I think it was the litany of concisely summarized moments of supernatural events that made the writing so appealing to me. Or it may just have been my love of ghost stories. Reading this essay was a lot like watching that supernatural reality show called Sightings, but having the host be Garrison Keiler, or someone else whose intellect or touch with reality isn’t debatable.


I can’t imagine that was easy write. Myers, at some point, sat down to share stories he’d heard, read about, or personally experienced. Stories that are usually quickly dismissed in our culture. Without proof, evidence, scientific research and backing, we are unlikely to admit belief in ghosts (or spirits), apparitions and visitations. Yet, Myers writes these summaries with unapologetic belief, only once giving voice to the natural doubt that arises:

Some things should be accepted for what they are. Under the rocks are the words, as Norman Maclean wrote, in his fishing memoir (139-40).

For all my years of training as a scientist and clinician, I have had experiences that I cannot explain away in a sensible fashion, and I have come to the conclusion that sensible explanations only block the gift you may receive (143).

Myers also accomplished the feat of including Bible stories as passing them off as just another account of a supernatural event, fitting in with stories about his cousin’s comforting exchange with a gray-haired, bun wearing spirit and a coed waking up to finding her grandfather’s spirit standing at the foot of her bed.

After reading Myer’s essay, I started writing down supernatural anecdotes my students have shared with me over the years. Nothing like a good essay to inspire writing. (Maybe that’s another litmus test for good spiritual writing? If it makes you want to write your own spiritual essay…)

“Apparitions & Visitations” by Paul Myers fist appeared in Portland, Autumn 2010.

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Spirituality, Place, and Labels

"Strands of light," by Jenna McGuiggan

“What It Is That Feeds Us” by BK Loren is the shortest essay in the collection of BSW 2012 and one of my favorites. When I turned the page and saw that Loren’s piece ended about a quarter of the way down the third page, I let out a little discontented sigh. I wanted more! My greediness notwithstanding, this essay is just right. It originally appeared in the “Coda” column of Orion, which is the regular feature on that lovely magazine’s back page. You can read the whole essay here (in a free preview of Orion‘s digital edition), and here’s an excerpt, to tempt you:

Without place, all stories become weightless, their characters dangling from dog-eared pages, hoping for a word to give them marrow, bone, body. Even the way we speak is formed by wind whistling across certain landscapes, the words of New Yorkers streetwise enough to turn corners too early, dropping r‘s as they run to grab a cab; and the voice of a rural girl saying haa-ay, making it two syllables, as if she had all the time in the world.

Without place, every sentence is from nowhere. (137)

To those who know me, it’s no surprise that I’m highlighting an essay about place. I’m a bit obsessed with the concept and realities of place, both in my writing and in my life. At the AWP Conference last week I attended a panel session on writing about place in fiction, even though I rarely write fiction. I’m currently working on a collection of essays that explores faith (coming to it, losing it, and, finally, I hope, redefining it) through the lens of seascapes and landscapes.

This brings me to the intersection of spirituality and place. For me, those two things go hand-in-hand. This is not unusual. Plenty of people feel connected to some higher power or larger context when they spend time in nature or a favorite place. But not everyone who loves nature or place identifies this connection as something spiritual. And this circles us back around to the question of what exactly qualifies as spiritual writing. (How do we define it? Can we settle on a working definition of it? What happens to the integrity and beauty of this subgenre when we confuse spiritual writing with religious propaganda?)

In her essay, Loren touches on coyotes, the Hubble telescope, the Rocky Mountains, the nature of characters and story, language, and the power of place over commercialism and marketing. She never once mentions religious words such as God, faith, spiritual, religion, or belief. There’s nothing here about Buddha or Jesus, heaven or hell. And yet Loren’s essay feels at home in a collection of “spiritual writing” in a way that some essays in the book, such as Peter J. Boyer’s “Frat House for Jesus,” don’t.

