Posts Tagged ‘mysticism’

My father sent me this letter explaining the annual visit of the three wise stargazing kings in Mallorca, and I want to share it with my readers because it’s such a beautiful and meaningful tradition:

On the afternoon of January 5 a page comes riding through the village on a horse and picks up the childrens’ requests from the Town Hall, scattering candies along the street.

That night the 3 kings arrive.
In Deya they came down from three different mountainsides to join up on the main road on their donkeys. They wear the capes and crowns… and they go in the parade with flares and torches and drums up the winding hill to the church. There they sit on the altar on their crowns and call out the names of children who have gifts waiting for them.

In Puerto Soller the kings come in on three lighted boats. And then they parade to the square by the main church.

In Palma they also arrive by ship. I don’t know where they come from here in Valldemossa, but the parade down to the San Bartomeo church below here.
Here are some pictures:
https://www.google.es/search?q=three+kings+on+mallorca&biw=1024&bih=622&site=webhp&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj4x5fVvvLJAhXCbRQKHQLZDXMQsAQILg&dpr=1

CW7rhOVWQAAzqIX.jpg large

I wish you all a blessed Christmastide and Peace on Earth in the coming year.

Shalom

Olive Twist

~♥~

 

 

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I thought some of my readers might enjoy reading the script from my 30-minute graduation lecture that I delivered in November of 2011 for my Master of Fine Arts degree.  I hope that you gain something from it, as I certainly enjoyed studying and preparing for it. I have posted the bibliography for you and it can be found in the sidebar under “Olive’s Pages.”

The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani

~♥~

Madmen, Mystics, and Monks:  Memoir as a Spiritual Journey

In this lecture, I intend to focus upon how authors use literary devices to persuade readers to travel with them on a mystical journey and contemplate their concepts of truth.

Mystical writers face a unique set of challenges. Richard Goodman, author of The Soul of Creative Writing says that spiritual authors use words as soldiers to captivate readers and lead them into another reality. In Flannery O’Connor’s essay “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction” she writes:

…if  the writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.

The spiritual writer must avoid clichés in their language, and walk a tightrope with the reader in order to perform their delicate art of persuasion. The voice must be one of compassion and humility and three elements must be present in order to retain the interest of the doubter:

  1. The writer must establish a rapport with the reader immediately.
  2. The mystical writer should illustrate abstract ideas with realism.
  3. The writer must leave the reader with a sense of longing and mystery, to make them want to embark upon their own spiritual journey.

If these three ingredients are measured out carefully, the writer may succeed in this precarious art of persuasion. In this lecture, I will provide some examples of writers who successfully use these methods to disarm the skeptic and take their readers on a spiritual journey.  The passages I am using in this lecture are on your handouts, so that you can follow along if you wish. For the benefit of our poets and fiction writers, I am including a poem by contemporary poet Luci Shaw and a fiction excerpt from Pulitzer prizewinner Marilynne Robinson.

~♥~

Let’s Begin with the first step of Establishing a Rapport with the Reader:

Dianne Aprile, author of several books including The Abbey of Gethsemani: A Place of Peace and Paradox, lectured once about the similarities between writing and walking.  As a writer, I am trying to persuade the reader to walk with me, so that we can have a conversation. In order for a skeptical reader to willingly go on a spiritual journey with an author, the narrative voice must be magnetic in some fashion that causes doubters to let down their defenses and open a friendly dialogue. Without establishing a rapport, it is impossible to be persuasive, so this is the most important element in spiritual writing.

Several methods are very effective to establish rapport. Vulnerability engages the emotions of the reader with a sense of empathy.  Reflection causes the reader to think back upon their own experiences of a similar nature.  Humor makes the reader laugh and enjoy the conversation.

The first two examples I will use are writers who make themselves accessible to their readers through vulnerability.

Black Elk Speaks, translated by John Neihardt, is the memoir of Black Elk, a famous holy man of the Oglala Sioux and second cousin of Crazy Horse, who extends his hand to the reader in such a way that one cannot help but continue with him. His voice is clear, humble and inviting:

My friend, I am going to tell you the story of my life, as you wish; and if it were only the story of my life, I think I would not tell it; for what is one man that he should make much of his winters, even when they bend him like heavy snow?  So many other men have lived and shall live that story, to be grass upon the hills. 

One of the most compelling aspects of Black Elk’s style is the sorrow of his voice, and the sense of great longing.  This is a common element in mystical writing, because it creates a sense of the helpless human condition.

Rabi Maharaj describes his own helplessness in his memoir The Death of a Guru, which was written in 1977 and translated into over 60 languages.He describes being born into the Brahman caste in India and being groomed to be a guru.  He longed to interact with his father, a renowned guru, who spent the last eight years of his life in a trancelike state.

