This is the opening night paper, originally called ‘Mapping the Terrain’, given at the Writers Retreat at Santa Casa, Queenscliff, by Philip Harvey on Thursday the 20th of June 2013, under the aegis of the Carmelite Centre.
The roaring waterfall
is the Buddha’s golden mouth.
The mountains in the distance
are his pure luminous body.
How many thousands of poems
have flowed through me tonight!
And tomorrow I won’t be able
to repeat even one word.
Su Tung-P’o (1036-1101)
It might seem an unusual place to start a retreat about writing the sacred, but if we are honest we must start with questions about whether it is possible to write about the sacred. What is sacred? Why do we call it sacred? And how do we use words to explain the sacred, reveal it? How can we be sure the words we use will work? How can we know that they won’t be of disservice to the sacred? Or even desecrate it?
It may not be of much cheer to some of you to hear that there are those who believe the sacred cannot be written about. The Chinese philosophy of Tao speaks in conundrums:
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is darkness.
darkness within darkness.
the gateway to all understanding.
Lao-Tzu (6th cent. B.C.)
The person who has defined the Tao is not the person who has defined the Tao, or Sacred. The person who speaks does not know, the person who does not speak, knows. (This is by way of a warm-up joke and no I am not quoting Donald Rumsfeld.)
Perhaps at this stage it is time to pack up and go home. If we cannot write about the sacred then perhaps a cup of tea is in order, or we might sleep on it and have a dream, or take a long walk on the beach in the morning. And it has to be said that a cup of tea, or a dream, or a walk on the beach are three ways of dealing with not writing, or not knowing what to write, or of meditating further on what to write. I could even observe that in Japan drinking tea was turned into a ceremony that is bound in with Japanese understanding of the sacred. That in every culture dreams are recognised as means to the meaning of the sacred. Out of darkness, as it were. That long walks on the beach occur more than once in the Gospel stories, and to effect.
However, it is useful to regard how the Taoist Saying about the person who does not speak, knows, is written down in words. It is still words that talk of what words can and cannot say about the sacred. And, of course, if we wish to communicate meaning or meaning-beyond-meaning to others, if we even want to start, then words are about the most effective and flexible means at our disposal.
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
(Burnt Norton, V)
In our own English language literature one of the outstanding attempts at addressing this question of writing the sacred is Four Quartets. T.S. Eliot’s long poem turns over in its mind just how do we say what we want to say so it works. How do we say in symbols something that will always be more than symbols. The poem itself is a complete essay in how we can and cannot speak of the sacred. We smile when Eliot admits
That was a way of putting it -- not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.
(East Coker, II)
The admission is part of the artistry, part of the effort of getting near as we can to a representation of our deepest knowledge. It is not so much an admission of defeat as a recognition of the limits of possibility. It is saying that we are in here amidst language and if that’s how it is, let’s get it close as we can to true and perfect and good and beautiful.
When the words ‘sacred’ and ‘writing’ are used together our first thought can be, oh we’re talking about Revelation. Sacred writing in our society means the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad-Gita, and other products of ancient religion. (I use the word ‘ancient’ advisedly as the claims on this writing are that it remains true then, now, and forever.) These are the revelation, the revealed actions of God written down for the generations; they are the foundations of religious tradition.
Although we cannot add a word of our own to the canon itself, many of us spend our whole lives adding our words to those of all others who have ever responded to scripture. It goes on every day –commentary, meditation, lectio divina, theology, rock songs – and is not restricted to religious writing but to any literary endeavour. In fact our writing, our written culture, is bound up with Revelation. We each have a relationship to Revelation that, especially if we write, we need to be conscious of. We need to be wise in our understanding of Wisdom. Here now are three observations about Revelation that I hope will be helpful when you work on your own writing.
