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Ancient practice, new purpose

Heather Walton

Spiritual life writing spins threads between the sacred and the everyday. Heather Walton believes it can be a way to reach beyond the self to something transcendent - but first takes a historical view of those who went before us.

This is a very creative period in which to explore the spiritual potential of writing about experience. A reflexive1 turn in contemporary culture has generated a new respect for the knowledge that can be gained by turning curious attention to the intense vitality of everyday life. We are now more inclined to concede that our grasp of what is of utmost significance is as likely to be emotional and embodied as it is to be critical and rational. Instead of seeing spiritual understanding as always requiring distance and detachment we are also learning to value the wisdom that can come through deeply engaged practice. Furthermore, new paradigms and techniques are developing to facilitate personal reflection as well as the use of experience in academic research. In spiritual direction, contemplation, professional development, theological reflection and vocational formation people are, enthusiastically (or rather nervously), writing about their lives. These are exciting times. But they are also confusing ones. Just at the point when it is now judged valid and fruitful to celebrate the revelatory significance of particular human experiences we are also facing some fundamental questions concerning the processes and products of personal reflection. In some traditional paradigms an intense focus upon the self has been assumed to lead inevitably towards that inner dimension of the person called by certain traditions 'the spirit'. This spiritual core is the deepest centre of the person. It is here that the person is open to the transcendent dimension; it is here that the person experiences ultimate reality (Cousins et al., cited in Taves 2003, p. 191). In this model what is true and real lies within and constitutes the eternal essence of personhood. Other paradigms that have been shaped by contemporary cultural theories2 would challenge this vision of a unified and interior selfhood and offer different models of encounters with transcendence that are complicated, fragmented and partial - and are as likely to occur in the flux and flow of life as through intense interiority. As if this were not problematic enough, growing tensions exist in our understanding of the nature of autobiographical writing. Once it might have been assumed that if a writer endeavours with utmost seriousness to give an honest account of events they have experienced then their writing could be justifiably regarded as a factual account. Whether facticity has a place in spiritual narration is a question for later. We must first acknowledge the prior problem that taken-for-granted distinctions between fact and fiction that were once so useful in discussions concerning authenticity and truth now appear incr easingly problematic. Modern literature certainly does not live in this divided kingdom, and philosophers such as Paul Ricoeur have taught us to appreciate how our experience is never primal, but story-structured through and through (see, for example, Ricoeur 1991, p. 473). Of course it is possible to carry on 'simply writing' and not pay much attention to these lively debates. However, to ignore them would be a shame. They are interesting. If we engage with them fully, we could find that creative paths open before us. But if emerging new territories in spiritual life writing are now appearing, in what ways do these relate to the traditions of the past? Returning to examine these will enable us to set our bearings and aid us in charting new explorations.


Spiritual autobiographies constitute one of the most ancient literary forms. Because of their long history and influential place in the development of Western culture they have decisively shaped modern autobiographical writing. And more than this. Many scholars believe they have also deeply influenced the way we understand human personhood and communicate what is most important about ourselves to others. Many contemporary critical texts on autobiographical writing begin with the Confessions of Saint Augustine (Augustine 1963 [397-400]). Borrowing the structure of his narrative from the tales of quests, battles and heroes that were the popular cultural resources of his time (Staude 2005, p. 257), Augustine fashions a stirring narrative of exile and homecoming, struggles against dangerous forces, and the salvation of a hero who triumphs through submission. His genius is to meld familiar and well-understood themes into a new creation that is now distinctively Christian. The work resolutely affirms a self that can only find its own true being in relation to its Creator. In particular, Augustine's testimony to his conversion, and a new way of being in Christ, brings his self and his story into coherence. The wayward aspects of his experience are braided together into a form in which they all can be understood as significant and meaningful within God's providential purposes. The process of transforming the muddle of experience into the coherence of faith provides an organizing basis for the many conversion narratives that have been constructed according to the pattern of Confessions over the centuries. While variously recording the journeys of saints and sinners, poets and mystics (Tredennick 2011), these stories share many common features as they present a journey from awakening to renewed life. Within them the author's conversion retrospectively confers upon their experience, 'transforming what had been experienced at the time as discrete events into episodes in the process of conversion. Any apparent discontinuities . . . are thus retrospectively resolved into a continuous, coherent whole by that all-important endpoint, the converted, Christian self' (Tredennick 2011, p. 166). Although we glean many interesting insights into the particular circumstances and personalities of the authors of these narratives, we must do so by reading