The spiritual path requires letting go of what doesn’t give us life and giving ourselves wholly to what does. From the outside this can look dire, but from the inside the story’s quite different. Related Stories - Developing the Inner Witness - How ...

 

Freedom in Constriction and more...




Freedom in Constriction

When seekers trekked out to the desert in the early centuries of Christianity, the wise Abbas and Ammas there advised them to “go to your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Really?!

I’ve been mucking around in this pre-original-sin wisdom lately, and, let me tell you, it’s mind-bending. Mistakes, weaknesses, temptations, sins—Augustine hadn’t yet made of these cause for guilt and shame, so instead they’re understood as unavoidable, even necessary to the life of faith, and worthy of gratitude. In story after story, thieves create chances for the monks to release material attachments and exercise compassion. The devil comes not as the temptation to do bad things but rather as distracting thoughts. This is a topsy-turvy faith, barely recognizable today as Christianity.

You want meaning or purpose in your life? You want to find your Source? Go to your cell. For those desert monastics, the cell was a solitary cave located a good day’s walk from anyone else’s cave. Sounds pretty grim to me, although in these sayings the word “cell” is spoken with such affection, it’s worth reconsidering.

The cell I know best and truly love is a blank page. I often say to my writing students, “Go to the page and the page will teach you everything you need to write.” Sure, we can learn from good teachers and great literature and helpful peers, but the essential learning happens by writing. I suspect the Abbas and Ammas experienced the emptiness and quiet of their cells the same way writers experience the page—as a place to practice ongoing engagement with what’s most life-giving.

The cell of the page (by way of example) is expansive. At first it takes some discipline to begin; we have to push away other obligations, we have to dismiss our own judgments, we have to focus. When we finally enter the blank page, we discover how permission-giving it is and how full of revelation. Eventually writers learn to expand the length and breadth of that space by dismissing the inner critic, so we no longer care about messy handwriting or bad spelling or half-baked ideas, or by dismissing our concerns about a readership’s judgment. By disciplining ourselves to think differently, we can find greater and greater freedom.

Essentially, the page teaches asceticism. We post-modern folks dismiss asceticism as a bizarre abstention from indulgence, but the desert tradition teaches otherwise. “The cell stands for any set of self-limiting conditions voluntarily embraced, which in an identical way furnish the conditions for spiritual work,” my teacher Cynthia Bourgeault writes. In an ironic, paradoxical way, some self-limiting conditions make us more free. Go figure.

Or, as Abba Poemen said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” The spiritual path requires letting go of what doesn’t give us life and giving ourselves wholly to what does. From the outside this can look dire, but from the inside the story’s quite different. What a topsy-turvy faith!    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

************************

Exciting News!

Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice is now available for preorder from the publisher.

Please join me to celebrate the transformative potential of revision and the launch of Living Revision at the Revision Revival at Wisdom Ways, November 17th from 7-8:30 p.m.

 

Upcoming Opportunities

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

October 13: Mysticism
November 10: Holy Sexuality 
December 8: The World Boiled Down to a Drop 
September 25:  Talk on memoir at LEAFS, the Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

September 30, 9-12:  Writing the Sacred Journey: An introductory workshop at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
October 8, 1pm: Seeking the Spiritual in Prose and Poetry at Normandale Lutheran Church, Edina, MN.
October 25, 6:30pm:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.
October 27: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice workshop at the Loft Literary Center.
November 17, 7-8:30:  The Revision Revival: A celebration of transformation in writing and book launch for Living Revision at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.
September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.
 

How does creation happen?

Okay, folks; hang on tight: I’m going to go metaphysical on you today. I think I’ve located a fallacy within how writers think about creation, and I want to unpack it with you. This fallacy is relevant to all artists and everyone committed to transformation, of self or society, so even if you’re not a writer, come along for the ride.

When writers work, we imagine ourselves as the source of an idea or at least as the channel for inspiration. We identify closely with our idea; we generate text; we revise; we as authors are the dynamic moving the project forward. At the other end of our project, we imagine a publisher acting as a gatekeeper to an audience, who will read our work and be entertained or educated or transformed by it. We picture this timeline like this:

————————————————————->

Writer……Project……………………Publisher……Reader

This understanding of the creative process leans heavily on chronology. Because this is the order in which a project unfolds and the direction a project moves (from writer to reader), it’s only logical we’d think this way.