We never shared anything in our lives.  Because of the vows he had taken before I was born, not once did he ever speak to me or pay me the slightest heed.  Just two words from him would have made me unspeakably happy.  More than anything else in the world I wanted to hear him say, “Rabi! Son!”  Just once.  But he never did.  For eight long years, he uttered not a word, not even a quiet confidence to my mother…

The writer immediately invites the reader to share his heartbreak, to have a sense of his pain and vulnerability as he continues to describe his father:

How often I stood in front of this extraordinary man, staring into his eyes until I became lost in their fathomless depths.  It was like falling through space, reaching out to grab something, calling for someone, but meeting only silence and emptiness. (15-16)

By using language referring to space and fathomless depths, the reader is able to feel that his pain defied description or quantification.  Like space, his loneliness knew no boundaries. In a style similar to Black Elk, this author has expressed his pain to establish rapport with his reader.

Another common device is the use of existential reflections, in which an author recalls the time he first questioned how he fit into the scheme of things. The next two excerpts are examples of this kind of reflection.

In Robert Finch’s article called When You Wish Upon A Star: On the Evolution of Spiritual and Moral Thought,” the author reflects upon the first time he wondered if he really had any control of his life or destiny:

When I was a boy, I read a lot of science fiction. It seemed to me the most exciting and imaginative literature of the day—and to a boy of twelve, it probably was. I have forgotten most of what I read, but there is one story, Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” that made a deep impression on me…

The author has already created a tone of mystery by mentioning the story called “Nightfall” and the strong feelings that were evoked when he read it, and the reader is interested in continuing this mysterious journey:

For a long time I didn’t know why I had been so affected by it, but now I think that reading the story provided my first inkling that our lives, our deepest selves, our collective psychological identity might be shaped and controlled by stars and other manifestations of the physical universe in ways we did not understand, or even suspect…

In this passage, the writer invites the reader to identify with his early moments of questioning, and to contemplate the mystery surrounding their own lives. Doing this in the context of science fiction adds to the sense of a great void and feeling insignificant within time and space.

Neela Vaswani writes of her childhood spiritual quest in You Have Given Me a Country.  She writes about her mother being a Catholic and describes her father’s religious heritage from India.  Listen to how she sets the stage in this passage:  “He was a traditional Sindhi, part Muslim, part Sikh, part Hindu, part Buddhist, and had been educated by Jesuits.” (22)  Because of the depictions of her parents, the reader is naturally curious as to where this will all lead. Then she proceeds to describe her anxiety about being unbaptized in a later chapter: “Baptism.  Such a small motion.  Water dropped onto the head.  I decided I would baptize myself.  I didn’t want to be Catholic.  I just wanted to be rid of the word heathen.  The way it hissed and bit.” The snake metaphor at the end is very effective to describe the questions and fears she felt about being a heathen. (76) After this,  she describes her own inquisitive nature and her visits to the library:  “I took out books.  A children’s Torah, heavy as a stone.  A Koran, river-blue.  The graphic Mahabharata in Amar Chitra Katha form- two frugal staples per comic spine.  The New Catholic Bible, martyr-red, in a sleeve of thick plastic.” (79) Instead of just stating that she was preoccupied with matters of religion, Vaswani allows the reader to go with her on her search and to see and feel the sacred texts, by using colors, weight, and texture.

It is important for the spiritual author to show their pathway to truth, and not just their arrival at a specific destination.

Some spiritual authors season their writing with touches of humor to make the reader comfortable with them, and the next two authors do this very artfully.

Andre Dubus grapples with the topic of injustice in his collection of memoirs entitled Broken Vessels, and he sets the tone with an allusion to a verse in the Psalms which says, “I am forgotten as a dead man, out of mind:  I am like a broken vessel”.  Then in his first story, Out Like a Lamb, he describes being called to watch over a farm and some sheep for some friends while they are away.  He expresses surprise at how unmanageable the sheep turned out to be:

And Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms.  His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep.  But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw that Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different.  We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves (4).

In this playful story with heavier undertones the sheep are a metaphor for humans, and the author makes the reader feel both brevity and pity for the sheep throughout the story, portraying them as helpless victims and describing the various ways that they “destroy themselves”.  The author artfully juggles humor and heaviness.