1. In the story of Doubting Thomas, Christ declares after the disciple sees his wounds and calls him Lord and God: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” The writer of John’s Gospel wishes to acknowledge the doubts about Revelation, about the Resurrection in fact, but he also wishes to confront our doubts. We are Doubting Thomas. He is the test case, but my interest here is in the Gospel writer himself. John is saying something momentous about Christ, but also about his own writing. For indeed, blessed are they who have read these words about Thomas, and yet have believed. Our writing is in the business of confronting doubts, it is about declaring the truth as we see it, it is about finding a way of revealing what is most important to us, revealing it even to people we have never met. This can mean writing out of doubt, and on doubt. It is a call to write with directness and clarity. It is about showing faith in the writing itself.
2. Christian writing since the close of canon (2nd century) is sometimes called the Third testament. I would even expand that definition by saying that all writers live in a post-canonical world in which they have a creative relationship with Scripture that comes out in their writing, whether they are Jew or Gentile. William Blake said, “Christianity is Art and not money. Money is its curse,” and this motto is worth pondering in this context: “Christianity is Art.” In this sense, everyone here at Queenscliff is part of the writing experience known as the Third Testament, whatever your own religious affiliation, or lack thereof. Genesis is a good place to start. When we read Genesis we find it is actually a whole anthology of stories of origin: the origin of the universe, the origin of humanity, the origin of consciousness, the origin of language, the origin of conflict, the origin of a family, the origin of a nation. When James Joyce in Finnegans Wake calls Genesis Guinnesses, he is a Dubliner going after the origin and explanation of all things. When we go into a bookshop in 2013 half the books we see there are Third Testament Genesis: they constitute an anthology of writes and rewrites of origins. And this is what we are doing when we write the sacred, incidentally, we are putting down our own version of origins.
3. In fact our relationship to Genesis is the same we have with all the other books of the Bible. Which leads me to the proposal that the Bible is a Writer’s Handbook. It is the Revelation of God, which explains why it is so various in its expressions. It variations are models of how we write the sacred. There is law and the reasons for law, often told in story rather than statute. There is wisdom, available through mythic events, sayings, and proverbs. There is poetry, available in hymn form through the psalms and elsewhere. There is prophetic utterance, directed to the people for very good reasons and in very different styles. There are letters and visions, journals and journeys, and there are the accounts of Incarnation called Gospel. I encourage you to find books in this work that speak to you, that are instructive fro your way of writing, as well as for your personal life.
Whenever anyone uses the word Sacred they say something about ultimate value, about what that person values. Not only values, but regards as needing protection, needing to be forwarded as of greatest importance. In our expression of the sacred we state value. Whether we express value overtly or covertly, literally or metaphorically, consciously or unconsciously, in our expression this is a defining factor. If our means of expression is words then we desire precision, transparency, and directness.
Often when we read other people’s words (novels, essays, poems, plays) we reach connection at those times when we can judge what it is they reveal that they prize, or place as of importance for them. The work then takes on meaning in a way it would not otherwise. If only some writers had a better idea of what they held ‘sacred’ the easier it would be for their readers. If we sometimes had a better idea of our own ultimate values, of what we treat as ‘sacred’, it would help clarify what we are trying to write.
It is a helpful exercise anyway to sit aside and write down in basic words what it is we value, then meditate on them. Is this what we want to say? Is this the expectation I am living up to in my own writing? It is a helpful exercise, though it is not a promise that anything will then instantly happen in words.
Certainly there are kinds of writing that begin consciously as an exercise in writing the sacred in this sense. In theology we have apologetics and the sermon, in poetry we have the elegy and the ode, in fiction we have moral tales. These are overt presentations of value. But then we have covert forms, such as parables and koans and fables. Much of the time though we do not start with a definition of what we value, but with the whole complex mess with which we are faced. Maybe our belief in the sacred is under attack, or has even been destroyed – the writing is acting to re-establish meaning. Often our compulsion to write is driven by needs we cannot explain, don’t even want to explain for fear of losing the drive. What is sacred to us is somewhere there, but is not the immediate cause of concern. I suppose the important factor here is to remember, what is important to you in your writing? What is the focus? What is the subject of your work? That is, what is the real subject? It may be the main focus of attention, way down in the mix, or even barely apparent even to the author, but to ask the questions (What do I value? What to me is sacred?) is to bring your attention back to the direction of the writing.