The problem with using this framework to understand how exactly creation happens is that it places writer and reader in a dualistic dynamic. When we’re actually writing, our inspiration and motivation feel like an affirming force pushing against the denying force of the monolithic publishing industry or the vast, anonymous reading public. Rather than a beautiful unfolding, writing often feels like a battle:

———————————-><————————————

Writer & Project                      vs                    Publisher & Reader

The battle metaphor may be an exaggeration, but every writer knows the constraints and push-back sensation of writing for an audience. Those writers who complete their projects often hit a wall; how can their creative endeavor reach fruition when it’s so hard to get published?

Years ago I heard Jane Yolen say that writers are responsible to three things, in this order of priority: First we’re responsible to the story, second we’re responsible to ourselves, and only lastly are we responsible to our audience. That little formula unlocked my creative life. It rearranged me, and I’m still being shaped by it. Yolen challenged me to shift how I think about these basic creative forces in a writer’s life. I imagine it like this:

  Story

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self                                                                       Audience

The equilateral triangle isn’t quite right; it really should be a spiral. But here’s the point: The story itself—the emergent life inside the inspiration—is a dynamic participant in the creative process. As writers, we need to honor our own interests, we need to tend our readers, but for something genuinely new to come into being, self and audience must serve something beyond themselves—the story. The new arising from this dynamic is a transformative, transforming creative project. Not necessarily published. Not necessarily successful in the eyes of the literary community or our market economy. But something alive.

What exactly is the story? Mystery, a willful presence wanting to be born, the generative spark, a pressing need. The story is born of the Muse or Spirit or our collective unconscious; it is of us and beyond us, and when we serve the story we enter a creative dynamic much bigger than any one person or project. What do we have to lose from changing the orientation of our creative energy? Ego gratification. What do we have to gain? Genuine creation.

In my book, it’s worth it.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Deep gratitude toward Cynthia Bourgeault for her teachings on the trinity and Gurdjieff’s Law of Three.

************************

Coming up this fall:

The Revision Revival:
A Celebration of Transformation & Writing

What’s the most dynamic, surprising, and spiritually expansive part of writing?  Revision!  Come hear testimonials about this oft-maligned stage of writing and how deeply writers’ lives can be changed by it.  We’ll gain insight into revision techniques and celebrate revision’s potential to open every writer’s heart, no matter the level of experience. Susan Power, P.S. Duffy, Kyoko Katayama, Vanessa Ramos, and others will share stories and readings, and we’ll celebrate the publication of Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice with Skinner House Books.  Refreshments will be served.

November 17, 7:00-8:30 at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.  The event is free, but please register here.


Revision Opportunities for Writers
New and Experienced

For those skeptical about the joys of revision, I am posting weekly revision exercises on my Facebook page starting through the fall.  Give them a try!  I also reflect on revision and writing in general as a spiritual practice at the beginning of each month on my blog.

Want to explore revision’s possibilities? I’m offering a day-long introductory workshop at the Loft Literary Center, “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice,” on October 27 from 10-4.

For committed writers willing to open their hearts and drafts to new possibilities, “Alone Together:  Living Revision” is a week-long immersion up at the Madeline Island School of the Arts from October 2-6, 2017. Can’t make it this year? Next year’s dates are September 24-28, 2018.

Spiritual Memoir offerings

September 30, 9 a.m.-12:  Writing the Sacred Journey: An Introductory workshop at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

  • Spiritual memoir is the practice of listening deeply to our life experiences through the creation of artful, true stories.  We come more alive when we accept how our experiences have formed us and when we form something of what we’ve experienced.  By writing memories with intention, we can find holiness in the details, patterns that unify our sense of self, and deep personal healing.  By crafting our stories to engage the inner life of readers, we can participate in transforming our world.

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

  • September 8: Courage and Truth-telling.  “Only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth,” Audre Lorde wrote, “and that is not speaking.”  Memoir writing is essentially truth-telling.  We’ll learn techniques to facilitate courageous honesty on the page—and in life.
  • October 13: Mysticism.  Mystical experiences confound us.  We’ll explore literary tricks that help us receive, integrate, recreate, and see the broader context of these encounters with the Ultimate Other.
  • November 10: Holy Sexuality.  We’ll venture into the realm of sexuality—desire, identity, energy, relationship, pain, pleasure—as a holy, life-giving source.  What do sexual experiences teach us about divine movement?  How can we write these with gentleness, honesty, and reverence?
  • December 8: The World Boiled Down to a Drop.  Zora Neale Hurston wrote of one character,“She was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”  We’ll explore the holographic nature of memoir:  Our small stories contain big truths. How can we reconstitute memories on the page so they hold both the vast universe and our beloved particulars?