Marilynne Robinson also mingles humor in her 2005 Pulitzer award-winning novel Gilead, describing a group of religious children who decide to baptize a litter of kittens:

…They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs…I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another.  We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been born away still in the darkness of paganism…

Two or three of that litter were taken home by the girls and made into fairly respectable house cats…The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand… (22, 23)

This passage is rich with tactile detail that allows the reader to touch the furry warm brows of the kittens and feel the moisture of the creek water. The narrator of the story reflects in a believably childlike manner about this incident and wondering what the cosmic implications were.

In each of the passages so far, the spiritual writer has effectively created a rapport with the reader through vulnerability, reflection, or humor.

~♥~

The second step that I mentioned is that the spiritual author must “Illustrate the Abstract with Realism”:

Once the spiritual writer has established a rapport and lured the reader into a conversation, they can start to gently impart their concepts of truth. Realism is a valuable tool in the hands of a mystical author, because it allows the doubter to contemplate and vicariously experience the metaphysical. Personification, analogies, and recounting of events are far better than abstract statements of theology.  I will be using a variety of different authors to illustrate this point.

Transcendental poet Luci Shaw uses images and comparisons to cause the reader to make connections between objects and ideas, in her poem called “Royalty.”  She enables the reader to envision things, with her use of rich imagery.

He was a plain man
and learned no latin.

Having left all gold behind
he dealt out peace
to all us wild men
and the weather.

He ate fish, bread,
country wine and God’s will.

Dust sandalled his feet.

He wore purple only once
and that was an irony.

Shaw contrasts rich and poor through condensed images such as the plain man with dusty feet who left all gold behind, hung out with wild men, and wore purple only once. She cleverly lists God’s will with the foods and drink in the stanza about what Christ ate.  This allows the reader to make associations between food and drink and God’s will and to recognize all of them as sources of nourishment and strength.

Rabi Maharaj also uses physical detail as he writes about his mother in Death of a Guru, allowing the reader to fully experience the altar room:

Quiet, meditative, and deeply religious, she was not only father and mother to me but my first teacher in Hinduism.  How well I remember those early lessons learned as a little child sitting close beside her in the family prayer room in front of the altar with its numerous gods!  The heavy scent of sandalwood paste freshly marked upon the deities, the flickering deya flame attracting my eyes like a magnet, and the solemn sound of softly repeated mantras created an aura of holy mystery that held me spellbound…

Those unblinking eyes of clay and wood and brass and stone and painted paper seemed to watch me when I was not watching…(20)

The author allows the reader to smell the sandalwood paste, to see the flickering deya flame, and to hear the sound of the mantras. The images of the deities on the altar seem somewhat terrifying with their “unblinking eyes.”  By describing tangible objects, the author allows the reader to experience the intangibles.

F. Kefa Sempangi is the author of A Distant Grief which is his story of being the pastor of “The Redeemed Church” in Uganda in the 70’s during the brutal reign of Idi Amin.  He describes a church having an identity crisis because of western leadership. Sempangi beautifully depicts one of their prophetic leaders becoming frustrated.  In some sense, he uses the character of Katongole to personify the Holy Ghost:

On this day, Katongole wore the long white traditional robe of the Baganda men and we talked together for several hours about the present crisis in the Ugandan church.  The longer we talked the more angry Katongole became.  Finally, he could contain himself no longer.  He stood up from his chair and, glaring with wisdom, delivered an impassioned lecture.

“The church has made many mistakes,” Katangole said, pronouncing each word distinctly. “We have had political independence for 10 years and the church is not yet free.”

The physical description of Katongole is powerful with rich phrases such as “glaring with wisdom” and the way that he was “pronouncing each word distinctly.” The image of a stately black man in a long white robe is in itself compelling and the reader can almost hear his voice. The deep sigh of the prophet is important because it causes the reader to pause, and adds drama to his message.

Katongole took a deep breath and continued speaking.  “We are like Samuel and Eli in the Bible,” he said.  “For all of Samuel’s life he worked in the Temple and all his life, Eli stood between him and God… Samuel could not believe that God wanted to talk to him alone…

Instead of hearing God’s message to us as Africans, we have heard an enculturated gospel.  We cannot believe that God wants to speak to us in our own language. (40-41)

Rather than merely writing a factual narrative about the identity problem in the African church, Sempangi paints an exquisite portrait of a spiritual event. The reader can see and hear the leadings of the Spirit in Africa at that moment.

