From How The Light Gets In
…a Spirit is manifest in the Laws of the Universe. (Albert Einstein)
Einstein says there is “a Spirit manifest in the Laws of the Universe.” By “the Laws” I assume he means everywhere – within us as well as out there where “the morning stars sing together,” as an ancient poet said. If there is a Spirit, do the morning stars sing together inside us, too? And can we sing to the Spirit? Can we communicate with it? Does it communicate with us? Is it “manifest” only in universal “Laws,” or does it meet us personally? Can we pray? Are we heard? Does it answer? Do we hear?
There is a tale of a rabbi who was famous for his great prayers. One day, after a particularly brilliant display of his public praying, an angel appeared and told him that he was doing fairly well, but a man in a nearby village was better at praying. The rabbi went in search of the man and found him to be an illiterate tradesman. The rabbi asked, “How did you pray on the last holy day?”
The man told him that he couldn’t even read – he only knew the first ten letters of the alphabet – so he felt inadequate to pray. “So I said to God, ‘All I have are these ten letters; take them and combine them however you want so that they smell good to you.’”
To pray is to open oneself completely, intimately, into the Presence that is beyond our ability to name. And we have so few letters! And the ones we have are sometimes very confusing. The poet William Wordsworth said a newborn child comes “trailing clouds of glory.” He did not say, but it is true, that a newborn comes also trailing clouds of genetic material and family history: clouds of tradition, ritual, prejudice, and resistance to difference or change. Growing to maturity requires an incredible balancing act if we are to live at peace with our own portion of letters among the many alphabets, the many understandings of mystery. Both writing and praying are acts of deep vulnerability. It is so easy for us to mistrust our own ten letters of the alphabet. But if we do not reach into inner and outer space – for morning stars sing together in both – we may miss the most exquisite relationship human life offers.
I began to learn my own “ten letters” from my mother, Lelah Ridgway, who had roots in rural American conservative fundamentalism. As an adult I learned more in urban liberal churches, in a brief but meaningful sojourn with the Quakers, and finally outside organized religious practice. Although my understanding of spirituality has changed throughout my life, the central experience has not changed: There has been for me a deep and a continual sense of presence, and there have been experiences of meeting, or encounter, with that presence. Because of my own place in time and the tradition out of which I come, I use the word “prayer” for that meeting of the human mind with what I am calling “the mystery.” That, too, has a deep history. Caddo people call God / Spirit, “The Great Mysterious,” and Muscogee people, “The Master of Breath.” In the Hebrew tradition, Yahweh’s self-identification as “I am” refuses any reduction to a name.
The word “prayer” evokes strong feelings for many people, depending on past experience – positive for some of us, negative for others. Any other word that I might choose – “contemplation,” “meditation” – would come with its own set of varying reactions, and so I choose the word that I have used since childhood: prayer. Prayer is, for me, an intentional openness to the presence of mystery in my life. Sometimes It is labor, sometimes ecstatic surprise. Sometimes both.
When we write deeply – that is, when we write what we know and do not know we know – we encounter mystery. Similarly, when we pray deeply, we encounter mystery. In writing, that encounter is sometimes described as a creative spark, the sudden emergence of an image, word, or idea that the writer recognizes as full of meaning. It doesn’t happen all the time.
Andrew Fetler, one of my MFA professors at the University of Massachusetts, was fond of saying that writing is “bull labor.” Well, yes, it can be. On the other hand, there are those times when writing – good writing, powerful writing – comes up in us and out onto our pages as an artesian spring, flowing without effort. So it is with prayer, as well. Sometimes prayer begins with a petition on my part, gentle or desperate – even “labor.” Stanley Moss, an American poet who has “argued with God” through a lifetime of writing, begins his poem, “Psalm,” with God of paper and writing, God of first and last drafts,” and ends it with, “My Shepherd, I want, I want, I want.” The “wanting” can be desperate, as when Emily Dickinson wrote about losing those she most loved, “Twice have I stood a beggar / Before the door of God.”
But there are times, both in pain and in pleasure, when communication seems to be initiated from outside myself. Those times come as surprise – often with an element of strangeness – a breaking-in of a profound and unexpected Presence.
Writing, too, has both of those dimensions. Often it begins as labor: the difficult act of getting my posterior onto my chair and my fingers around the pen or onto the keyboard. Then the difficult labor of staying there. But sometimes, too, writing breaks in, begins somewhere deeper than conscious thought. Either way, when writing or praying truly happens, I have a sense of hovering over a deep, dark interior of memory and imagination. Ira Progoff, in his Intensive Journal Workshops, suggests a writing exercise where the writer imagines a well, sees the dark water in the well, and invites an image to rise to the surface. Then he asks the writer to write about the image, or what it suggests. He is talking, of course, about accessing the subconscious, the dwelling-place of memory and imagination.
In writing and in prayer we are essentially alone in the presence of mystery, regardless of whether we have companions around us. The inner journey is one we walk alone, as the old gospel song says: You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley. You’ve got to walk it by yourself. Ain’t nobody else can walk it for you, you’ve got to walk it by yourself.