September 25, 2017:  Talk on memoir at LEAFS, the Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

October 25, 2017, 6:30:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.

 

God as Being, Being as God

A few years ago, I set off on a journey to the heart of Christian contemplation, both in practice and with studies. I began doing Centering Prayer, a form of meditation rooted in monasticism and the teachings of the mystics, and reading works from the mystical margins of Christian tradition—St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Theresa of Avila, Bonaventure, the Patristic fathers—and sharing all this with an international contemplative community. It’s been thrilling. The work transforms me from the inside out, and will have a profound on my writing, teaching, and living for years to come.

Because I love and trust language so much, the hardest part about these past years has been my inability to talk about what I’m learning. I put down a book or return from a symposium feeling like my internal furniture has been rearranged, but I can’t say how, or why, or what. I’m a blubbering fool. At first in bothered me. If I can’t put words to what’s happening, is it real? Now I understand this experience as emblematic of the essence of what I’m learning: With practice, we can move out of our rational, egoic, dualistic understanding of the world into a heart-centered, nondual presence. Our usual framework for identity (Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am”) is best served by language. This nondual, unitive consciousness (“My deepest me is God!” Catherine of Genoa shouted, running through the streets) is best served by silence.

Lucky for us, the mystics nonetheless did not give up on language, and we’ve a beautiful heritage of literature written from this expansive and ultimately loving place. Recently I stumbled on this passage, from Thomas Merton’s Zen and the Birds of Appetite, which creates a distinction that helps me understand what’s happening. The “consciousness” of the contemporary Christian, Merton writes, “tends to reject the Being of God as irrelevant (or even to accept as perfectly obvious the “death of God”).”

Here there is no metaphysical intuition of Being, and hence “being” is reduced to an abstract concept, a cipher to figure with, a purely logical entity, surely nothing to be concretely experienced. What is experienced as primary is not “being” or “isness” but individual consciousness, reflexive ego-awareness.

Merton describes exactly the God of my hyper-rational, liberal Protestant upbringing. God was an abstraction so removed from my day-to-day reality that we could believe or disbelieve in Him (and it was always a Him). Sure, we talked to Him and called that prayer, and we gathered in honor of Him and called that worship, but beyond those formulaic endeavors we never imagined, much less cultivated, an actual experience of divine presence.

The mystics never gave up on trying to describe this experience, and despite feeling tongue-tied, neither will I. In the meditative practice of peeling away thoughts, consenting over and over to the presence of love within and around me, I’m learning to trust that silence is infused with the perfume of Being, and that this Being is the most powerful force for transformation in our hurting world.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

***************

This fall brings a flurry of exciting events, from the launch of my new book, Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice to classes and a retreat.  Here’s my latest newsletter for the full line-up.

 

Developing the Inner Witness

Here is sure evidence that I am a born writer: By high school, I couldn’t walk down the hallway or open my locker without a little story-teller voice whispering in my ear, “With stealthy steps, Elizabeth paced the institutional hall, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, until she stopped, suddenly, at a combination lock.” My every lived moment was instantly narrated. Call it a self-consciousness, psychosis, or literary genius, regardless, I had an instinctive, even impulsive need to relate events which was only released by writing.

Over the years my inner narrator has served me well, mostly because I’ve learned to work with her. She’s the story-teller in me as well as the essayist, the self that happily hops on a train of thought and rides it across the page. As a teacher, I’m particularly good at facilitating the development of my students’ reflective voices. “What’s your story?” is a great question to begin with, but it must be followed by “What do you make of your story?” before creation really begins. What do you think—and feel and wonder and deeply know—about your experience?

In memoir I like to distinguish between the character-self, who is the younger version of you about whom you’re writing a story, and the narrator-self, who is you located at a later moment in time, often today, writing the story. In the first paragraph of this blog, the character is high school Elizabeth and the narrator is the voice of me, today, looking back. But here’s the catch: Both character and narrator are created, two-dimensional personas. Neither is me, the flesh-and-blood human being—the author. Decades of writing memoir and essay have exercised in me the capacity to represent my younger and present-day selves with integrity and clarity while simultaneously acknowledging writing’s ultimate inadequacy to do myself (or anyone or anything else, for that matter) justice.

These days I practice contemplative prayer fairly seriously. As in most meditation practices, Centering Prayer develops an inner witness—a presence able to attend to thoughts or emotions or the body without attaching. If my knees hurt, I can obsess about it and make pain my momentary identity, or I can release it and, if only for an instant, know a Self separate from that sensation. The exercise is difficult, worthy, and strangely familiar. It uses the same muscles I’ve been exercising all along. Just as language can never fully represent me on the page, I, in all my thinking, breathing, creating glory, can never fully represent my ultimate Self. And so I let the little me go.

