Sarah Stockton

Author of A Pen and A Path:
Writing as a Spiritual Practice

Sarah StocktonIn the book A Pen and A Path, you explore ways to use writing as a spiritual tool. How can writing about one’s life help that person move closer to God?

Writing about one’s life as a form of spiritual practice fulfills the desire to move closer to God because it transforms the inner monologue in our minds, that is our own private, personal commentary on life, into a dialogue with God.

How is the writing you describe different from keeping a diary or writing in one’s journal?

The writing I describe differs in two ways. First, when writing is used as a spiritual practice, intention is everything. By that I mean the person who begins to write in this way does so with the conscious intention of communicating with God. Journal writing is not always intended as a way of communicating with God; rather it is more often a way of talking to oneself, recording events for future remembrance, trying to make sense of things on one’s own, or musing on ideas for creative projects or solving problems. Journal writing even is undertaken with the thought in mind that someone else will read it someday. There can be great validity in this kind of writing, but it is not the same as writing primarily in order to connect with God.

Secondly, the method I describe in A Pen and A Path suggests a specific topic in each chapter as a starting point for writing, a topic which might very well carry an emotional charge or otherwise hold deep significance for the writer. Journal writing is often more “stream of consciousness” or free-form, a more random wandering through the day or the events of one’s life. The exercises in A Pen and A Path are meant to focus attention on a specific topic, while also freeing the writer to explore that topic with all the depth and breadth the topic offers, all with the intention of writing to God.

Your approach to writing as a spiritual practice asks us to examine all different aspects of our lives: relationships, work, emotions and perceptions about faith. How does such intense self-examination help us look outside ourselves to see God in the world around us?

Self-absorption is a natural first stage in any new part of the life cycle. We are self-absorbed as children, then again as teenagers, then when we fall in love, decide on a career, suffer a loss, begin the spiritual journey, start a new creative project, and so on. At each new threshold on our journey, we begin with ourselves as the starting point of what we know of life. Going beyond this first stage of self-absorption by examining, articulating, and sharing both with God and with others that which absorbs us serves to frees us to then turn our attention to the people and the larger world around us. Holding onto our own thoughts and feelings and giving them no outlet for expression closes us off to possibility, movement, change, and the reality of anything besides our own private journey.

In my own experience, when I have written about things that have caused me fear or grief, confusion or doubt, I have been able to come to terms with these things. The very practice of writing about them, offering them to God and sometimes sharing what I wrote with others, has allowed me to loosen the hold they had on my spirit. Writing as a spiritual practice is a way of going within in order to come back out into the whole human community. The willingness to examine and write about my own mind and heart has allowed me to let go of that which prevented me from growing, and sets me free to look for God beyond the confines of my own experience. Writing about the joys and blessings in my life has also helped me feel connected with the world beyond my own experience, by allowing me to acknowledge and articulate gratitude, hope and the need for forgiveness and compassion. Although I will no doubt be completely self-absorbed at the beginning of the next new thing that challenges me, writing can work as a catalyst to get me moving again out of my self-absorption and into the possibilities, challenges, lessons, and blessings that await.

You compare writing to prayer. Can you talk a little more about their similarities?

Writing, when used as a spiritual practice, is a way of making oneself available to God. It says, “Here I am. At this moment, to the best of my ability, I am all yours.” As in prayer, it signals our intention, our desire to be completely present in the very moment that we find ourselves in, and in that moment, to fully share who we are and to receive whatever it is that God offers us. Writing uses the tool of language, engages the body and the mind, and provides a structure composed of thoughts, words and movement. It shapes and directs how we approach and engage the spirit while freeing us to feel and express whatever is in our minds and our hearts. Some forms of prayer use verbal language, either spoken or unspoken; other forms engage the body in bowing or other movement. All forms of prayer, even wordless, require that we place ourselves in the state of “Here I am.” Writing as spiritual practice draws on one particular method of reaching that place of “Here I am,” and A Pen and a Path suggests ways of deepening that stance once we get there.

What would you suggest for the person who has a hard time articulating their thoughts, feelings and perceptions?

Been there! Over the years, I have tried various methods for recognizing my thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, then “owning” them, then finding a creative way to do something with them besides keeping them all inside. Whether we express ourselves in writing, our work, the way we learn as students, the way we nurture relationships with others, or through dance, music, painting, photography, gardening, weaving or other crafts, all are valid paths for learning how to first recognize, then own, then express who we are, how we feel, and what we hope for in our relationship with the Sacred. Yet, as in writing, each of these paths starts with small steps into the unknown. There is no right or best or perfect way to articulate who we are and how we feel. With writing as a spiritual practice, as with all spiritual practices, the physical results of our practice are not important. It’s not about how good we are at what we do, how wonderful we sound or how brilliant our finished product, because spiritual practice in any form is not a competition or a demand for results. The desire to communicate is all that’s needed. With practice, the willingness to “show up,” and a safe environment in which to practice and perhaps share our work, God will do the rest.

What else would you like to say about the value of writing in nurturing a relationship to God?

I am not advocating writing as the best, or most valid, or even the easiest practice for nurturing a relationship with God. Writing is one practice out of many that are offered by various faith traditions, and like all practices, it may not work for everyone, or may be valuable at some points on the faith journey and not at others. Yet the act of writing is something that we can avail ourselves of at any time or place; it requires only a writing instrument and basic language skills, and it is something that we can continue to practice throughout our lives. We don’t need to be on retreat, or in a sacred setting, or even in a good mood to write - we just need to be willing to be present to ourselves, and to God. By the act of moving a pen across the page or moving fingers across a keyboard, we move toward God; by choosing the path of words, we open the door to connection. We don’t need to be experts or even very good at grammar, syntax, or spelling. We don’t need to be published or highly educated. The simplest words are often the best, most direct way of saying what we mean. Language is a precious aspect of being human, a gift. When we write, we offer that gift to ourselves, and to God.

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