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I was recently listening to a Radiolab podcast that featured writer Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that one). She spoke about inspiration, and how she has remained creative and productive as a writer. Earlier in her career, she had learned to talk her to inspiration–as if it were outside of her. “TELL ME YOUR NAME,” she had demanded of her book, “Eat, Pray, Love” when at the final stages of preparation before publication, the completed manuscript had no title. After yelling at it–literally–for days, she woke up one morning and there it was: the answer, the title. “I can feel the difference when something is produced purely from my own sweat and blood, and when something is given to me,” she said. A writer has to do the work, she confirmed, of course. But those moments of pure inspiration, those creative gifts that seem to originate from outside of oneself, those are the moments that interrupt the rest of the writing process and make it great.
Last summer while studying French, I learned that the word “essay” is an adaptation of the French verb, “essayer.” Plainly, “essayer” means “to try.” An essay–a try. These linguistic connections are some of the simple pleasures of language study: with the acquisition of a single foreign word, even the most native term can take on a whole new depth of meaning. An essay–a try. It made so much sense to me.
And I think it resonated with me because of the creative process that Gilbert described. When I sit down to write, I am trying–trying to write well, yes–but really, truly, I am trying to be open to that something else…that something “given” that Gilbert describes as inspiration. In that sense, I am trying not to write at all. The best stuff on the page doesn’t originate from within me. It hits me, smack in the head, while I’m mid-way through a sentence at my keyboard. I can feel that it arrives from a different place. From where?
Theologian Gordon Kaufman describes God as Creativity. I’m not sure it’s God, but I do think, whatever it is, it helps me to believe in God. There is something deeply sacramental about this experience within the writing process: in the relationship between a writer and her words, something good and beyond interrupts. Mystery interrupts what is otherwise mundane and laborious. Isn’t that precisely the experience of the world the compels me toward the Divine?
It is the end of finals here at Harvard–and the completion of my Master’s degree, at that. And this is the time of every semester when we find ourselves asking, “Why do we do this to ourselves?” All the pressure, all the essays, ALL the essays. Still, I keep trying and trying and trying–because, when I ask myself “Why do I do this? WHY do I do this?” I realize I am still waiting, crazy like Elizabeth Gilbert, for the mystery to interrupt. I want to keep waiting, to keep writing. An essay–a try.
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to hold hands with the Beautiful One.
You have waltzed with great style,
My sweet, crushed angel,
To have ever neared God’s Heart at all.
Our Partner is notoriously difficult to follow,
And even His best musicians are not always easy to hear.
So what if the music has stopped for a while.
If the price of admission to the Divine
Is out of reach tonight…
For He will not be able to resist your longing
You have not danced so badly, my dear,
Trying to kiss the Beautiful One.
You have actually waltzed with tremendous style,
O my sweet,
O my sweet, crushed angel.
My friend Chuck and I meet once a week to study for the GRE. We know we wouldn’t glance at a single analogy this summer without the accountability. Even then, our plans to plow through a few more drills during our time together are inevitably amended for the sake of rousing discussion about theology and our vocations as educator-artist-theologians.
Last week we were musing about good theology–about the nature of it, the courage and creativity of it. I confessed to him how badly I crave to write something honest and beautiful like our favorite scholars and theologians. Like Foucault, or Simone Weil.
“There are these rare moments of ecstasy when I’m playing with my band–” Chuck told me. He is a musician, and you would know it by hearing him mention a few words on the subject; you can hear it in the reverent tone of his voice. “These moments of beauty and ecstasy–I think they’re like the beauty of theology you’re talking about.” I nodded, encouraging him. “When I’m with my band I can’t force that, you know? It’s a combination of too many things–it’s the way the musicians are playing together that night, it’s the space, it’s the crowd and their chemistry with us.”
Remembering the rush of a great concert, I affirmed, “Yes, that’s what I want, and I know it is about more than just me. When I write I am working so hard, but God doesn’t always show up, ya know? That energy and beauty doesn’t always come.” I paused, and then confided to him, “We’ve been working on these applications to doctoral programs, Chuck, and I feel like there is so much riding on this performance. It’s like a show with an audience full of the most brilliant musicians, all of them scrutinizing you, expecting to witness greatness…”
“I’ve been at shows when the ecstasy didn’t come. When the performance never reached that perfection,” he told me. “But you know, I could tell how much the band wanted it. And sometimes that’s enough for a great show. It’s not the ultimate; it not ecstasy, but sometimes it’s enough for audience to just witness that hunger within you.”