In her book, The Last Report on the Mirracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdich tells the story of a woman who spends her life disguised as a priest, serving in a remote Ojibwe village. Near the end of her life, Father Damien (Agnes) practices her sermon by speaking aloud to a congregation of snakes that lives under the rock upon which she has built her church. She begins, “What is the question we spend our entire lives asking?” and answers, “Our question is this: Are we loved? I don’t mean by one another.” She closes her sermon to the snakes with these words: “I am like you, curious and small. Like you, I pause alertly and open my senses to try to read the air, the clouds, the sun’s slant, the little movements of the animals, all in the hope I will learn the secret of whether I am loved.”
I want to be, in my writing and in my prayer, where Father Damien is at the end of her life: named of assumption and honest in my questions, before the mystery I cannot know or even name.
Beginning to write is an intentional, particular, inner act; usually it seems like turning toward something unknown in my mind – an inward looking, listening. A clearer metaphor might be fishing. I go fishing in my mind. I put out bait, the bait of my own longing, my desire, and my hunger for connection, for a tug of something alive at the end of a line. Something that I may have to struggle with to pull in, but that will be wild and important to me, whether I keep it or let it go. In writing, my desire is for the flash of recognition, the image that I only partly glimpse, but recognize as a glimmer of something worth trying to capture in words on my page.
One day this week I felt sluggish and unable to write. I held my pen above my page, but I could not focus my attention. It strikes me that such moments are like casting or dangling a line with the wrong kind of bait. I wanted a successful bit of writing. Wrong bait. I began three miserable attempts, and each was wooden, lifeless. I crossed each one out in turn, and then somehow became quieter in my mind – a deeper desiring, a less frantic desiring. It’s like those times when you can’t remember a name, and you try and try, and then more or less give up, and the name floats effortlessly into your mind. I think it has to do with cooperating with the unconscious rather than trying to beat it into submission. My pen was still poised above my page, but I quit trying. Suddenly I thought, tonight, words are turtles.
That may not seem very promising, but I love turtles, I grew up with them in the Ozark Mountains where a box turtle is a child’s most common experience of wild animals. They are just the right size for a five-year-old to pick up and hold in both hands. Tonight, words are turtles. Experience has taught me to recognize the tiny jolt of joy that tells me a phrase or an image in worth pursuing. So I wrote quickly, with only one glitch:
Tonight, words are turtles
sleeping under mud.
Even when I poke them
they will not wake up.
Leave us alone,
their silence says.
When we decide to surface,
we will tell you what we dreamed.
The glitch was in the sixth line. I wrote, “their silence says,” and later changed it to, “their closed shells say,” to make it more concrete, more visual. However, I read it to one of my daughters, and she responded with, “I like ‘silence’ better.” So perhaps there was no glitch at all.
Or there was. It doesn’t matter. Either way, I like that little poem. It’s an honest expression of where I was in that moment. Even the colloquial word “poke” I like, because it reinforces the voice that first said, “words are turtles,” a voice closer to my early Ozark beginnings than to my later New England life. More important, after writing those words, I was able to go on writing about something else. I got to my writing by fishing. By again and again dropping the bait of my desire, waiting and listening.
When I consciously initiate prayer, my experience is very much like consciously beginning to write. I open a door in my mind, and on the energy of my desire, I reach out into mystery. Isn’t this what we do when we fall in love – reach out with longing, with desire? Writing and prayer are both a form of love, and love takes courage.
Frequently what comes in response to my reaching out for writing is not a phrase – not words at all, but an image. Sometimes I refuse to accept the first image that comes to mind; I reject it and fish for something more familiar. Or, if I know well the monster that lives under the surface of my own mind’s deep water, and can’t bear it right then, I may reel in the line and go where the fish are more familiar, less frightening. Such refusal blocks my writing. Where the greatest dangers lie, the greatest artistry also lies. If I refuse the delicate image that beckons me to take it, I am left with only the frustrated static of attempting to write something out of nothing. Over time, with practice, I have come to know that difference. Stopping and starting again, sometimes several times, I am usually now able to recognize and take the first image that surprises me – no matter how inconsequential. It may lead me to another image, and another, writing as Gertrude Stein advises, “Begin and begin again,” taking each beginning as a bread crumb on the forest path, until I find my way home. That’s where we want to be – that place where effort ends and writing flows.
Sometimes we are not ready, are not able, to muster enough courage or enough honesty to accept the image or phrase that is given. For example, in writing my autobiographical book, Wake Up Laughing, I refused over and over again one image, refused it so deeply that I didn’t even know I had seen it many times in my mind, until finally I began to write it. The image was a bed – the bed where I slept in the tenement apartment when I returned home from the orphanage at age thirteen. That bed was too painful, too shameful, too long held in secret, to write about. But when the entire book was written, something was missing, not an insignificant detail – more like the keystone in an arch. Instantly upon recognizing that something was missing, I knew what it was. I gathered my courage, wrote about the bed, put it where it belonged in the middle of the book, and the book was done.