their works against the grain. The information the authors are seeking to convey is not about exciting encounters they have had en route to their spiritual destination. Their desire is rather to demonstrate the truth of the path they are presenting to their readers in order that others might also follow. The expectations modern readers bring to autobiographical writing are thus confounded in much of the spiritual writing we inherit prior to the modern era. We are not being offered unique life experience of a particular person, but instead gifted with a template of how a life can become meaningful as it finds its place in a much 'truer' redemptive story. In the spiritual writings of our forebears we thus often encounter what Bryan Rasmussen describes as 'generic selves' (Rasmussen 2010, p. 172) rather than modern individuals. This discrepancy between contemporary autobiographies and traditional spiritual narratives became very clear to me when I spent some time researching the final testimonies of Anabaptist martyrs. I was struck by the fact that the messages they painfully recorded for their loved ones and fellow believers were often remarkably uniform.3 Most followed very similar forms and said very similar things. Even as they faced death, the writer's chief hope was not to memorialize a particular self but to reinforce the pattern of a Christ-centred life. As forms of reformed Christianity took root, spiritual self-examination gained in significance. No longer able to rely upon the mediating power of the Church to diagnose sin and assure forgiveness, it became more important for Protestant believers to attend carefully to personal intuitions of guilt and grace - and this could be a fearful process.4 Ordinary people became increasingly concerned to assess their spiritual health - and also to write about this frankly, and frequently at length! These narratives were often circulated within communities and sometimes published for the inspiration and edification of others. Commenting upon the proliferation of religious self-narratives, the historian Christopher Hill claims that from the late seventeenth century onwards we see the birth of an important new writing genre, 'Spiritual biographies of ordinary people' (Hill 1988, p. 64). Diverse types of people were now taking pen to paper and recording their spiritual journeys, but we should not assume a new creative freedom automatically accompanied this democratization. Strong conventions still governed both the sentiments expressed and the manner of their expression. However, the very process of paying acute attention to the conflicts of the inner life and writing about these things certainly contributed to a growing cultural fascination with interiority. In a rapidly changing context in which fixed social roles were also being challenged, this interest contributed to the emerging individualism that was to characterize early industrial societies at the start of the modern era. In this new context, dramatically different forms of 'spiritual' writing began to develop. This change can be illustrated with reference to the self-understanding of the romantic poets and thinkers whose work transformed the cultural and religious landscape from the late eighteenth century onwards. Augustine and his followers had established their sense of coherence in the reconciliation of self with God's providential purposes. The Romantics, in a radical inversion of this pattern, saw the particular conditions of a human life as fashioning a distinct and unique individual whose highest purpose was to give form to that individuality through intense subjectivity and works of artistic or intellectual creation. Selfrealization through self-expression became a substitute form of the spiritual quest - just as daunting and potentially perilous as previous forms had been. The same requirements to look inward for authentic knowledge and to construct a unifying thread joining apparently unconnected experiences remained. However, while some of the conventions of spiritual biography endured, their new employment was to describe the journey towards intense subjectivity and creative selfhood. This implied a rejection of social control and external authorities, including that of a controlling deity; although a fascination with the 'divine within' remained. What is remarkable is that popular piety very quickly absorbed and thoroughly adapted to this transformed cultural understanding of human personhood. Because the inner life remained of huge importance in Romanticism and the self still possessed a 'sacred' aspect, the language and idioms of the movement were soon employed devotionally by quite orthodox believers. They seemed to marry well with images and symbols already important to them: the transformed heart, the renewed mind, the indwelling spirit and the self-shaking of sublime encounters (see Santmire and Cobb 2006). In many evangelical households, including those of my own forebears, the works of Romantic poets and thinkers sat happily alongside collections of devotional writings - and were equally valued for the spiritual sustenance and inspiration they offered. I inherited many of these 'ancestoral' books and still keep them ranked alongside each other in my study. However, they are not only the poignant reminders of an age that has now passed. The self-interrogating ethos of the Reformation, the affective gestures of evangelical religion, and the questing, heroic self of Romantic thinking can all still be identified within contemporary spiritual writing.5 We encounter their traces in the language of 'self-actualization', 'being true to myself', 'finding the real me' - all of which have more recognizably theological counterparts in popular discourses of conversion. This is now frequently presented as the restoration of an authentic self, 'the person God wants me to be'. Their echoes also sound in the frequently proclaimed 'I am not religious but I am spiritual', itself a Romantic assertion of the possibility of an unmediated and unregulated knowledge of the sacred that is associated with a rejection of institutions and dogmatic forms (see Heelas 2008).


