Writing and the Spirit
St Mark’s Palo Alto Lent 2001
By Robert Hamerton-Kelly
March 28, 2001
These reflections are neither organized nor integrated. If I were more gifted I would write what the Church Fathers called “Centuries,” as St Maximus Confessor did in the 7th century. He wrote four centuries on love, that is 400 brief aphorisms on human and divine love. I have written four pages of more or less random thoughts on writing about spiritual things, and the first point I wish to make is that it is very difficult, barely possible, and ultimately impossible. When the soul draws near to the divine logos its own logos falls silent in adoration of the wordless word ( cf. 2 Corinthians 12 :4, where Paul says he heard wordless words in a vision) Thus, when such writing reaches its perfection it ceases to be; it is erased by the ineffability of the divine. So the written word is only a temporary mediator, never to be idolized. This is our Christian criticism of the religions of the book, and of fundamentalist interpretation everywhere.
Long ago, when I was an undergraduate, I went with friends to the Holy Land. We found ourselves one day in a cheap hotel in Amman, Jordan, and spent much of the day sitting at a table in the center of the common room, while Bedouins in from the desert and waiting for their appointments with the government, sat on chairs around the walls and watched us. We were writing in our diaries. An old man crawled on hands and knees from the wall to our feet and sat there on his haunches gazing up at us wonderingly. We asked a student who passed by what the significance of this gesture was and he answered, “He has fear of you: you write.” Thus we were reminded of the status of the written word in a culture where few could write and where one holy book is the source of all truth. One has only to watch the TV transmissions in Muslim countries to know how the culture venerates this written word. I remember a night in Cairo during Ramadan; hour after hour TV relayed the chanting of the Koran. The cameras focused on the roof fans, not on the chanters; the fans went round and the words droned on, and I slipped away to Christian slumbers, unmoved by the words of the Prophet.
It is significant that the Prophet was illiterate and wrote nothing himself. He dictated his revelations to the scribe Salman – from the angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad to the scribe Salman, to the faithful, and catastrophically to the unfaithful especially that blasphemous Salman also called Rushdie. The original Koran was a bag of fragments, sayings recorded on ostraca, vellum scraps, and even animal bones, which were assembled into the current book by a scribe commissioned by the first Sunni caliph, Abu Bakr.
Likewise Socrates did not himself write a book but taught viva voce, his message being transmitted and transformed by the aesthetically powerful dialogues of his pupil Plato. The dialogues are creative writing about a seminal thinker. What the historical Socrates taught we cannot be sure, but we have the Socrates of Plato. Likewise Plato himself never wrote down his real teaching. In his seventh epistle we have hints that he was much more mystical than his rational philosophy suggests. Wisely he did not try to capture in writing the substance of his experience of the divine.
For us the climax of this meditation is Jesus our Lord, who wrote nothing, except scribbles in the sand while he waited for the first stone to be cast at the woman taken in adultery. Writing in the sand does not last very long. We have the Jesus of the gospels and the Jesus of the epistles, but not the Jesus of history. The real Jesus is the Jesus of faith, the resurrected, victorious incarnate God. The so-called historical Jesus, the Galilean peasant revolutionary, or the apocalyptic prophet of the end of the world, is the Jesus of unbelief, the boring figment of the boring imagination of the Enlightenment. Jesus wrote nothing himself but others wrote gospels and epistles about him.
The fact that these revealers wrote nothing shows that it is very dangerous to write about the deep things of the Spirit, despite the fact that we take a book, the Bible, so seriously. If these revealers were unconcerned to write texts we conclude that there must be no idolization of the text, no fundamentalism. Most illuminating in this regard is Pascal’s jotting, which was found sewn into the lining of his dressing gown: “Fire, fire, fire; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; not the God of the philosophers.” Thus briefly and metaphorically Pascal the premier mathematician of his time records his most significant message. He does not write a book.
