Writing the Sacred Self

There must be spaces where authentic selves engaged in interdisciplinary discourse can come together to address inequality and work for social justice. Dr. Nigel Hatton made this point when he spoke of the critical importance of the Braxton Institute at our October 27, 2014 “Recovering Human Sustainability in a Time of War” symposium. Nigel’s observations remind me of Parker Palmer’s essay “Now I Become Myself” and the importance of naming all of the fragmenting things that get in the way of that wholeness and that becoming:

“In families, schools, workplaces, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others. If we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss,” writes Palmer, “we spend the second half [of our lives] trying to recover and reclaim the gift we lost.”

Our shared work through the Braxton Institute celebrates the importance of human life as sacred. Some of the ways we do this work of recovery and sustainability are through narrative medicine, prayer, mindfulness meditation and spiritual life writing.

Life writing is a bridge between spirituality and healing; it is also a key element in self-care and spiritual discipline. This good work has served as a particular help to me in discerning God’s intention for my own life. Because of my experiences teaching “Spiritual Life Writing for Helpers and Healers” and “Writing for Recovery” in selected workshop settings, I see heightened potential for the use of life writing by those for whom the spiritual journey is at the center, rather than the periphery. This may be particularly the case for ministers and other caregivers in the helping and healing professions, but I believe that almost everyone committed to doing the work of justice and mercy can benefit from the use of writing as a spiritual discipline. Autobiography, memoir and journal keeping can help us remember who we are and harness our birthright gifts.

Are you living to be the change you want to see in this world? For many, activism, teaching or another form of public service becomes a form of secular ministry. You may or may not be a “believer,” but what holds you together when you are confronted by the “dark night of the soul?” Years ago, I read a book by Jaco Hamman called Becoming a Pastor: Forming Self and Soul for Ministry. This work continues to speak to me.

Ministry, not activism, is Hamman’s chosen path of transformation, however his work has broad implications. Hamman suggests that we, who dedicate our lives to caring for others, are “created to seek transformation.” The power of this positive transformation is manifested in the development of the capacity to believe, to imagine, the capacity to develop compassion and concern, the capacity to be alone, and the capacity to play, among other positive transformational attributes. The development of these skills involves the embrace of one’s own brokenness, an awareness of one’s emotions, the cultivation of imagination, the ability to “see” others “including God, to be who they are and not who you think they are or want them to be,” and the positive engagement of “life and ministry with a sense of playfulness” grounded in responsibility and openness. Hamman warns that “engaging the core of your being can feel like dishonoring your mother and father, since introspection inevitably takes you to your childhood home.” “[L]ooking into the depths of who we are is a challenge most people avoid,” writes Hamman, but some use spiritual life writing to nurture what Joseph Driskill calls “inner security and [the] capacity for depth.”

Life writing is a way of engaging in the transformative journey to one’s own sacred center and bringing together the pieces of one’s authentic self. One begins the journey anew each day; life remains exciting and fresh. How does one get started? There are any number of ways, and the best way is the one that works for you. Do consider taking one of our workshops, as they provide a safe atmosphere in which to learn particular approaches and try them.

Some people keep their journals on a laptop or mobile device, others make scrapbooks. My favorite is to write into a bound notebook, and I always find one that feels good in my hands. Some people write at the same time every day, often early in the morning when they are less likely to be interrupted. I prefer a fountain pen because there is something about the movement of pen on paper that activates memory. My current journal is for a chapter length autobiographical essay about my years in college and graduate school. The book itself has a cover of blue and emerald peacock feathers. I am writing with a disposable black ink fountain pen that feels good when it moves across the page. A note to myself reads, “The place one begins is not always at the beginning.”

The most important thing is to know that you are worth it, and that it is you who is at the center of your own life. Now is the only time there is.

Blessings for the Journey,