Each of us writes differently, different styles and different objectives, so there can be no simple guidelines for writing about he sacred in this sense. What I am talking about is a state of mindfulness. It is about developing the ability to assess and reassess what you are doing in your writing. Are there rules for writing about what we value? I doubt t. There are only ways of getting it right according to our abilities, ways of improving our expression, ways of being more objective about ourselves and our world.
Here are some definitions of writing that are not found in the dictionary:
Writing is the gathering of our language and our wits into a cause.
Writing is not neutral in its intentions, is not a text or document of letterings, but comes carrying freight, it carries weight and meaning and purpose and effect.
Writing is something we learn at school and some of us go on learning for the rest of our lives.
Writing abounds as our thinking abounds, as our breathing expands and contracts, as our body moves and stays.
Writing employs grounded clunky words to fly through the air like a dancer.
Writing goes into places you wouldn’t read about.
Writing enlivens words every day, affirms words and can make new even the oldest words in our vocabulary.
Writing wants to stop time while being itself a product of time.
Writing involves people who spend half a lifetime writing a book that no one reads and people who spend one day writing something that is read by everyone generation after generation; and vice versa, involves people who spend half a lifetime writing something everyone reads and someone who spent a day writing something that no one will ever read.
Writing makes the mark you hope you will never wish to cross out.
Writing usually knows how to start, almost invariably has to figure out how to continue, and sometimes doesn’t know how to stop.
Writing is the voice by another means.
Writing is a rational way of going beyond the rational.
Writing deals in transparency, objectification, reason, logic and singularity, but with equal facility deals with contradiction, paradox, incompatibility, inexplicableness and plurality, sometimes on the same page.
Writing uses tangible elements to present intangible realities.
Writing is sometimes the only way out, sometimes the only way in.
Writing is created in the light and we wish writing acknowledged this more often than it does.
The Fruits of the Sermon
So having read the Gospel, there and then
that good and learned father plonked his rear
against the altarpiece, and – crystal-clear –
explained the mysteries of faith to men;
oh yes, expounded on them inside out,
and every which way told us what they are,
and gave us explanations, more by far
than hundreds, to address our every doubt.
He cited parables, an awful lot,
and gave interpretations, reams and reams,
just like a Casamia for your dreams.
In short, and from this sermon that we got,
to sum it up, to say it how it is,
it seems that mysteries are mysteries.
Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli’s poem is a satire of church-going in Rome in the 19th century. We all know what it is like to hear the same sermon until it has lost all impact and meaning. The teachings of the church, like other things, can become tiresome simply through overfamiliarity. But his sonnet also contains useful warnings, because undoubtedly a concern of anyone writing the sacred is Mystery. We are necessarily dealing with mysteries, things we may know full well, we think we know them full well, but that are Mysteries.
One warning is that even the most amazing inspirations can be turned into platitudes by overuse, or by giving the impression that we are just telling the old, old story, without adding anything new. Our challenge is to convert the familiar into the amazing, to make it new.
Another warning from the Rome poet is that mysteries left simply as conundrums are well-nigh useless. If all we are left with are paradoxes, a great stack of words, then we have not succeeded, even in describing mystery. We appear to take it all for granted, just like the priest in the poem, and it seems the poet too. Whereas we are being told to write with a sense of occasion, to present without embellishment or endless talk but sparingly and tellingly, with results that make the reader know this is crucial.
A third warning is that we can risk explaining it away, we can make what is sacred so mundane that we lose all interest and betray the very things we privilege most fully.
So where do we begin, with Mystery? Here is a Christmas sermon from Saint Ambrose Bishop of Milan (4th century):
“Falling down, the Magi adore him, call him king, and profess that he shall rise from the dead; and this they do by offering him from their treasures, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
“What are these gifts, offered in true faith? Gold, as to a king; incense, as to God; myrrh, for the dead. For one is the token of the dignity of a king; the other the symbol of the divine majesty; the third is a service of honour to a Body that is to be buried, which does not destroy the body of the dead but preserves it.”
