Why Writing is a Spiritual Discipline

“The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.”
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Why do you write?

It’s a common enough question these days, one to which I should have a better answer. But find me at a dinner party, ask me, and I’ll trip over words, bumble and blabber some non-sensical gibberish about Lewis, and Hemingway, and the greats before I catch my rambling and sum it all up with, “I just gotta write; you know?”

See my knack for language?

In early April, I was graced with the opportunity to assist in leading a mini-retreat at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. There, the conference attendees asked this question of me time after time, enduring my incoherent ramblings.  By Sunday morning I decided perhaps it was time to formulate a less squishy answer.

Why do I write? That’s a great question. Let’s explore.

I’ve heard some say they do not know what they feel, think, or believe  until they’ve hashed it out on the page. And though neither incessant talking nor incessant writing are the equivalent of thought (mull that over for a bit), I think there’s some instructive wisdom here. Writing requires us to slow down and contemplate language to express the complex condition of our hearts. Intentional writing allows us the opportunity to put language to the emotions, opinions, dreams, and visions we’d often otherwise ignore.

To be clear, fire does not spark the flint, and the churning of the engine does not fill the tank. In the same way, I don’t suppose  writing creates thought. But, when used in conjunction with its sisters observation, contemplation, and creativity, the written word can provide a great tools for uncovering hidden truths. It’s the shovel for the treasure, the key to the chest holding the diamond of great worth. It gives gives us the ability to see experience the buried truth.

In Portland, I sat with a group of writers in a conference room at Warner Pacific College. “We’re on a writer’s retreat,” I said, “so let’s carve out thirty minutes; let’s observe the world around us and write what we see, feel, or hear.” We scattered into the beauty of a Northwest Spring, pens and paper in hand.

After thirty minutes, we reconvened. There, I asked if anyone would be willing to share their writing, and in a moment of silence, Velynn Brown spoke. She said it was difficult to be fully present at the conference, that she and her husband had been talking about the “Black Lives Matter” campaign just days before arriving in Portland. A black family living in the Northwest, questions swirled about how they would raise their sons, what they would tell them about the state of racism in America. She paused, looked at the  sheet of paper in her hands, and said, “outside, I walked by an evergreen, and drips of thick black sap came from its side. I looked, considered, and heard God say, ‘see? sometimes even I cry.’”

Taking a deep breath, she began to read the poem she’d written by that sap-sobbing tree. The poem explored God’s lament for the recent turmoil in America, and showed God’s deep solidarity with Velynn and her family. “I haven’t revolved it yet,” she said at the end of the poem, “but I experienced God through it.”

This is the beauty of writing. Before taking her pen to nature, Velynn knew the sadness of her own heart. Writing did not create that sadness, nor did it fuel it. But, by engaging in active observation and writing with intention, she uncovered her beliefs about her relation to God, her family’s relation to God, and ultimately, God’s heart toward a lamentable world. What’s more, she gave our retreat group a gift–the gift of understanding.

Why do I write?

If I’m honest, the ego-centric part of me hopes to craft the great American novel one day. The exhibitionist part of me enjoys showing a fanciful turns of phrase, too. But more than any of these things, I write so that I might uncover the hidden gems of the heart. I write so that I might pull thoughts from the self-mine, so that I might expose them to the light and see if their facets glow. And like Velynn, I write so I might better understand my relation to God, and God’s relation to the world.

Writing is, then, a spiritual discipline.

Granted, not everyone enjoys turning a phrase on paper. But when is the last time you sat in the quiet and listened to God with pen and paper in hand? When is the last time you journaled about the anxieties that keep you up at night, the joys for which you are grateful, or those people who’ve impacted your life? When is the last time you incorporated writing as part of your practice of the spiritual disciplines?

If it’s been too long, grab your computer or a pen and a journal, sit in the quiet, and ask yourself: “what am I hearing in my heart.” Then, just write.

*****

Consider these sample writing prompts for further direction.

1. What is your deepest source of current pain, and how is God trying to meet you there?

2. Where are you finding joy with God? Describe it in detail.

3. What does the world around you say about God’s relation to you and your relation to him?

*****

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  • Jody Ohlsen Collins

    I waited a few days to read this. It was worth the wait. I will be mining this in the future.I’m teaching my own little small group at our Women’s Retreat next month about why journaling is so powerful. You said it so well….as usual.

  • pastordt

    I waited, too. And read it at exactly the right time. Thank you, Seth.

  • Samantha Barnes

    I love this. Can’t wait to spend some time in solitude with a pen and pad, processing your provided questions. (how’s that for unintentional alliteration?)