Black Elk also uses strong images and metaphors in the telling of his spiritual journey. He awakens all of the reader’s senses and his writings pulse with creatures and plants and landscapes. Here he describes a vision in which he saw the son of Wanekia, the Great Spirit:

They led me to the center of the circle where once more I saw the holy tree all full of leaves and blooming…Against the tree there was a man with arms held wide in front of him.  I looked hard at him, and I could not tell what people he came from.  He was not a Wasichu (white man) and he was not an Indian.  His hair was long and hanging loose, and on the left side of his head he wore an eagle feather.  His body was strong and good to see, and it was painted red…while I was staring hard at him, his body began to change and became very beautiful with all colors of light…He spoke like singing:  “My life is such that all earthly beings and growing things belong to me.  Your father, the Great Spirit, has said this.  You too must say this.”  (188)

It is appropriate for the visionary to use elevated language and vivid imagery. The serenity of his voice shows the enormity of his faith and adds credibility to his belief in a parallel earth where he and his people will finally dwell in peace.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and Lutheran pastor who was executed for his resistance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  In his collection of essays entitled The Cost of Discipleship he uses analogies to explain theological concepts.  In this passage, he writes about the difference between what he calls cheap grace and costly grace:

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares.  The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices…grace without price, grace without cost! 

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again…the door at which a man must knock.   (Bonhoeffer, 43, 45)

These analogies allow the reader to understand Bonhoeffer’s assertions.  His usage of metaphor is effective because it is easy to understand that something priceless should not be sold at discount prices. Anyone can understand that you must knock before entering someone’s house, and that if you found a treasure hidden in a field, you would happily sell your belongings to purchase the field and acquire it.  That is why realism works so well to describe complex philosophical ideas.

Saint Augustine artfully juxtaposes physical description with the metaphysical in his Sermon for Christmas # 13, in which he describes the birth of Christ:

He nudges the stars, but nurses from the breast.

He fills the Angels, speaks in His Father’s bosom, says nothing in His mother’s lap…

Look at how he miniaturized Himself so that He could lie in that manger.  That doesn’t mean He had to leave something behind in order to fit.  He just received what He wasn’t while remaining what He was.

Augustine presents the impossible so casually and physically that it almost sounds logical and scientific, presenting the notion of the divine presence being in many settings at once.

In each of the examples in this section the writer uses realism to depict the spiritual realm, allowing the intangibles to become tangible to readers.

 ~♥~

Now we come to final step, which is to Leave the Reader with a Sense of Longing and Mystery:

An effective spiritual writer will leave the reader with questions and a desire to embark upon their own truth-seeking journey.  The writer must present their pilgrimage as an ongoing process as opposed to a creating a sense of finality.

Luis Bunuel, the iconoclastic Spanish filmmaker and surrealist writer expresses his dislike of those who become too smug about their religion in his autobiography:

I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways when they think they have found it.  They often become fanatics, which I detest, or if not, then ideologues:  I am not an intellectual and their speeches send me running.  Like all speeches.  For me, the best orator is the one who from the first phrase takes a pair of pistols from his pockets and fires upon the audience.

This illustrates why it behooves the spiritual writer to be open about all of his human frailties, and leave the reader with a sense that he is still progressing, but has not arrived. There must be an air of mystery in order to stimulate the reader’s desire to seek truth on their own.  I will use very different sources to demonstrate the importance of ending with a sense of mystery.

Saint Augustine describes his limited capacity to understand the divine in one of his sermons about the incarnation, remarking:  “Well, how should I know?  I’m only a human being.  I don’t know why God was begotten.  I’ve labored to find out, I must say.” 

Donald Miller writes in his book Blue Like Jazz that he used to dislike jazz because of its lack of structure and the fact that it doesn’t resolve.  But he ends his memoir with a comparison between spirituality and jazz music:

The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music.  It is music birthed out of freedom.  And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality.  A music birthed out of freedom.  Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands.

He implies that everyone finds spirituality in their own way, not through conformity with traditions. He invites readers to seek God in their own style.

I will close with one final example of how C. S. Lewis successfully leaves the reader with a sense of longing, in this passage from The Four Loves.  Lewis uses a voice of humility, admitting that we humans often delude ourselves into thinking we are closer to God than we really are:

Those like myself whose imagination far exceeds their obedience are subject to a just penalty; we easily imagine conditions far higher than we have really reached.  If we describe what we have imagined, we may make others and make ourselves believe that we have really been there…

Then the author proceeds to describe the unfulfilled longings we carry around in our innermost being, using beautiful similes, and an analogy of dreaming and waking:

If we cannot “practice the presence of God”, it is something to practice the absence of God, to become increasingly aware of our unawareness till we feel like men who should stand beside a great waterfall and hear no noise, or like a man in a story who looks in a mirror and finds no face there, or a man in a dream who stretches out his hand to visible objects and gets no sensation of touch.  To know that one is dreaming is to be no longer perfectly asleep.  But for news of the fully waking world, you must go to my betters.

OLIVE TWIST ©2011

~♥~


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