I have written books, but not recently. In 1966 my wife and I went trekking in Tibet, along the Kanshung glacier up to the east face of Everest. The day before we started the walking part of the trip I was sitting beside a roaring glacial river at our base camp at 14500 feet. 20000 ft plus peaks were all around. The rest of the party was off training somewhere so I was entirely alone. I read the Greek New Testament, the story of the raising of Lazarus in John 11. Then I stood up and started to shout into the roar of the river and the majesty of the mountains, “Lazarus Come Forth!” Perhaps I knew that there was a Lazarus in me who needed to come forth, a self that was bound and stinking. In any case I shouted over and over again, “Lazarus Come Forth,” the words of the weeping Jesus to his friend. Suddenly there appeared from behind a big rock a snot-nosed little boy, barefoot and in rags, speaking the international language of the outstretched hand, palm up. I said to him, “So you are Lazarus!” I had nothing to give him excepting my pen, so I handed it over. I have taken that transaction as a sign about my writing. The pen of the bound and suppurating writer has gone into the mountains,, above 15000 ft; I cannot bring it down to take it up again. Since then I have written two or three theological papers, but overwhelmingly only sermons, and I have cultivated the oral practice of prayer without ceasing.
Let me tell you how I try to understand what has happened here. There are three levels of language, primary, secondary and tertiary, and I hope I have moved from the tertiary to the secondary and primary. Primary language is personal prayer, the communication with God that soars to wordlessness, what the Greek spiritual tradition calls, silence, or hesychia, the total tranquility of a heart that dwells in the Presence. Here from the Philokalia is a marvelous description of the process by Theophanis the Monk, unknown except for his name. The text is called The Ladder of Divine Graces which experience has made known to those inspired by God. “The first step is that of purest prayer./ From this there comes a warmth of heart,/ and then a strange, a holy energy,/ Then tears wrung from the heart, God-given./ Then peace from thoughts of every kind./ From this arises purging of the intellect,/ And next the vision of heavenly mysteries./ Unheard-of light is born from this ineffably,/ And thence, beyond all telling, the heart’s illumination./ Last comes – a step that has no limit/Though compassed in a single line-/ Perfection that is endless.”
This text reveals the relationship between the primary and the secondary stages of language. It is a description in secondary language of the primary stage, intended to guide and enable the reader to reach it. Secondary language is therefore edifying and hortatory, intended to communicate information in an existentially relevant way. It is the language of the liturgy and the preaching, part of the event and experience of the divine, the gateway to pure prayer and endless perfection.
The writer of tertiary language has stepped back from involvement and experience – i.e. from stages 1 and 2 – so as to reflect and analyze and then to understand in terms more general and public than levels 1 and 2. Apart from sermons most of what I have written is in this third category so you must interpret what I shall say about writings in the context of this threefold classification.
Let me summarize my second point: We must not substitute a tertiary type of understanding for a primary one. The danger of writing about the experience of faith is that readers might take the written representation for the reality, worship the signpost rather than follow its direction to the reality signified. Here is a quotation from a very great spiritual writer of the early part of last century, the Baron Friedrich von Hugel. “Is the difference not this, that minds belong, roughly speaking, to two classes, which may be called the mystical and positive and the scholastic and theoretical? The first of these would see all truth as a center of intense light losing itself gradually in utter darkness; this center would gradually extend, but the borders would remain fringe, they could never become clear-cut lines. Such a mind when weary of border work would sink back upon its center, its home of peace and light, and thence it would gain fresh conviction and courage to face again the twilight and the dark. Force it to commit itself absolutely to any border distinction, or force it to shift its home or restrain its roamings, and you have done your best to endanger its faith and to ruin its happiness…” In these terms the mind of a spiritual writer should be mystical and positive, and I had been too much scholastic and theoretical before my encounter with the Lazarus of the Himalayas.
So I have for the time being stopped writing books, chiefly because I want to write in modes one and two but, having spent all my life in mode three, I don’t have anything to say, or at least that is how it feels. But I think I shall soon just start writing again and see what comes out. I have often asked, “How do I know what I think before I see what I have written?” And then what I see seems like the thoughts of a stranger. Writing gives an order to ones thinking, which belies the fluidity of the mind, especially in its yearning for God.
Her are some more contributions to a century: J-P Satre: Everyone writes in a foreign language.
Marcel Proust: I write to assuage a guilty conscience.
In the time of Jesus the Tannaitic Rabbis, of whom Hillel and Shammai were the greatest, forbade the writing down of their Torah. Jewish law was carried by word of mouth until the 4th century ce. The great rabbi would choose students to memorize his Torah, and those chosen would be the least intelligent ones, least likely to contaminate the teaching with ideas of their own.