The narrative I produced above is a hugely condensed, but nevertheless serious and informed, attempt to chart the development of forms of spiritual autobiography from the early Christian period to the present day. Drawing upon the work of historians, sociologists and literary critics, I have constructed a coherent narrative that bundles up the wayward and diverse events of history into some kind of intelligible story. We need such stories to make sense of things and help us understand how we came to be the people we are. However, they are always, in a manner of speaking, fictions. We owe a great deal to the unsettling thinkers whose work dominated the last years of the twentieth century and who taught us to exercise a hermeneutics of suspicion when it comes to engaging with stories such as the one I presented above. Among these, Jacques Derrida, the prophet of deconstruction, encouraged us to ask, 'what story does an author seek to "untell", erase or write over when an authoritative narrative is presented?' (Derrida 1997). Michel Foucault reminded us that apparently neutral accounts of historical developments are discourses formed by the mechanisms of social power (Foucault 2002). Feminist thinkers, following on from Simone de Beauvoir (de Beauvoir 1972), have reminded us that women's perspectives have always been marginalized, forgotten and silenced in our re-tellings of the past. It is important to bear in mind the challenges of these thinkers when approaching spiritual life writing because it is a very 'unstable' (or we might say gloriously peculiar) body of writing. It might seem strange to use the word unstable in reference to the traditions associated with Augustine's magisterial work. However, his writing deconstructs itself before our eyes as its author struggles to overwrite his own agency and present God as the author of his life and, in some sense therefore, also the author of his text. Larry Sissons describes the traditions of spiritual life writing that follow Augustine as inevitably split and skewed; they are 'eccentric', because there is a literal off-centring that 'unsettles notions of individual, independent and freely determined authorship' (Sissons 1998, p. 98). Linda Anderson goes further and argues that Augustine can be credited with establishing the autobiographical tradition with its authoritative narrative 'I'. Yet, at the same time, he undermines this project through his creaturely acknowledgement of the illusory nature of the independent and singular self; coherence and chaos struggle together in his writing (Anderson 2004, p. 27). We can see similar tensions in the spiritual narratives of the post-Reformation period. Their authors strive to present the self redeemed, transformed by grace and resting in the Saviour's bosom. Yet the works are riven by the anxieties of abandonment, dissolution and the fear of fundamental error. 'Perhaps I know not either myself or my God' is the haunting subtext of many apparently confident pietist and evangelical texts. We might recognize a similar disturbing instability in the Romantic narratives of the creative self. It requires the creative work to establish the artistic self (as in, for example, Wordsworth's The Prelude (1969 [1850]), a long poem in which he explores the development of his sense of poetic vocation). However, the project undermines its own goals, rendering the self a product of the imaginative work. A disturbing unravelling undermines the coherence of the romantic self/text. I do not think we should be either surprised or disturbed by the evident instability of these various forms of spiritual life writing. They have emerged from attempts to represent the self - but it is always the self as refracted through the presence of a sublime 'other'. They are thus necessarily provisional, contingent and marked by alterity. However, it is not only factors intrinsic to spiritual writing that unsettle the coherence of the texts. There are also more mundane issues to consider. Spiritual life writing cannot be abstracted from the social conditions in which it is produced; culture, context, class, race and gender mark this writing and bring their own creative disorder to the genre. Joanna Brooks offers persuasive illustrations of the ways in which social location impacts upon the work of two black spiritual life writers who offer us much more fragmented, 'worldly, discontinuous - yet intimate' (Brooks 2013, p. 951) accounts of the spiritual life. In her discussion of the Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano (Equiano 2004 [1789]), Brooks engages with the autobiographical