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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6 Responses to Spirituality, Place, and Labels

  1. sarahbraud says:

    Yep. I’m with you, Jenna. Though I enjoyed reading Boyer’s essay, I too would hesitate to call it “spiritual.” It covers the spiritual content side of things, but does little more than that. It was a fun read, like a Dan Brown expose. I love the title. It reeled me in. Who doesn’t love a good uncovering of a club of secret knowledge. I can already imagine the movie. Men in ties, rolled up sleeves, in a thread-bare victorian apartment, crying, confessing their sins to one another. But, will I re-read it? No. The essay doesn’t grasp to touch anything divine, really. It doesn’t make me want to reach out for anything either. Isn’t that why we go to spiritual writing? To remind us to reach?

  2. Whitney Groves says:

    Loren’s essay invokes in the reader an awareness of forces greater than him/herself. Whether we call it “God” or “nature” doesn’t really matter. It’s “spiritual” writing because it helps us transcend the boundaries we’ve created to demarcate our individual selves from the One. Boyer’s essay deals with men who are ostensibly trying to do the same thing, but he — and we — remain on the sidelines as disinterested observers. Loren reminds us that we are participants by nature, whether we’re aware of it or not.

  3. bk loren says:

    Wow, thank you everyone. I was researching my own work in preparation for a new volume of essays I’m working on, and I came across this page. My day shifted from one of tedium (research) to gratitude. Thanks for putting me back into the space I love most. Thanks for being generous and compassionate readers. –BK Loren

  4. BK: I’m glad that stumbling across this page lifted your day out of tedium. Thanks for leaving us a note — and for putting such beautiful work out into the world.

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