Far more than praying on my knees in my childhood and youth, writing has demanded of me honesty, courage, listening, and waiting. Putting pen to paper has become my most essential spiritual practice, my most effective prayer. That is not to say that writing is my own prayer, or that all of my writing is prayer. But more and more, the two acts have merged. I reach writing through an act of waiting and listening: I make false starts; I get in my own way; I try again. Putting words onto paper – when it is done as an honest act of search or connection, rather than as an act of manipulation, performance, self-aggrandizement or self-protection – is a holy act. The desired communication may be with the self, with a known or unknown reader, or with something or someone beyond the self in the realm of what we might call “the spiritual.” Or with all three.
When I achieve true waiting, true listening, something happens that I experience as a gift. Whether it comes from my own subconscious reservoir or from outside myself makes no difference to me. If I am a creature made in the image of God – and I do accept the teaching of ancient Hebrew prophets and poets that in fact I am so created, and the teaching of some theologians that all of creation, even the rock and the turnip, is an image of God – then the creature that I am partakes in the holiness of the creator. If I am made in the image of the creator, then I am myself a creator, and my acts of creating participate in mystery.
That’s a pretty astounding thought. If it’s true, how can I so often undervalue my own creativity, and the creativity of every person – even the creativity of the most humble of creatures? How the earthworm poops and feeds the zinnia; how the zinnia feeds the bee; how the bee feeds me! Mystery, everywhere!
The mystery into which I “go fishing,” or into which I open a mental door when I write, is not alien or frightening, even though what comes up may be. I will say more about this later. For now, it is enough to say that like anyone who fishes, I am free to reel in the line and try again on another day.
A contemporary theologian, Catherine Keller, has drawn attention to the Hebrew word, Tehom, “the deep,” in Genesis 1:2. The entire verse reads, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”
Writing, when it is soul work, is creative, and if what I believe is true – that we are “made in the image of God” – then we, too, as creators, may brood upon the waters of our own “deep.” The human mind is vast; its edges open out into the vastness of the mystery that is beyond the physical dimensions of the brain. Emily Dickinson says, “The Brain is just the weight of God.” Both the Biblical text and Dickinson here invite me to think not about “union” with the mystery, but meeting. Relationship. And yet, that meeting is intensely intimate, often secret, and closer than any other relationship. Meister Eckhart says, “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” Yet that “seeing” is not necessarily visual. As Joy Harjo says, “we may not see each other stacked in the invisible dimensions.” Our inner seeing tends to be “through a glass, darkly,” or in metaphor (Moses’s burning bush, Flannery O’Connor’s ragged figure behind a tree). Moses, the ancient text tells us, was put by God into a cleft of the rock and told, “You may see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” An anonymous English monk in the late fourteenth century, in awe before the presence of mystery, counseled spiritual pilgrims to accept – even dwell in – “the Cloud of Unknowing.”
To open a door in one’s mind, whether in writing, in prayer, or in writing-as-prayer, is to invite an experience of “the deep.” It is rather like standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean at night, a cliff from which I can hear the pounding surf below me, and see in the distance a multitude of stars. I am aware of danger, but I am also aware of my own freedom and my own good sense. Although I could do so, I will not back up, close down, and refuse to see or hear. Although I could do so, I will not step out and lose myself. I will not fall to my death. I will stand where I am, and allow the vast expanse to come to me through my eyes, through my ears, through wind moving the tiny hairs on my skin, through the pressure of the solid rock against the soles of my feet. I feel awe, I feel my own smallness, but I feel that I, too, belong. If I am open to the possibility, I sense that I am seen; I am known; I am held in the attention of the mystery.
I asked two friends from quite different Christian communities to read this chapter. One friend is an Episcopal priest. The other is a leader in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. They were both stopped by my refusal here to step over the cliff, and asked about the spiritual experience of complete self-giving. “There is a kind of death, I think,” my Episcopal friend said, “death of autonomous ego.” And my Seventh-Day Advent friend said, “Yes, but I love the story about having faith enough to jump, knowing that the wind will rise up to meet you.”
These questions will haunt me through the writing of the chapters that lie ahead, and only near the very end will I understand what lies under them for me. Rumi famously said, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” I’m pretty certain there are more than “hundreds.” I suspect there are as many variations on experience of mystery as there are human persons; in fact each person throughout a lifetime has variations of experience, and given the magnitude of mystery, it is probably that even the most learned among us have “only the first ten letters of the alphabet.”
TO BREAK SILENCE
To break silence
is to shatter the glass
between the waters of dreams
and the waters of waking
in the blue and green denial
To break silence
is to be on the far side
of the gate to the garden of origin
angel and flaming sword
held against the possibility
To break silence
is to take upon oneself the burden of one’s name
nothing now derivative,
it is to turn, to face the Presence
in the primal wilderness