Hafiz says that even when we do not dance so badly, and even when we waltz with tremendous style, God does not always appear there on the dance floor. This does not mean that God is not watching the beautiful dance, I am sure. “So what?” Hafiz says, writing so affectionately of this angel as she dances. So what? So what? Perhaps the performance can be beautiful, even as her partner still pauses at the edge of the dance floor.
Perhaps I can create something beautiful, whether or not perfection takes me for a waltz today…
When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.” Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes… (Matthew 8:5-8)
There are many things about this section of scripture that make me squeamish. In principle, I dislike charges of absolute authority, even as they are ascribed to the human incarnation of an omnipotent God. I am especially uncomfortable with authority analogies related to the military, or any other institutions that employ violence as a means of enforcement, for that matter. There is something about the centurion’s claim of unworthiness that gets me, too. Perhaps I’ve seen too many well-intentioned Christians transform “humility” into unproductive guilt.
Despite all this, I cling to that declaration: But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.
This man knew the power of a word.
Jesus responded to the centurion, saying, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would!” I’d like to believe that “Go” was the word with all that power. I want to believe that because it is often the smallest words that heal me. Last semester I took a seminar that required students to circulate written reflections on the assigned readings before class. While reading the first reflection paper of the semester, written by male student, I was touched by the care with which he employed one little word. “When one does this, she experiences that…” Every non-specific pronoun he utilized in the essay was gendered female—a stark contrast to the ubiquitous male-gendered pronouns that filled the theological texts we studied all semester. With that little word—“she”—this colleague extended a powerful message: language so often excludes people of your gender, and I am invested in changing that. This gesture brought a little bit of healing.
Big words and long phrases have power, too. I keep a stack of blank note cards next to my bed; you will find me frantically reaching for them while reading Nouwen, Teresa of Avila, and Foucault when I have come across a line or a paragraph too precious to forget. I scribble them down and pin them to the bulletin board hanging on my bedroom wall where they remind me that so many others out there share the truths that I have unearthed in this short life. These are healing words because they remind me that I am not alone in my search for sense and meaning in my strange encounter with this world.
When I think of being “Christlike,” I dream of bringing words that heal. This is how I make sense of a life of so many books and computer screens. I am searching for the Word. The Word that heals.
Amid these long days curled over my laptop and yellow-paged library books, I have been stepping out into the fresh air for a walk on the Labyrinth. The white-stoned, circular meditation walk rests on the edge of a grassy lawn across from the entrance of Andover, Harvard’s theology library. The Labyrinth is warm from many hours under the sun, so I often take off my shoes to feel the heat radiating from the stone. Sometimes my shoes feel as confining as the walls of the wooden study carol where I have been writing my final papers all week. The labyrinth winds back and forth from beginning to end, and no matter how many times I walk it, I find myself feeling directionless there; that’s part of what makes it effective, I think. All I can do is look down at the path carved out in the stone, place one foot in front of the other, and follow the path in front of me.
During my second week at Harvard, I sat down for dinner with one of my mentors and I confessed my excitement and anxiety about the year ahead. I had no doubt that I did not want to be anywhere but HDS; I already loved my classes and professors, and my peers were brilliant and fascinating. Still, I worried that I could not live up to the opportunity. What if I’m what this place expects? What if they don’t like my ideas, or my approach? “Just give yourself to this process!” he reassured me. “This is amazing! I’m so excited for you! Just give yourself to this process…” I’ve repeated these words a thousand times this year.
On the days when I am particularly anxious, I look up in the midst of my labyrinth walk, and I am startled, “Have I moved at all?” This is a ridiculous question, of course. I’ve been walking for the last five minutes. Yet, really and truly, there are moments when I look up at all the turns of this winding circular path and I wonder this. I don’t have the patience for it. I ache for a reminder of progress! But all that’s there is another corner to pivot—a corner that looks just like the one I passed five paces ago. I want a reminder of progress! And then—I remind myself that that is not the point.
People often ask me if I picture myself doing something other than theology in the future. Typically, I reply with something like, “Well, I’m old enough to know that life cannot be planned. So, I try to remain open. But right now, I really see myself moving in the direction of theology.” For some reason I do not tell them about the moment earlier this year when I was sitting at my kitchen table with my roommate, Sarah. It was one of those anxious days, one when I was doubting myself again. She asked me that question about the possibility of doing something else, and I started to cry when I told her the complete truth, saying, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do…” It is not that I could not find employment, and even satisfaction, in any number of other careers. No. The truth is that I feel so deeply that this is what I am called to do, for myself and for my community, that even on the hard days I cannot see myself working toward anything else. And sometimes the calling frightens me. But it is always there, and it is so much mine that I can’t imagine leaving it.
