Formation

Writing as a Spiritual Discipline

The Lady in the Van is a movie featuring Maggie Smith as an eccentric homeless woman of uncertain origins called Miss Shepherd. She lives in a van, and she parks her van in Alan Bennett’s London driveway for 15 years. It was meant to be for a couple of months.

Two Selves

Alan Bennett, who lives by himself and earns a living as a writer, is portrayed as two selves. He is divided between his ‘writing self’ and his ‘living self.’ He found the divide necessary because “Writing is talking to oneself.” By the end of the movie he integrates into one self because of all his adventures with the lady in the van. And his integrated self concludes, “You don’t put yourself in your writing, you find yourself there.” Writing to find yourself is an effective spiritual discipline, and I’m particularly interested in those who write to find themselves in Christ.

Writing to find yourself is an effective spiritual discipline Click To Tweet

Indulgence or Discipline?

From Augustine’s Confessions, to Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, men and women have written to explore their lives and find themselves in Christ. Yet sometimes we writers are more like the early Alan Bennett divided between the living self and the writing self.

What is the difference?

  • If we write to indulge our inner self, increase our status, or be noticed, we are working out of a divided self. We are wandering around internally, talking to ourselves about our deep unmet and broken needs or projected dreams.
  • If we write to expose and examine our inner self, process concerns, or engage with other people’s stories, we are finding ourselves. We are connecting our deep inner processes with Christ’s work in us and in the world.
There is a difference between writing to indulge oneself and writing to examine oneself. Click To Tweet

The first time I discovered writing as an integrated self with Christ began after an incident in 1994. I was driving alone one morning from Spokane to Portland on an empty stretch of road, when I witnessed a horrible accident. The car in front, the only other car on the road, suddenly veered off into the median. The driver abruptly self-corrected, and the car came shooting back onto the highway and into the air like a spinning rocket. I don’t know how many times the car bounced and rolled before stopping upright.

I pulled over and running over to the car, I found two young men inside. The driver stumbled out with an obvious broken arm. The passenger had a traumatic head injury. I reached through the broken window and cradled his head while he struggled and bled. He soon died.

Ambulances and police eventually came, and then sometime later, I found myself alone in a McDonald’s bathroom washing the boy’s blood off my arms and hands. As the blood disappeared down the drain I kept thinking, “The last of him is being washed away, and his mother doesn’t even know.” I later learned they were soccer players driving home from a game, and the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

After I arrived home, I was haunted by the accident, seeing it play over and over and over again in my mind. So I took a day and wrote the story, not really knowing what would come from the writing. I wrote to find myself and to find Christ in this young man’s violent and unnecessary death. I wrote about a mother holding another mother’s son while he died, and I urged young people not to drive when they’re tired.

I sent the article off and it was published in two different places. That was the first time that I sat with Christ, wrote my thoughts to process my experience, and then sent it off for publication. I experienced a release.

A Three-Fold Spiritual Discipline

Since then, I write because I find God in me in a unique way. I don’t write that much, actually. I don’t think that’s the point. It’s a very Holy Spirit process for me. I write now as a spiritual discipline. The discipline is 3-fold, and it’s simple really, though the doing of it is hard. I listen. I write. I submit.

  • Listen – I listen to my inner self and the Spirit for things I need to process for myself, or I need to process for my calling. Things will happen that stick in my soul, so I write. Ideas come that need to be sorted out or stories I hear need to be spoken, so I write. I resist any temptation to write to prove my worth, keep up with some pretention or fulfill some perceived obligation. This first step is the easy one.
  • Write – The hardest part is like any other spiritual discipline, I have to make time to actually do it. So I regularly write. For writers it doesn’t matter whether it’s once a month for a day, once a week, an hour every morning….it doesn’t matter when or how often, it just must be on the calendar. It’s an appointment that must be kept, like going to church. And writers don’t just write. We try to write well. That too is a spiritual discipline. Writing is a spiritual craft, an offering which is one’s very best gift, no matter how humble.
  • Submit for publication – This is the step that differentiates personal journal-writing (which I do and which I pray will never be seen by anyone besides myself) and writing for publication as a particular spiritual discipline. When I write knowing that I will submit it somewhere for publication, I must be rigorous in my ‘finding.’ I can’t be divided and deceive myself. I must test, and prod, and sort my voice, so that it makes sense to others. Often I must do research and study. I must be honest with what God is ‘finding in me.’ When my ‘finding’ might be exposed to the public, that is an act of obedience. Whether it gets published or not is utterly not the point. If you get published, wonderful. If you do not, wonderful. You were obedient to Christ in you. Leave the fruit of it to the Holy Spirit.

A final caution. If what we write is published, it belongs to God. It’s like a baby born, who grows up and leaves home. Let her go. If anything comes of your writing, give God the glory.

If what we write is published, it belongs to God. Let her go. Click To Tweet

The Lord bless you who are called to writing as a spiritual discipline, as a way of finding yourself and God’s work in the world.