reflections of an 'African who traces his roots to the Jews and a baptized Anglican who finds his most profound spiritual experiences in Methodism and yet continues . . . a "church man"' (Brooks 2013, p. 950). Equiano is not only a wanderer in religious terms: his life is subject to the ongoing social and existential crises that marked black Atlantic life in the eighteenth century. He records the intense brutalities of slavery, personal struggles, spiritual attachments and abandonments as well as literal and metaphorical departures from home. Brooks claims the narrative 'breaks from the conventions of eighteenth-century spiritual autobiographies' (Brooks 2013, p. 949), because it does not contrive to present the conventional forms of redeemed identity to the world. His writings offer penetrating insights into a spirituality that is punctuated by breaks, doubts, transitions and fallings away. Yet this provisional, open-ended account is deeply engaging to the contemporary reader in a way that ordered and conventional spiritual narratives are not. We feel invited to participate in the informal, everyday spirituality of the story as if at a soul feast where we 'join in the breaking of the bread and the passing round of mugs of water' (Brooks 2013, p. 950). Brooks offers another challenging case study as she examines the work of the African American writer James Baldwin. Baldwin is celebrated for his rich, passionate accounts of black church life that draw heavily upon his own participation in this vibrant tradition (see, for example, Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain, 2001). He also has produced one of the classic texts of gay literature in Giovanni's Room (Baldwin 2007). Baldwin's sexual identity meant that he could/ would not rest in the place of his religious formation. 'What space could Baldwin claim . . . as a gay black Pentecostal? Where within these traditions might he be fully present before God and his fellow believers' (Brooks 2010, p. 445)? Yet he claimed through essays and fiction, through writing, a title to dwellings otherwise 'uninhabitable' for him. Through it all he had the wisdom and the grace to declare: 'Human history reverberates with violent upheaval, uprooting and departure, hello and good-bye. Yet I am not sure anyone ever leaves home . . . every life moves full circle towards revelation' (Baldwin, cited in Brooks 2010, p. 448). As Brooks argues, testimonies to nomadic spiritual identities such as that of Baldwin (he can neither dwell within or outside his tradition) might inspire a greater understanding of contemporary borderland spiritualities. Equiano and Baldwin are read by Brooks as representatives of the many others who could not easily inhabit the conventional structures of spiritual narration and have thus been moved to inscribe new paths which we might fruitfully trace today. Among these, numerous women have felt similarly 'at home and excluded' within the dominant traditions of spiritual autobiographies and have also contributed to generation of diversity within the genre (Magro 2004). In her engaging study of women's life writing in the period between 1760 and 1840, Amy Culley (Culley 2014) offers an account of the spiritual writings of early Methodist women. What is striking to her is that many of the accounts she studies are not works of selfnarration but rather testimonies to relational selves. Many lives are intertwined within the texts. Spiritual journeys are shared. The works move between autobiography and biography as the focus changes between the self and the beloved others (often other women) who make up the community. Furthermore, the works lack the formality (pomposity?) and structural coherence of many male-authored works. Often they are affective, informal, homely, composite texts incorporating extracts from letters, obituaries and journal entries. These works 'complicate our understanding of religious self-narration', writes Culley (Culley 2014, p. 14) and encourage us to recover neglected aspects of the tradition: '[Autobiography is] traditionally associated with the rise of individualism and it is understood as a genre that developed out of the puritan conversion narrative and in its emphasis on rigorous self-examination, individual experience and personal testimony. However, relationships are central to these women's self-representations, as they . . . demonstrate the interdependence of self and other and write a shared history. Approaching spiritual autobiography as an individualist mode has worked to obscure the collaborations that often underpin these works (Culley 2014, p. 19).


