After switching majors several times during undergraduate school, I finally decided on an English composition degree. As a young man in my early twenties, this category of study coincided nicely with my pursuit of an identity grounded in creativity, art, and self-expression. ‘I’ll be a creative writer,’ I thought, ‘maybe eventually teach writing as a college professor.’ My desire to be perceived as eccentric and free stretched as far as my shaggy, shoulder-length hair. I had set a trajectory for my life, a trajectory in which I would be noticed for my attractive strangeness and eloquent writing voice. My desire to write well was tragically wrapped up in egotistical pursuits, the confusion of creativity with self-centeredness.
All of this did not go away with my conversion to Christ. (Has it yet completely disappeared?) But that conversion did leave me progressively more desirous of truth, as I had encountered the One who is Truth. Initially, I became intrigued…obsessed with Christian apologetics. The rational, historical, and philosophical arguments for the truth of Christianity enamored me, filling my mind with concepts like the law of non-contradiction, teleology, C.S. Lewis’s argument from reason, to name just a few. Like many other young, ambitious converts, I spent too many hours filling in my share of Facebook threads, getting into cyber fist fights with atheists and agnostics. No one on the opposing side (that I know of) changed their mind. Even so, I became increasingly aware of the importance of articulating truth, of carrying out the work of an evangelist, so that others could know the Jesus I knew. Yet, at some level, I was still more concerned with grandiloquence (‘I’m a writer!’) than with clear, reasonable, and concise evangelism.
The challenge for writers—and especially Christian writers—is to articulate truth for the sake of truth, rather than write to express one’s own literary finesse. The importance of this concept never struck me so deeply as it did when I recently finished Jean Lecelercq’s The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, a beautiful and illuminating work about monastic culture in the later Medieval period. In the very last section of the very last chapter (entitled Detachment), I read some of the most potent and challenging words a writer could encounter. Leclercq opens the section with these words:
The criterion of the true mystic, the proof that, even though he is a literary man, he is inspired, is his detachment. If he is detached from himself, he can have no complacency for what he writes. But if one gathers that the desire to write is of prime importance to him, if an artist’s stylistic preoccupation can be discerned in his writing, then he is nothing more than a man of letters…If anyone listens to himself talk, if he pays less attention to what he is saying than to how he says it, we are annoyed by the intrusion of his ego which he erects as a barrier between us and Truth. An author of this type does not possess simplicity.
This made me reflect on how often I’ve abstained from acting on an idea and writing a piece because I felt I couldn’t articulate it as eloquently as I’d like. ‘What will people think of me as a writer if I just put this down in simple words?’ Apprehension of this kind, I now realize, is more about pride than it is the (in)ability to articulate a worthwhile idea. And it goes hand-in-hand with the turgidity I often fell prey to in social media arguments. Finding a reason to use the word ontological was sometimes more important to me than making known a simple truth. Leclercq’s rebuke is poignant—such concerns reveal intentions that lack spiritual simplicity. What, then, does it look like to write with simplicity?
The sign of an exclusively spiritual piece of writing is simplicity: a simplicity of soul which is reflected in a certain simplicity of artistry…When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take. If the experience is truly spiritual even the first draft will be lofty, beautiful, and naturally artistic.
My mind naturally recalls pieces of writing I’ve come across that speak volumes about the profundity of the human condition, yet exhibited no remarkable literary genius. What stuck out about these pieces was their honesty, their truth. “When a man is impressed by a truth or by an experience, his major concern is to express it, not the form the ideas take.” Indeed. I think of my sister who has been at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis for the last eight months, helping her sixteen-month-old son fight a rare form of cancer that formed in his bladder. Needless to say, she has been to hell and back, but her social media posts reflect a strong, faithful soul who knows how to say what she needs to say with honest simplicity. After a long post about hospital delays and the difficulties of trying to entertain a young child in waiting rooms all day long, she closes with these words:
Despite the fact that I am exhausted and feel like crying my eyes out, I am thankful. I am thankful for my child’s health and for the wonderful opportunity we have in receiving the best care possible for him. I am thankful for a place to rest my head every night and food on my table. I am so blessed and have so much to be thankful for despite the circumstances we are in.
Here, there is no trace of literary self-awareness, just the simple truth. When you read it, you can feel the strength of her soul, and the struggle of the reality she faces every day. Hers is a life of prayer and perseverance, and she is not searching for sympathy (she has developed a sensitive radar for bullshit, pat answers, and unhelpful, though well-intentioned, advice). She merely wants to keep family and friends updated so they can continue to pray in specific ways. In facing the pain of watching her firstborn go through cancer treatment, she has become a mystic—one who knows the encompassing presence of God, even when it feels like absence. She is laying down her life for her son. Leclercq says that “experience transforms literature.” I know this is true when I read my sister’s posts describing what she has gone through on any given day. Expressing both wounds and joyful gratitude, her words take on a literary simplicity, while remaining pregnant with a true, saintly spirituality most successful authors will never know.
Writing is a spiritual practice because it is how truth is expressed, and truth is always spiritual, because all truth points to its Source. The written word—if it is to be true—cannot be tied to ambition. Sertillanges said, “Ambition offends eternal truth by subordinating it to itself.” If my concern lies more with literary eloquence than with making Reality known, I have become a slave of ambition rather than a servant of Truth. Saint Paul responded to the church at Corinth concerning its factions, based on worldly ambition: “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). One might interpret this: “The experience of grace and truth always far outweighs positions of power and recognition.” The notion is crucicentric. The cross upends everything humanity thinks she knows about truth, power, ambition, success.
So, what does that mean for the writer who is also a disciple of Jesus?
To neglect writing to live a truly “spiritual” life instead would present a false dichotomy, for grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it. In fact, the disciple of Jesus is ipso facto called to a life of articulating the truth. Our experience of grace entails inviting others into that experience: “Go therefore and make disciples…” For those in Holy Orders, the onus is even greater. Leclercq again: “Should the mystic be a shepherd of souls, a doctor and a writer of the Church, he has the duty to communicate to others what he knows of God.” The written word is not an impediment to the direction of souls, but a necessary means to it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, in responding to the “naive objectivism” of the Enlightenment’s search for a trans-traditional rationality, emphasized human language as a horizon upon which we discover truth. He taught that our linguisticality is not a prison, but a constitutive part of the method of learning, of understanding, of expression. One can see that writing ought to be a holy endeavor, a landscape for the disclosure of truth and beauty.
While words are important, and the ability to write a gift to be used instrumentally by God, it is ultimately the experience of grace that will enable Christian writers to articulate the truth. When one experiences the life of grace, there will just simply be things that must be said, that must be made known, things that will call others to be followers of the One who is Truth. But for those of us who take up the pen, it is of utmost importance to remember that we are broken vessels whose efficacy depends upon the One who takes what is broken, redeems it, and uses it for his glory. Bernard of Clairvaux, in his final sermon on the Song of Songs, said, “Oh you who are anxious to learn what it is to enjoy the Word, prepare not your ear but your soul; for it is grace that teaches it and not language.” It is out of love for the Word-made-flesh that we must write, and our writing must always be a response to his own life, the life that is our salvation:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
(1 Corinthians 5:14-15)
- Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture (New York: Fordham University Press), 1982.
- A.G. Sertillanges, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America), 1987.