May 30, 2019 § 10 Comments
By Thomas Larson
In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.
This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.
And second, considering the 1500-year gap between Augustine and Merton, leaving out for the moment Tolstoy and Thérèse who are late 1800s, other writers were either censored by the church as dogmatically unsuitable or by the individual author as nakedly over-personal. Yes, during this time, there’s The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, famous Christian tracts. But these testaments are wholly mystical (without the “I”) or wholly prescriptive (with the “I” as Everyman). Neither explores the unsteady, vulnerable self, de rigueur to memoir.
Something happened 70 years ago that accounts for a change in how we view the landscape of liminal writing. Authors moved from nonpersonal expression of religious community to personal expression of unchurched experience, trading religious authority for personal authority. The religious text—an ordained, mythic, creation story, written or inspired by a God with enough moral injunctions to make a courtesan blush—gave way to, perhaps birthed, the spiritual text—a self-creation story, an inquiry about how the self has been spiritualized. The latter required one to have lived and to have written a book with consummate literary value, daring and eloquent, bemused by or surrendering to purpose.
Removed from the religious text was the author’s loyalty or faith in its founding principles: primal sin, priestly clubbishness, resurrection and salvation through Christ. Once the fundamentalist injunctions lost their molten, magnetic core, the writer was free to use the artistic forms of personal narrative and meditative essay as new ways to engage her enigmatic moments of the inexplicable or the numinous.
With Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, a spring Jonquil emerges: the spiritual author pushes away from the idea that the writer is reflecting what has already happened in her religious/spiritual experience and pushes toward enacting that experience through the writing itself. Yes, one goes on a quest, walks El Camino in Spain, or fasts for enlightenment at the Abbey of Gethsemani. But the real quest for the writer is the writing, the endurance of mind it takes to produce, sustain, and communicate the deepest of insights. If the writing of the book becomes a spiritual quest as well, then the evocation of spirit becomes an aesthetic pursuit.
Thus, the appeal of spirituality in our time is less expressive of an allegiance to a faith and more expressive of a learned, adaptive behavior, often away from faith and toward a restoration of ambiguity, a treasuring of doubt. What else is art but enacting our existential enigmas when, as is often the case, meaning dictated by institutions and “patented wisdom” is as out of touch with the times as a landline.
I don’t think “spiritual but not religious” (no one says the opposite, religious but not spiritual) means to replace “religious” mysteries with New Age hocus-pocus: See, for example, the missionary guidance of spiritual dog-walking or spiritual tidying-up (each subject with its author-and-book brand). Spirituality is not about settling down, is not about institutionalization, and is not a do-over of religious meetinghouses and commodities—refurbished warehouses as Zendos, catechistic travel books about the Vatican.
The spiritual is supposed to engage our lost selves, not our found ones. That for every authentic memoir about the inner life of the wounded, scarred postmodern pilgrim, there are one hundred how-to guides by professionalized self-seekers is part and parcel of what’s been unleashed by the abandonment of religion in the millennial era. I am highly suspect of this rush to codify the New Age into bullet-points.
If there are other ways to explore the mysteries of the self, of chance, of dreams, of alternate spatial and temporal dimensions, of mortality—and these pursuits are outside traditional churches, their communities and texts—then the question is invited: How do we search? The operable verb here is to explore. I often wonder how people can explore anything about themselves and the dark intractability of their lives, in a post-religious world, without an expressive means (writing, art, sculpture, video, film, dance, music), let alone communicate to others what they may and may not have discovered.
I think critics have pressed art and the artist to sit too close to representation. Though it may, art does not represent experience, not primarily. Art enacts experience. And, preferentially, not the experience of the past but of the present—action painting, live video, improvised music, the author writing the self into surprising being. All these explorations to me are what I would call part of a spiritual aesthetic. Because these voyages into the unknown are based on no ageless canon or chiseled commandments but, rather, materialize in the artist something he or she had no idea was there—because it wasn’t there, until the artist invented it.
Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.