Mystery, it seems to me, is meaning. Meaning itself is the mystery that is revealed to us. This is why the congregation in Belli’s poem leaves the church empty, hungry and none the wiser. In our writing we strive to elucidate meaning and present it to the reader. Saint Ambrose tells us enough to leave his listener with everything necessary; to tell us anything more would be to spoil and confuse the effect. When we encounter epiphanies their meaning shows forth through the exact choice of words and images. We don’t know how many wise men there were or how many presents they took the child; in the context of the story that we do have, what is important is that they went and they saw. Their gifts as recorded are a response to the very much greater gift that has been given to them.
Likewise when we read parables, poems, and other writings where explicit sense serves to engender manifold implicit effects, the meanings move through us. These are words intended to be carried everywhere, long after their initial impact. Each of us works with this Mystery, we each have our own mysteries that we wish to travel with, visit, and give attention. We know they are only small before the Mystery itself that we would like to show forth, yet we know we must do this thing. Over this weekend you will want to spend time dwelling on your own mysteries. You may wish to write these down, with the intention of returning to them and writing about them, in depth, at length, over and over until it’s right.
Two For Charles Lloyd
The sound of flute,
That purest of instruments,
Close to breath,
Close to wind in the leaves.
Voice of solitude.
Voice of insomnia.
Call of a night bird.
The instrument of
Nomads setting out in their caravans
Under a sky full of stars.
The mystery of this moment.
That sudden realization
That we have a soul.
This is the first of two poems by the American poet Charles Simic dedicated to the jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd. “That sudden realization that we have a soul.” The Self is integral to our writing of the sacred. I expect that this weekend the Self will come in for a fair amount of scrutiny, a fair amount of expression, and possibly a fair amount of avoidance as well as confrontation. The Self in relationship to others and to the Other is a preoccupation of our lives and essential to our development as human beings. Whether we are totally captive to the psychologist’s construct of existence, or not, we live with growing self-knowledge, or perhaps not at all, and self-knowledge is a lead to other knowledge about the activities of our universe. I offer here seven elements worth considering when we write of the sacred in relation to the Self.
1. The first of these is Quest. Our lives require understanding. Our lives desire understanding, our lives, and those around us. Our writing is means to present understanding, as any word of language has potential. In writing, as in our lives, this often means quest. Quest is the start of questions. Quest necessarily has before and after. What is before and after for us? Quest knows that it is searching, asking, testing, distinguishing. Quest is closely related to journey and pilgrimage. Our life as journey has an honoured place in our society. It is from this perception of our lives that we may write of all those things that teach and improve and enlighten. Pilgrimage is the ordered form of a journey, with an ultimate objective, that assists in placing our lives meaningfully on Earth. Writing itself can be journey and pilgrimage, if we adopt this conscious awareness.
2. The second is Belief. Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland gives us this conversation. "Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things." "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Each one of us, if we went far enough, would find that we believe possible and impossible things. Everybody’s writing is an example of this claim, and a model. Our writing expresses our beliefs, even if we say we have none. It is as well to remember that we expect our reader to give credence to what we write. Our beliefs can but inform our sacred writing and I like Italo Calvino: “I think that this bond between the formal choices of literary composition and the need for a cosmological model (or else for a general mythological framework) is present even in those authors who do not explicitly declare it.” (Memos for the Next Millennium, p.69)
3. Religion gave us the word sacred, but where it goes from there is anybody’s business. Trauma has been identified since ancient times as a prime cause of behaviour and a major clue to the sacred. Today in psychotherapy (and our writing is psychotherapy) the trauma or wound operates at some level in us, driving and informing the words. It’s not all bad, though. Indeed, Memory itself, the fountain of writing (i.e. fontes, the origin and font), and of all we do in a learnt way, sorts out trauma, our own and others, helping us to grow and change. To be conscious, but not over-conscious, of Memory is a lead into sacred writing. This works in at least the three following ways:
4. Impossibility. Much writing that we read every day is about what is real and possible. The writing exists to describe and enliven for the reader that which is possible. Writing about the sacred, on the other hand, often has no choice but to try and do the impossible. It is in search of ways of describing and enlivening that which it may be impossible to describe and enliven for the reader.