Once again I’m astonished by the potential of the writing process to facilitate spiritual growth. And by the beautiful, hilarious paradox in writing and life that, while failure is inevitable, it’s worth trying anyway.  –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

*************

This fall is brought to you by…revision!  Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice comes out in October.  You’re invited to help me celebrate on the evening of November 17th at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, when I’ll host a Revision Revival with testimonies from Susan Power, P. S. Duffy, Kyoko Katayama, Vanessa Ramos, and many others.  Save the date!

Also forthcoming:

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

September: Courage and Truth-telling
October: Mysticism
November: Holy Sexuality
December: The World Boiled Down to a Drop

September 25:  Talk on memoir at the LEAFS Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

September 30, 9 a.m.-noon:  Writing the Sacred Journey:  An introductory workshop on writing spiritual memoir, at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

October 2-6: Alone Together: Living Revision Retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

October 25, 6:30:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.

October 27: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice day-long workshop at the Loft Literary Center.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

 

Boiled Down to a Drop

She didn’t read books so she didn’t know
that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.
                                                    –Zora Neale Hurston

Since my mother died over a year ago I’ve worn her jade ring as a reminder that she’s still here. My mother loved beautiful objects and somehow these objects, her jewelry and the quilt she made me and the African violets she grew and even her dime-store spiral notebooks, continue to hold that love.

As do I. Sometimes I feel more my mother than myself—her loud hiccups, her bad gynecological genes, her late night worries and self-pitying whine, and her fondness for home, for a lingering, elegant meal, for libraries, for generous giving. Her goodnight kisses, her pride at my work, her inexhaustible love. These were in me before she died I know them more poignantly now.

None of us, it turns out, are separate, siloed identities. We’re all mash-ups of each other. I’m formed by my daughter, who’s far more gregarious than I and so challenges me to interact with others for her sake; I’m formed by my dancer-partner, who has opened me to a new understanding of embodied holiness; I’m formed by my college friend who asked me during a dark time, “Elizabeth, are you writing?” and by my beloved congregation who showed me I could be both bisexual and Christian. For that matter, I’m also formed by a rotten social studies teacher who told us the commies were spying on our classroom; he showed me how the harm done by paranoia and prejudice. Our neighbor taught us to raise monarchs and thus influenced our garden and the ecosystem of our whole block, so she’s part of this place even though she moved away. Our friend is friends with an Amnesty International tech guy just arrested unjustly by the Turkish government, and now the human rights abuses in Turkey dwell in my consciousness and I’m Ali, too, indefinitely imprisoned, aching for his poet wife…

Yesterday I served a meal to a homeless woman; we got talking about writing, about the power of others’ stories to influence our own, and afterward I sensed her walking the hot streets of Minneapolis and sparking in the synapses of my being. This was true before we’d met; I just wasn’t aware. When I think of myself this way, I’m boundary-less, I’m fluid. Which is true; I’m mostly Mississippi River water. And stardust. So now I’m awed by the entities I don’t even know who are already in me, the carrots and milk and chickens who have become my flesh, the soil that nourished them, the farmers who tended them, the city workers who manage my waste, the engineers who clean it, the Chinese laborers who built some small gadget in the waste water treatment facility, the heron who flies away with a drop of me in its gullet… This vast, interconnected web makes me me. I can choose to participate in it; all of us can. And the entire, vibrating whole of it is holy.   –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

********************

This fall is brought to you by…revision!  Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice, comes out in October.  You’re invited to help me celebrate on the evening of November 17th at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality, when I’ll host a Revision Revival with testimonies from Susan Power, P. S. Duffy, Kyoko Katayama, Vanessa Ramos, and many others.  Save the date!

Also forthcoming:

Second Fridays, 1:30-3:30 p.m., beginning in September: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. Topics to be determined.

September 25, 2017:  Talk on memoir at the LEAFS Life Enrichment Adult Forum, Christ Lutheran Church, Blaine, MN.

October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision Retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

October 25, 2017, 6:30:  An evening exploring spiritual memoir at The Retreat with Women In Recovery.

October 27, 2017: Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice day-long workshop at the Loft Literary Center.

September 24-28, 2018:  Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.

 
 
   
Email subscriptions powered by FeedBlitz, LLC, 365 Boston Post Rd, Suite 123, Sudbury, MA 01776, USA.