Boyer’s piece (which feels more like an article than an essay to me, but this may be splitting hairs) originally appeared in The New Yorker. (Read it here.) It gives an account of the C Street house (a group of conservative Christian politicians in Washington D.C.) and a somewhat mysterious and amorphous ministry called The Fellowship. “Frat House for Jesus” deals overtly with religion and some people who practice it, but is it spiritual writing? I say no. It doesn’t push toward that something more that I expect in spiritual writing. For something to qualify as spiritual writing, I’m looking for the sense that the author is connecting with or channeling something spiritual, not just reporting on people who hold to a particular creed.

For me, Loren’s short meditation on place, nature, and language reaches for something spiritual and engages my own soul or spirit. But as Sarah pointed out, all good writing “reaches out for the ineffable.” I call this unnameable thing God, spirituality, spirit, or soul, but the “non-spiritual” among us may call it something else.

What do you think? Do you consider Loren’s essay to be spiritual? What about Boyer’s — is it a piece of spiritual writing? What do we call writing that reaches for the ineffable if we don’t use words related to spirituality?

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Two Poems

It’s “Poetry Friday,” one day late. No commentary, just a moment to pause and take in the words of two poets featured in the anthology.

The Search
Kat Farrell

But then the moon
comes up after all and with
a glow bright enough to wake
you through the bedroom
———–the night outside, one
vast luminous room beside which
indoor rooms seem to belong to
a preliminary, rudimentary

[keep reading]

* *  *  *

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy
Karen An-Hwei Lee

In prayer:
quiet opening,
my artery is a thin
shadow on paper
margin of long grass,

[keep reading]

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Shh… It’s quiet in here.

Sarah and I have been joking about our  “book club of two” since it’s been pretty quiet around here. I know there are at least a few of you lurking in the shadows, and we appreciate you reading along. This week got away from us with pesky things like MFA deadlines, freelance projects, and a little writing conference called AWP (which is where I am right now). If you’ve never been to a conference with 10,000 other writers, well, let’s just say it’s a spiritual experience of its own kind.

All of this to say that we’re sorry we haven’t tackled any of the pieces from the second grouping from BSW, but we will be back with something next week. I especially loved two essays this week: Pico Iyer’s “A Chapel Is Where You Can Hear Something Beating Below Your Heart” and “Wonderlust” by Tony Hiss. If you happen to have read either of those, let us know what you think.

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An Invitation to non-readers of poetry.

I don’t want to make too much of this, but because poetry in general scares the bejesus out of me—with its slow lyricism and lofty attention to the minutia—Billy Collin’s poem “Gold” made me feel like I was invited into the world of poetry. Even people like me could join in the fun.

Again, I don’t want to exaggerate, but it’s easy for me to avoid the things in life I don’t understand and I hate to slow down long enough to think about why; and yet, “Gold” told me that I might enjoy a little light flooding into a room. It could be silly and expansive at the same time.

I feel like comparing [his poem] to fire, but I won’t since that feels way beyond my talent. I also don’t think I have that kind of time. The last thing I want to do is risk losing your confidence by appearing to lay it on too thick.

Let’s just say that anyone reading Billy Collin’s poetry would be delighted to accept his invitation—by his ironic, tongue-in-cheek style—to experience the presence of God in the flooding of sunlight through his bedroom window and leave it at that.

*all italicized words are swiped directly from “Gold” by Billy Collins. (even his name is accessible, don’t you think?)

For more accessible poetry by Billy Collins, read by a 3-year-old, HERE. (“Litany,” by Billy Collins)

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A Tale of Two Philips (or, What is Spiritual Writing, Part 2)

You have to wonder if Philip Zaleski regrets asking Philip Yancey to write the introduction to The Best Spiritual Writing 2012. I can only assume that Philip Z. knew enough about Philip Y. to trust him to write the introduction. But after reading the two Philips’ stunningly different takes on what constitutes spiritual writing, I’m baffled by how they both ended up in the same book. Perhaps Zaleski is more magnanimous than I, more able to consider alternate viewpoints in a calm and scholarly manner. I am not so magnanimous. In fact, by the time I read the first sentence in Yancey’s introduction, I was in full-on rant and balk mode.

Yancey’s View
So as not to make you wait for your own chance to balk (or to argue with me),  let me present Yancey’s point of view first.

