A Fresh Look at Writing as a Spiritual Practice

Karen Hering’s new book, Writing to Wake the Soul:  Opening the Sacred Conversation Within, hits the bookstores next week, and I want to encourage everyone interested in writing as a spiritual practice to get a copy.  In her role as literary minister at a Unitarian Universalist congregation, Hering developed what she calls Contemplative Correspondence, a practice of writing from prompts around theological themes like faith, prayer, sin, grace, and redemption.  If this sounds heady or dull or too religious, hold your horses.  This book is far more than what you might expect.

Karen’s reflections and prompts are meant to exercise our metaphor muscles—our capacity to make connections between disparate images or ideas, and therefore our ability to communicate across differences, resolve paradoxical problems, and relate to mystery.  Her choice of tough theological terms is deliberate.  We need to reclaim the language of mystery; we need to remember language’s capacity to connect humans to our sacred source.  So we take hard words that have been used to drive wedges between people and soften them.

How?  By listening deeply; by exploring memory; by writing stories.  “What makes some writing a spiritual practice and not others,” Karen writes, “is less a matter of form than it is an orientation and intention. Writing becomes a spiritual practice when it serves as a personal correspondence with “the still, small voice within,” a way of listening to one’s inner voice and truth, and to the sacred source of that truth.”  Karen’s exercises help us connect the dots of our experience to see what Thomas Merton calls “a hidden wholeness.”  She chooses big words because our small stories are windows onto universal truths, and she wants us to remember this.

“But the practice does not stop there. It also insists that our story is only powerful and meaningful to the degree that we are willing and able to engage it in conversation with larger, open‐ended narratives. It calls upon us to listen for the stories and the presence of others.”  What I most love about Karen’s book is its insistence on our connectedness.  Rather than framing the spiritual practice of writing as simply a private conversation with the holy, she pushes us outward, into dialogue with others, with voices present in religious teachings, and with the emergent, collective narrative of our culture.  She understands the Sacred as both personal and corporate, in and through history, within and beyond language, and still emerging in our life experiences.

I am infinitely grateful for this book.