The panicked, directionless moments are so often an occasion for reminding myself that I am moving, and that I’m exactly where I need to be. “Just give yourself to this process,” I tell myself. “One step at a time. One step. One step,” I tell myself again. When I confront my doubt with the truth of my call, I remember all the moments of epiphany this year—all the moments when I have felt more free than I ever have before—more myself, and more with God, and more with and for my people than I could have ever imagined.
The stone is warm under the soles of my feet, and I lean forward to take another step—
I have memories of being a typically-gregarious little girl who was afraid to speak in class. Maybe it was more self-consciousness than fear. My young male peers taunted me on the basketball court at recess and inside the classroom walls–“like children do”–because I was a young female with something she wanted to say. They told me this. They explained to me my boundaries “because I was a girl.” Even though I sensed that all of us knew these were untrue, these young men said all this because it had power. It had power because we all knew it had once been thought to be true. And that was a powerful reminder. (Where do second graders learn this? Probably Nickelodeon sitcoms).
Generally speaking, I imagine these situations evoke two types of reaction: Either young females learn not to speak up in class; studies have confirmed this. Or, they start talking louder. With the impassioned cursive script of a second grader, I decided to report gender confrontation after gender confrontation in our class “Conflict” notebook, which my teacher read aloud once a week before facilitating a detailed lesson and class discussion concerning conflict resolution skills. I started talking louder.
And I’ve been loud ever since. I’m the kind of person who steps out into the middle of Boston traffic to yell at taxi drivers who spit out racist and homophobic slurs in moments of senseless road rage. I have this intense moral compass (undoubtedly learned from my mother) and I will simply shatter if I don’t speak up sometimes.
That’s why I don’t know what to do with the trembling voice and unsteady pen I have found myself with in recent times. In moments like these, I don’t recognize myself. I ask myself, “What happened to that little girl with that strong, loud voice? The young woman who believed in the potential power of her voice?” I am second-guessing my words, projecting onto myself the presumed judgements of others. I doubt whether anything I have to say could possibly make any difference for the causes I address. My voice trembles when I speak, and I struggle to silence its shaking doubt.
I keep speaking, though. I keep writing, clearly. One of my favorite quotes reads, “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” It’s from Rilke, the writer who told a young poet to keep writing when he doubted himself. I think my voice shakes these days because I have given myself to a sort of danger–to the danger of a challenging academic environment, to new friends and brilliant peers, to a world far from the comforts and tangible love of home. It feels vulnerable. But it is getting better.
I still believe that one day I will open my mouth and the words won’t shake anymore. I hope they will resound louder and stronger than before.
Until then, I’ll keep talking.
Socrates often called himself a “mino,” a midwife; it was one of his favorite metaphors for the teacher. He believed that teaching was not a matter of bestowing information upon a student, but rather coaching one through the process of giving birth to the knowledge that is already within oneself. I think there is something to this pedagogy. Even when one encounters “new” information, real learning and radical comprehension requires that one situate it within the complications of his/her greater intellectual framework. Surely, that is an active and arduous process.
I feel as if I have been in labor for the past four months, trying earnestly to birth the nascent knowledge of my time at Harvard Divinity School. There have been times in the last few weeks when I have reached out desperately for the hand of a partner, my mind amid intellectual exhaustion, my fingers tired from pushing, pushing the keys of this tiny white keyboard.
“I don’t know if I can do this….” I had to keep pushing. It had never before been that hard to process, to write, to read again and again and again!
“Push!” my midwives insisted. “Keep pushing!” they encouraged. “We see this precious child within you! We see it coming! Push!”
With a sigh of relief and satisfaction, the infant arrived: ideas I had not entirely known I possessed, or at least commanded enough to reproduce in the tangible form of written word. “It is a miracle!” I always observe with delight whenever I create something of which I can manage to be proud. “What a miracle!”
I have never birthed a human being, but I think I have a little glimpse into the patience such a strenuous labor would require, and perhaps a tiny insight into the pride experienced when holding the infant in her arms after working and waiting for so long. “It is a little me,” she sighs, “This is my creation!” Starring down at an essay composed of so much of me, these are my words, too.