Here’s the first line of the Introduction:

If I had to choose the most important challenge for those who write about spiritual matters, it would be finding the proper balance between art and propaganda.” (xvii)

What? (Are you seething yet? Is it just me?)

Yancey clarifies that he’s using “propaganda” in “the original sense of the word as coined by a pope who formed the Sacred Congregation de Propaganada Fide in the seventeenth century in order to spread the faith” (xviii). My issue with Yancey is that he assumes that all “spiritual writers” or “writers of faith” are writing to spread the faith, to convert readers, to put forth answers. As a spiritual writer myself, I don’t do any of these things. Yes, I want readers to “consider a viewpoint I hold to be true,” as Yancey later writes, but this is not the same as trying to “spread the faith.” I’m not trying to convert anyone.

Here’s where I start to foam at the mouth:

Like a bipolar magnet, the writer of faith feels the tug of opposing forces: a desire to communicate what gives life meaning counteracted by an artistic inclination toward self-expression and form that any “message” may interrupt. The result: a constant, dichotomous pull toward both propaganda and art. (xix)

And this:

Somewhere in this magnetic field between art and propaganda the spiritual writer must work. One force tempts us to lower artistic standards and proclaim a message we truly believe while another tempts us to tone down or alter the message for the sake of aesthetics. (xix)

I have never felt this temptation or the tug of these opposing forces. In fact, I don’t think that form and content are opposing forces.

Is Yancey confusing spiritual writing with something else, perhaps religious writing? This is not simply a matter of semantics or splitting hairs. He’s assuming that all writers of spiritual pieces have a clear theology and are presenting answers rather than asking questions. To his credit, Yancey does hold that good spiritual writing should be just as artful as any other good writing. But his assertion that “Writers of faith are tempted to omit details of struggle and realism that do not fit neatly into the propaganda message” just doesn’t ring true for all writers of faith. It’s not true for me and it doesn’t seem to be  true for the spiritual writers that I like to read.

Zaleski’s View
I resonate much more strongly with Zaleski’s view of what constitutes spiritual writing. As I noted in my comment on the last post, Zaleski borrows a term from the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: la théologie à genoux, which can be translated as theology on one’s knees, or kneeling theology. Zaleski explains that Balthasar meant “that theology must be informed by prayer,” and that above all, “theology must possess an active sense of the transcendent, a felt certainty that I exist in relation to something―or someone―purer, greater, nobler than myself, something that stands, in Plato’s famous formulation, as absolute beauty, truth, and goodness.” Zaleski says that the spiritual artist or writer “needs to practice l’art à genoux, or kneeling art” (ix-x).

I like this idea of conferring the writing process with a sense of the sacred. I think that writers of all kinds, whether they consider themselves “spiritual” or not, could benefit from adopting this posture. I think of writing as listening to and giving form to the words and stories that want to come through us, whether from the muse, the divine, God, the universe, or some other power or energy that is beyond us.

Here are a few other quotes from  Zaleski to give you the flavor of just how much he differs from Yancey:

It may be that spiritual art, at the peak of aspiration and execution, contains in it something not of the artist’s making, something not of this world. When the artist creates at a supernal level, he or she may be participating in what Louis Massignon, adapting the terminology of the Islamic mystic al-Hallaj, termed the “virgin point'”of contact between God and and the human being, where mystical exchange takes place.(x-xi)

* * *

…the spiritual artist (and thus the spiritual writer) does well to place himself or herself before God, at the beginning and end of the work, and ponder the following set of questions, a variation on the celebrated title of Gauguin’s most celebrated canvas:
“Who am I? Why do I work? What will I give to the world?”
In these three small questions, it seems to me, may be found the seeds of  l’art à genoux. (xvi)

I could go on, but I want to know what you think. Do you consider Y and Z to be as much at odds as I think they they are? Do you resonate with one view over another? Are you foaming at the mouth from any of this?

[Sarah and I have decided to institute “Poetry Fridays” during this four-week discussion of BSW. Tomorrow Sarah will be here with a post about Billy Collins’ poem “Gold.”]

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