5. Restoration. We are, at the most basic level, in the business of gathering our thoughts together. But writing is more than that, it is a restoration of what was already there. Each of us has our own style, our idiosyncrasies and felicities, our weaknesses and even our faults in writing, but each of us is drawing from experience and restoring it to the page. One of the most extraordinary examples of this in literature is Marcel Proust’s long series of novels of remembrance, that are not history or memoir or criticism or sociology, but an imaginative restoration of his world. Those of us who have read his early episodes in childhood at Combray recognise that he is evoking sacred scenes. And you can be writing out sacred scenes of memory, restoring lost time in a new way.
6. Enjoyment. The only words I will use for joy are these. “You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.” (Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditations)
7. Breath, as heard in the flute of the poem, is the life-giving force that also leads us where we go. Breath is the Spirit that is breathed on us and that we breathe on others. Which leads into the conclusion of my words on Self,. Here is the second of the two poems by Charles Simic to his jazz hero Charles Lloyd. When I hear this poem it reminds me that writing, like musicianship, is an individual endeavour as well as a shared experience. We can be alone in our making, but we are part of the main, we live amongst others. We give to others. The self is in relation with another. The final lines of this poem are a deliberate quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, most famous for saying “God is dead, we have killed him -- you and I.” But the Nietzsche saying in the Simic poem comes much closer to a shared understanding amongst human beings of what we mean by the sacred: “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Two For Charles Lloyd
Late night talk
On a tenor
With the dead
And the shadows they cast.
Memories of dark cities,
With steep stairwells,
The thrum of bass and drum.
Company of phantoms,
On the band stand
The one in shimmering evening gown
I hear someone whispering,
“Without this music,
Life would be a mistake.”
Our writing is directed to someone. The metaphor of the lighthouse may be useful in this context. Our writing may simply be to ourselves, our ideal self, or the self that keeps asking questions, the self that wants to write something, just to inscribe a sentence. Usually our writing is directed at a readership, small or large, and we learn to compose our paragraphs according to that small or large audience. Sometimes we don’t even know who the audience may be, but we want the words to reach them and write in hope that the words will reach them, some time, tomorrow, next year, next century. Our writing is directed outward from the page (even the computer is just a blank page). Outward, for other eyes to read, other ears to hear. We utilise whatever writing skills and devices we have to that end.
This is by way of preamble to another kind of writing that is not outward in this way, that is not written to impress or persuade anyone as a reader. It is an activity at the heart of the sacred. The sort of writing I am talking about has at its centre what is universally known as prayer. In its written forms prayer can include confessions, proclamations, witnesses, intercessions, imprecations, praise, adorations, and other forms of prayer life that are inward and directed first and last to God. If you have a word that can improve on God, then that is the word.
Some would say the entire literature of the sacred comes out of and returns into the life of prayer. Some would say that prayer is the actual state out of which our writing originates, even if its subjects are not always sacred, because prayer itself is the state of absolute attention on the subject. Prayer is complete attention.
Prayer itself is not a literary form. Although prayers, especially in devotions or liturgy, are constructed according to a form when composed, prayer itself is not an imaginative act in the same way as all the other constructed forms of writing we have been hearing about tonight.
One last awareness that we can keep in mind throughout the weekend and beyond is that writing can be a form of prayer.
Other thoughts on the composition of prayer I leave with you, for discussion. Likewise the other human forms of writerly expression of the sacred set down here tonight.
Belli, Giuseppe Gioacchino ‘Er frutto de la predica = The Fruits of the Sermon”, in Sonnets, trans. by Mike Stocks. Oneworld, 2007, p. 81
Calvino, Italo Six memos for the next millennium. Penguin, 2009
Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. Faber, 1944
Lao-Tzu ‘The tao that can be told’, in The enlightened heart : an anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell. Harper, 1989, p. 12
Simic, Charles ‘Two for Charles Lloyd’, in the liner notes for Rabo de Nube, by the Charles Lloyd Quartet, ECM 2053, 2007
Su Tung-P’o ‘The roaring waterfall’, in The enlightened heart : an anthology of sacred poetry, ed. by Stephen Mitchell. Harper, 1989, p. 41