Struggles and Journeys: A Guest Post by Kathleen Tarr

More artful spiritual writing has been written and published
over the past millennia than can ever be covered in a single class, or one
lifetime of self-study. Notice I said, artful.
This is the kind of spiritual writing we’ll be covering in my upcoming 49
Writers class.
I was born into a secular family in a secular tradition in a
secular time. I never took a religious studies course and didn’t buy my first
Bible until I was in my late 40s. As a college student, if anyone uttered the
word spiritual in my presence, I
would either scoff or take off running out of fear some ecstatic, bead-toting, New
Age cultist would try and recruit me to their next meeting. I lived happily in
my ill-defined, elusive “catch-and-release” spirituality. And as one of my good
writer-friends said, “I wouldn’t touch spiritual writing with a ten-foot pole.”
But then something happened. As a reader and as a writer, I stumbled
into a literary treasure trove and came under the spell of some great spiritual
writers and thinkers. In time, I began viewing the genre in a refreshingly new
The best of the best
in spiritual writing walks the tightrope between art and religious propaganda, as
Phillip Yancey says in his introduction to the Best Spiritual Writing 2012. Translation: the spiritual and
religious content can’t be laid on too thick, it should be sincere but without
diluting its content and message.
In the religious subculture, Yancey observes, “there are
readers who applaud books and essays in which every prayer is answered and
every disease is healed.”  To which I
would add, and every neurotic, schizophrenic
lost soul reaches nirvana or maybe just some sort of transitory, fleeting inner
. (I keep looking for that book, in particular.)
But the kind of spiritual writing I’m most drawn to lacks
that kind of “I-have-seen-the-light” kind of sentimentality. Imagine an agent
is talking right now. You know how agents love to ask for those dreaded
comparative titles, right?  In that vein,
I could put it this way: I want Woody Allen meets the Dalai Lama, Richard
Dawkins meets Thomas Merton, and The Terminator meets The Apostle.
In the kind of inspired spiritual writing we’ll be reading
and discussing, there are no solutions or holier-than-thou pieties. No easily-acquired,
formulaic spiritual elixirs. Frankly, many times the authors are just
psychologically screwed up, battered by sin, troubled by doubt, and wandering
down feckless paths, full of questions, wrong turns, and nowhere close to reaching
inner enlightenment. (Who knew monks could be stricken by such inner noise and
In the works we’ll examine, what does abound is endless tension, conflict, struggle, discernment, paradox,
investigation, exploration—with less sterile analysis and more mystery.
Rabbis, saints, monks, pilgrims, seekers, sojourners, starets,
theologians, bodisattvas, philosophers, social activists, priests, sages, seers,
mystics, nuns and non-believers. From all of them—notable, memorable, literary
works of art have been given to the world.
Patricia Hampl writes poignantly about the powerful scope of
spiritual memoir, testimonies such as the poems of the great Jewish poets of
the Holocaust Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, the memoirs of Primo Levi—these,
Hampl says, have extended the meaning of the spiritual.
“They remind us that
the journey is to history’s hell as well as to our imagined heaven. And that
the voice of the spirit is always a singular human being, a beloved creature
lost forever, consigned by blind hatred to oblivion. The voice is personal,
I don’t know where you’ll encounter more profound truths,
more universal connections than from individuals writing true stories about
their inner hell. The personal narratives about a person’s raw longings and
struggles to know their soul’s desires. To know their authentic selves. To
unravel the hidden in the interior self.
After all, isn’t this a description of the earliest roots of
Western literature from St. Augustine
to Leo Tolstoy to Dorothy Day to the pages of your own journal? Isn’t this what
spiritual writing is and has been?
Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being is a deeply meditative book which partially recounts
impressions of her travels to Israel.
It’s infused with spiritual wisdoms, but she is never heavy-handed about it.
While the book is deeply philosophical, she can also be self-deprecating, and
is not afraid to “lighten up” when discussing serious religious matters. As she
reflects about the puzzles of life and existence and God, she conjures writings
and wisdoms from an eclectic array of sources: a paleontologist-priest who
wanders the Gobi desert, various rabbinical leaders
through the ages, and a man she describes as an endearing religious crank.
In one section, she ends with this: “Every human being sucks
the living strength of God from a different place, said Rabbi Pinhas, and
together they make up Man.
Perhaps as humans deepen and widen their understanding of God, it takes more
people to see the whole of Him. Or it could be that there is a universal mind
for whom we are all stringers.”
I’m pretty sure I can make this statement without
controversy and without scaring anyone off:  All
writing is a spiritual act.
If you’re curious about what constitutes the best in spiritual writing today
across faith traditions and through the centuries, please join me for some
stimulating readings and discussion. The experience might lead you down some
unforeseen literary and spiritual paths. 
Spiritual Writing: An Introduction will
meet four times from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. on Tues/Thurs, Feb. 19/21 and
Tues/Thurs, Feb. 26/28 at the 49 Alaska Writing Center.
Kathleen Tarr was the
featured monthly author in September. You can find her four blog posts in the49 Writers archive—one of them was recognized as the best guest blog post of
2012.  She is the former Program
Coordinator of UAA’s low-residency MFA Program in creative writing. Her work
has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, TriQuarterly, Cirque,
Alaska Airlines Magazine, and a chapter from her
book-in-progress is forthcoming in the Sewanee Review. She earned her MFA in
creative nonfiction from the
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