Lately each time I enter the gates of Harvard Yard from the concrete and brick of the Square, I am greeted with the opening word from Pascal’s Mémorial. The demanding red foliage of this one large tree declares, “Fire.”
Mémorial is Pascal’s cryptic account of the two-hour mystical vision he experienced one night at age 31. “Fire” begins the montage of parsed phrases, utterings of fear, wonder, reverence, and conviction. Pascal had the text sown into the lining of his clothes, which is where the account was discovered upon his death. Perhaps he brought it with him because he could not escape it. I have often found that if you listen closely, you can hear his heart racing between the words on the page.
Sometimes when I am sitting in the library here at school, I look out the large windows at the burning trees, and I think of Annie Dillard. In one of her essays she describes a moth flirting with the flame of a candle, irresistibly circling its blazing wick. The moth moves closer and closer, until it is too close; the fire consumes it. The moth is burning, but it has become the wick of the flame it so desires. Then my gaze returns to the book over which I hover. Fire.
It isn’t strange to me that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Aren’t we all met with moments of fire? “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up,” concluded Moses when he saw it (Exodus 3:3). There are moments of fire that capture us so much that we cannot cease returning to them. They are people, and experiences, and visions we must circle around; we must return to them. We must sow them into our clothes. We must give ourselves to them even if they consume us. Fire.
Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared.” –Teresa of Avila, from The Interior Castle
There is a class at Harvard in which all MDiv students (those earning degrees in preparation for ministry) must recount their “spiritual autobiography” for those in the class. I’m told this process of vulnerable sharing, listening, and exchanging feedback can take many class sessions. Yesterday a friend told me about his recent experience of presenting his autobiography, wherein he admitted to his classmates that he is unsure about whether ordained ministry is actually what he pursue upon the completion of his degree.
“Well, would that ministry utilize your gifts?” they responded, “What are your gifts?”
My friend said he hesitated in his response. He felt uncomfortable claiming the (many, really extraordinary) gifts that he possesses. He said this felt out of character, and counter-cultural to both his faith community and the decorum of where he was raised.
Although the two of us come from different hometowns and denominational traditions, I imagine myself responding similarly was I placed in his position. I, too, experience the tension between a sense of real, genuine humility, on one hand, and the importance of recognizing one’s skills for discernment and effective ministry, on the other.
Recently, I have not only been confronted with this tension in my friend’s story, but also in the writing of Teresa of Avila. The professor who assigned her book, The Interior Castle, for this week’s reading warned the class: “Teresa has an extreme tendency toward self-deprecation—it can be quite disturbing, but just push through!” Sure enough, within the first few pages of the book she had already made it quite clear to the reader that she, herself, is useless, and only writes out of obedience to God and her monastic order.
As I have read on, however, it has become clear that Teresa was blessed with extraordinary gifts, as a mystic and as a communicator of those experiences for the betterment of others. Even as she communicated an extreme, self-deprecating humility, she must have written out of an undeniable knowledge of her giftedness. This is evident in one of her rather ironic warnings against the danger of a false sense of self-knowledge:
If we are always fixed on our earthly misery, the stream will never flow free from the mud of fears, faintheartedness, and cowardice. I would be looking to see if I’m being watched or not; if by taking this path things will turn out badly for me; whether it might be pride to dare to begin a certain work; whether it would be good for a person so miserable to engage in something so lofty as prayer; whether I might be judged better than others if I don’t follow the path they all do. I’d be thinking that extremes are not good, even in the practice of virtue; that, since I am such a sinner, I might be a greater fall; that perhaps I would not advance and would do harm to good people; that someone like myself has no need of special things…Oh, God help me, daughters, how many souls must have been made to suffer great loss in this way by the devil! These souls think that all such fears stem from humility…The fears come from ourselves, for this lack of freedom from ourselves, and even more, is what can be feared. So I say, daughters, that we should set our eyes on Christ, our Good, and on His Saints. There we shall learn true humility, the intellect will be enhanced, as I have said, and self-knowledge will not make once based and cowardly.
Like Teresa, I realize that every person is blessed with unique gifts, and that I should celebrate this by sharing my gifts with others rather than letting fear and false humilities get in the way. The kind of humility that Teresa implores (perhaps in a self-directed message!) is a humility that does not deny giftedness. It acknowledges God, and it acknowledges the giftedness of others, but it does not prevent one from the sense of peace and joy that comes with doing what one is really good at!
How can I foster this sort of life-giving humility? How can I let go of the false, fear-inducing humility that so easily distracts me from my gifts? And how can I help others do the same?