Alasdair MacIntyre famously described a tradition as 'an argument extended through time' (MacIntyre 1988, p. 12). We might see the traditions of spiritual life writing as, if not an argument, certainly a heated conversation incorporating many twists, turns and changes in emphasis. Certain voices have been dominant but others have introduced divergent perspectives that have the potential to change our writing practice as it moves forward into the future. If, as I believe, our current cultural context demands from us new forms of spiritual writing, then the resources required for renewal may be found in deeply rooted elements of the tradition that have radical potential. How we understand the challenges of our own time is clearly important here. It will determine which resources from the past we seek out and look to redeploy. Two diverging assessments of the way we live now struggle together within contemporary thinking - and they would lead us to take rather different approaches to our inherited tradition. The first approach tells a story of loss: loss of faith in all traditional structures of belief (Lyotard 1984) and loss of hope in radical social change (Baudrillard 1994). These 'losses' can be linked to the dominance of a capitalist system that threatens the environment and offers only illusory material compensations for the destruction of spiritual and human goods. This is a rather bleak analysis - but there is enough we recognize within it to cause us to acknowledge its challenge. It generates images of the spiritual journey today as a quest for new forms of coherence taking place in an alien land; a wasted place without landmarks and signposts. Indeed David Leigh, in his important work on spiritual life writing, characterizes the contemporary spiritual autobiographer as 'an alienated seeker . . . struggling with the lack of a stable sense of self . . . [and] a paralyzing environment' (Leigh 2000, p. 38). There is certainly cause to mourn the losses that modernity6 has inflicted upon us and to fear for the future of our delicate planet with its delicate human cultures. However, even those who are making a twilight search for ways of believing that might still hold the world together may not wish to see old forms of coherence re-established. The artfully 'closed' spiritual stories of the past will not satisfy today's stubborn seekers min the half-light. The traditions of Augustine, Bunyan, Dante, Milton and others will continue to inspire through their audacity mto articulate providential love among circumstances of personal mand political upheaval. However, it is because their 'eccentric' and vulnerable faith is articulated from within, not beyond, the maelstrom of human experience that these traditions continue to offer sustenance today. A second trajectory in contemporary thought offers a more positive view of our current situation. In this, attention is drawn to the gifts that accompany our griefs. It celebrates a new sense of wonder that is being generated out of our recognition that we belong within the natural and material orders as embodied creatures (Bennett 2010). It affirms the pragmatic improvisations taking place in politics and ethics (Haraway 1991). It draws attention to the intricate networks in which we are embedded and challenges all notions of separate and discrete, heroic selfhood (Latour 2005). It reminds us that we live in an age in which we can affirm diversity and in which women can confidently articulate their perspectives on matters holy and profane; although it also warns of restricted access to these freedoms - and their fragility. While no one could deny the immense challenges of inequality and environmental damage, this approach points also to the resilient resistance these conditions are generating. In this perspective we do not wander like lost children upon a dark plain but dwell in a place of light and shadows. Thus, in contrast to Leigh, we could describe the spiritual writer, according to this second mode of thinking, as an adaptive and pragmatic borrower from traditions, an embodied and relational self, a creative protester - both resisting and remaking - in an ambiguous but enchanted environment. For there are also good reasons to celebrate modernity's gifts to us. Among the greatest of these may be the loss of innocent faith. An embodied and relational self does not seek to lift itself beyond this messy, complicated world, but rather seeks to adore the sacred within its blemished beauty. From the traditions of spiritual life writing 'adaptive borrowers' will pick out for reuse spiritual insights formed on the margins that may be fragmented, wayward, heterodox and contrary - but that are also evocative, inspiring and imaginative. Pragmatic and unprincipled as they may be, they will not reject the authoritative traditions of the genre. How lovely, how haunting and how compelling are its attempts to respond to a challenge from beyond the self that brings the self to chaos as it is artfully reborn.

This article is an extract from Not Eden, available now from SCM Press. Heather Walton is Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow and Co-director of the Centre for Literature, Theology and the Arts at the University of Glasgow.


1 The sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) argues that within postmodern culture people are called upon to construct an identity and self-narrative in an endeavour he describes as the 'reflexive project of the self'. 2 Daniel Miller, for example, argues that we have an unwarranted respect for depth ontology: 'The assumption is the being we truly are is located deep inside ourselves and is in direct opposition to the surface. A clothes shopper is shallow because a philosopher or saint is deep . . . But these are all metaphors. Deep inside ourselves is blood and bile not philosophical certainty' (Miller 2010, p. 16). 3 At least in the form we inherit them. See, for example, van Bright (1938 [1660]). 4 Anxiety concerning salvation is widespread in many influential spiritual testimonies - such as John Bunyan's Grace Abounding (Bunyan 1907 [1666]). 5 No doubt their resilience is related to their usefulness within a modern Western capitalist context which also valorises a detached, heroic, seeking and choosing understanding of individual personhood. 6 Debates about whether to describe our age as modernity, late modernity or postmodernity continue - although with less vigour than in the past. I do not hold that there is no decisive break between eras and am happy to use all of these terms as seems most appropriate.