It didn’t take me long as a teacher to learn that writing is a ministry. I watched students find meaning in the chaos of their life experiences as they shaped the structure of their essays, stories, and poems around those experiences. I watched students rewrite the effects of the past as they reworked their drafts. I watched them claim their voices and speak truth ever more boldly. And I watched them uncover great spiritual wells through their creativity.
I was envious.
My own writing seemed overly utilitarian and practical compared to theirs. Like many writing teachers I know, I put my time and energy into others’ work instead of my own. I settled for expending much of my creativity on teaching. I have no regrets, mind you, and I found my job rewarding and fulfilling. Yet something was missing.
Four years ago one of my former students emailed that she’d just returned from a Collegeville Institute summer writing workshop. I should encourage my current students to go, she said. She didn’t mention that I should consider going, but I thought, “Why not?” I applied.
My experience in the Apart, and Yet a Part workshop in 2011 influenced me so much that I returned the next year for Kathleen Norris’ Theology in the Real World workshop. Those two weeks became bookends to an eventful, life-changing twelve months. But I am getting ahead of myself.
My time at the Collegeville Institute affirmed that writing can be a form of prayer—part of the spiritual “work” we are each called to do. In my teaching at the seminary, I talked about the links between spirituality and creativity, but it wasn’t until my time at Collegeville that I truly experienced those links myself. There were the obvious elements—that my writing time was embedded within the liturgy of the hours, that the Collegeville staff and workshop leaders offered gracious hospitality, that we participants formed a nurturing community of minister/writers, that someone was confident enough in me as a writer to bring me to the Collegeville Institute.
Something else happened, however, something I have been at loose ends to explain. Although I came—along with a heavy suitcase full of notes and books—to the Collegeville Institute that first summer to write a book about Scripture, I ended each afternoon by doodling with poetry. How this prose writer came to mess around with line breaks and meter, I have never quite figured out. But in those free and freeing days without deadlines, without even the expectation that I account for how I spent my time, I began finally and slowly to play with words.
Artists and saints are both like children, Earle Coleman says in Creativity and Spirituality (State University of New York Press, 1998). The summer of my first workshop at the Collegeville Institute, for the first time, I finally got—on an experiential level—what he was saying. With poetry, I began to delight in the activity of writing for its own sake. I savored the wonder of image and amused myself with sound, rolling syllables on my tongue and learning to count with my fingers all over again as I pounded the rhythm on desk and body. I turned words like they were pieces of jigsaw puzzles. I let go of my need for carefully executed notes and outlines and waited to see where the poem took me, if it took me anywhere. I abandoned any expectations for success. Without delusions of success as either an artist or a saint, I could play like a child, at least for an hour or two every afternoon. The poems that sometimes developed became toys that occupied my mind and heart long after I put them away for the night. At some point, those toys transformed into articulations of my deepest fears, hopes, doubts, and desires. They became prayer.
With each day at Collegeville, I started taking what felt like greater and greater risks. The poems led me to tackle subject matter that grew increasingly personal, and to probe my own life for the spiritual and theological themes it revealed. When all of the participants gathered the last night to share a bit of what we’d produced during the week, I dared to read my poetry aloud to breathing, reacting humans—not just to the walls of my studio apartment—hoping my voice wouldn’t quake as much as my heart and gut. The following year during the Norris workshop, I stepped out even further and gave the group my poems for their critique rather than the prose I had planned and which would not have left me feeling so vulnerable, so nakedly inappropriate. I learned much and am grateful to all those who read my poetry.
More risks followed my return home: I found a place on our farm which I claimed as my writing cabin and gave myself time and space to continue “playing” with words. (Don’t tell my husband, who thinks I’m doing some “real” writing out there!) I entered a spiritual direction certification program that fed my creativity in surprising ways. I submitted some poems and survived both rejection and publication. Publishing poems that had poured from me felt very different from publishing prose about subjects outside of me. And riskiest of all, I eventually left teaching for full-time writing.
Both the creative and spiritual journeys require a total commitment, Coleman reminds us. The “work” should change the pilgrim and artist because of the engagement of the whole person with the process. I don’t know what’s next on the journey, but I have been changed by and through writing since my first workshop at the Collegeville Institute three years ago.