From How The Light Gets In
Beyond the name there lies what has no name (Jorge Luis Borges)
Those colors which have no name are the real foundation of everything. (Vincent van Gogh)
I sit writing these words in an old library in Berkeley, California. Around me, Gothic windows let in California sunlight, and if I were to walk outside, the Golden Gate Bridge would be visible in the distance. Pacific School of Religion is a founding member of the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of theological schools that share a common library for several Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and other centers of study, offering traditional histories of theology and also curricula that include Black studies, Gay and Lesbian studies, and women’s studies in religion. It was here at age twenty-one that I came to study, and it is here at age seventy-one that I have come back to teach.
At twenty-one I came here in trouble. My family was broken, my mother mentally ill, my brother in prison. He and I had spent our early childhood in rural Missouri, then lived in an orphanage and in the slums of St. Louis. I loved him with all my heart; I had traveled to the west coast as soon as I graduated from college in Missouri to try to help him. But there was nothing I could do. Without my applying for it, I was given a full scholarship to Pacific School of Religion.
In this rich and diverse theological environment, I was in many ways healed and set free to become the person I am now. This year I have returned to teach the summer courses in creative writing that I have taught for more than twenty years on this campus that I love.
Recently, as I was thinking about two of the dominant themes of my life – spirituality and creative writing – it occurred to me that when I begin to write, I open myself and wait. And when I turn toward an inner spiritual awareness, I open myself and wait. That insight made me want to think more deeply about the relationship between creative writing and conscious spiritual practice. This book is the result. It is not a manual nor a “how-to” – it is an exploration.
The first stumbling block was language. Writing requires the use of words, and words always carry, or fail to carry, particular human experience. The words that I choose to use to name that which is ultimately unnamable come out of my own individual human experience.
Poets everywhere, I imagine – certainly Hebrew, Muslim, and Christian poets – have written of the difficulty in trying to name deity. Writers of ancient Hebrew sacred texts used “YHVH” (pronounced most often as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”) but warned against saying the name out loud. Devout Jews use words that refer to the name, but are not the name: “Hashem” (the name) in speaking, and where ten or more are gathered for prayer, “Adonai.” Joy Harjo, one of America’s foremost Native American voices, writing about a character named Lila, says this:
Some say God is a murderer for letting children and saints slip through his or her hands. Some call God a father of saints or a mother of demons. Lila had seen God, and could tell you God was neither male nor female and made of absolutely everything of beauty, or wordlessness.
This unnameable thing of beauty is what shapes a flock of birds who know exactly when to turn together in flight in the winds used to make words. Everyone turns together though we may not see each other stacked in the invisible dimensions.
Rabi’a al ‘Adawiyya (712-801 C.E.), a Sufi saint sometimes called Rabai of Basra or Rabia al Basri, was born to a poor family in what is now Iraq. Her parents died of famine, and she was eventually sold into slavery. After she was freed, Rabi’a chose a solitary life of prayer, living much of her life in desert seclusion. Her fame as a Sufi holy woman spread, and people began to journey to her retreat, to ask advice, to study, to learn. Today she is greatly revered by devout Muslims and mystics throughout the world. She wrote this poem, in which “He” and “my Beloved” refer to the object of her mystical experience:
Would you come if someone called you
by the wrong name?
I wept, because for years He did not enter my arms;
then one night I was told a
Perhaps the name you call God is
not really His, maybe it
is just an alias.
I thought about this, and came up with a pet name
for my Beloved I never mention
All I can say is—
The act of naming the divine is what ties Rabia’s Earthly life to her God. Like many people, both ancient and contemporary, I stumble when I try to name the presence I encounter at the heart of my own spiritual experience. For example, because my own mother suffered a form of untreated mental illness that harmed my brother and me, I cannot find comfort in the phrase, “Mother God” or the word “Goddess.” What is more, because my father abandoned us, the words “Father God” do not give me a feeling of trust. I can, of course, intellectually set aside those deep associations, but feelings have a deeper hold on us than our mental constructs. Changing our minds does not always change our feelings. Other words, like “spirit,” “mystery,” and “pray” do work for me, but might not hold the same meaning for another person. When we humans dare to approach the deepest and most holy experiences of our lives, all language becomes metaphor. For now I will write using a word, lowercase, that means to me that-which-is-unnamable: mystery.
Each person’s relationship with mystery is as unique as our relationships with those we love. Instinctively, we speak about the one we love in concrete terms, telling a story, allowing the listener to see and hear images. When we want to tell about falling in love, we tell it in concrete terms: We met on a street corner, in the rain. We ran to a bistro where we stood under an awning. We talked about the weather, and we laughed as water ran off our hair, down our noses. Similarly, speaking or writing about mystery requires concrete image and story.
In my own stories about spiritual experience, just as in the stories I received as a child, the truth, if there is truth, is seen “through a glass, darkly.” To me, this means that no matter how deeply or widely we study, there is always more to be seen, and no one sees anyone who knows all there is to know. There is not and never has been a belief system that holds exclusive truth. There is no book that contains all of the truth. But there is spirit, there are wise men and wise women, there is story, art, theater, music, and dance. There is metaphor, there is holiness, there is mystery.
All of us live in relation to mystery, and becoming conscious of that relationship can be a beginning point for a spiritual practice – whether we experience mystery in nature, in ecstatic love, in the eyes of our children, our friends, the animals we love, or in more strange experiences of intuition, synchronicity, or prescience.
Writing can be a spiritual practice. To write about what is painful is to begin the work of healing. To write the red of a tomato before it is mixed into beans for chili is a form of praise. To write an image of a child caught in war is confession or petition or requiem. To write grief onto a page of lined paper until tears blur the ink is often the surest access to giving or receiving forgiveness. To write a comic scene is grace and beatitude. To write irony is to seek justice. To write admission of failure is humility. To be in an attitude of praise or thanksgiving, to rage against God, or to open one’s inner self and listen, is prayer. To write tragedy and allow comedy to arise between the lines is miracle and revelation.
Throughout my life, as my spiritual experience and my theological understanding have developed, my experiences and understanding of writing have grown with me. Recently I have realized that they are deeply connected and together form the path my life has taken. Now I have entered my seventies. Age brings with it new awareness, new opportunity, new challenge. Writing is for me the surest way to find out where I am and to open the gate to where I might go next. It is time to pick up the central threads and see how they weave together. And so I have taken upon myself this task: to give voice to what has been growing within me, a conviction that writing itself can open into mystery.
Sometimes writing sits in you
like a wild animal. Maybe
you see its eyes.
Maybe you don’t see it at all,
but the hair on the back of your neck
knows it is there
where the deepest shadows lie.
Often the shadows lie
about what’s hiding in them.
The panther that has stalked you
since you were a child
is old now. No longer wild,
and tired of guarding the treasure
you yourself left behind—
blind and deaf, she will give it all to you
if you just let her go.
But how are you to know
whether the fox on the hill
in the cemetery carries your mother’s name
or is the same fox you saw
crossing your back yard in the snow
unless you put your pen to paper
and use it to release the animal
that hides in the shadow of your hand?