Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Faith of a Writer

Joyce Carol Oates titles her book The Faith of a Writer with great intent.  One does not want to interpret, but it seems in some of the essays, that art, in this case the art of literature, replaces God for Ms. Oates.  If it is so, then this is where we part company--amicably.  Art in no way replaces God, although, I can see how one might mistake it for doing so, because art can be a powerful attractive force, and viewed in a certain way by people so inclined, art can, in the same way that nature can, reveal something of God to us.  It is in those transcendental moments that the mistaken perception can occur.  I belabor the point--I do not know what Ms. Oates spiritual outlook is--judging from much of her fiction, I'm not sure I'm inclined to want to know.

What is interesting in the book is the way in which authors are viewed as Acolytes, Crucifers, and priests.  The act of reading shares many similarities with the act of praying and there are times when the two can coincide.  I'm fairly certain that much of Flannery O'Connor's time spent in writing was a time of prayer.  She's the most obvious example, but by no means the only one.  Prayer requires interior silence and solitude.  Prayer calls upon the faculties of memory, imagination, and will.  Often one reads a passage from scriptures, the writings of the saints, or other work providing sufficient substance for meditation and engages the text with a thorough-going participation in it.  Finally, prayer, engaged in frequently and with faithfulness, results in the transformation of the pray-er.

I think it would be correct to characterize writing in the same vein.  It requires silence and solitude, but often incorporates events of life (memory) in the act of imagining and participating in a series of events that results in a story or poem.  Both efforts are directed toward coming into contact with the great unknown.  Both are creative acts--prayer is a participation in creation and redemption. Recall St. Paul's admonition that he "fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church" (Col. 1:24, KJV)--it may likewise be translated [NIV] "fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.")

Perhaps for me the most telling feature of both is that while memory, imagination, and will may involved, the actions of prayer and writing require an immediacy, a complete participation in the present moment.  That is, one can neither pray nor write while wandering through linear time.  To write, one must become "unstuck in time" and flow with the present moment.  To a writer all time is present time because one is present to one's work and to the creative impulse that inspires it.  So, too, in prayer--no matter what action is engaged in, it is in becoming unstuck from our own linear maunderings and thought trails that we become engaged in the eternal present--the only moment we have for prayer or for anything.  St Thèrése of Lisieux reminds us that all of our sorrows lie in the past (regret) or in the future (anxiety) but very few of them can be found in the working out moment-to-moment of our existence--the only time that we really "have" at all.

And so the comparison of prayer and writing.  The same might be said of any action that takes place more or less selflessly--hence St. Benedict's famous Ora et labora and St. Paul's injunction to "Pray constantly."  It can be done--but to do so one needs to seize the moment each moment and be aware not of passing time, but of time as it always is.

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