Prose and Prayer: Teaching the art of spiritual autobiography

Very few of us can remember our infancy, but in his Confessions, St. Augustine makes an attempt, recalling a time when he knew only “to repose in what pleased, and cry at what offended my flesh; nothing more.” Consolation and desolation: the story of our lives. It was in those first pages of Augustine, those pages of bare need and barely any self-awareness, that our discussions of writing spiritual autobiography was to begin: I, the writer/academic attempting to steer the ship, and my students, adults ranging from their 20s to their 80s, all wanting to tell their stories of faith and often of its loss and rediscovery.

When I decided to teach a class on spiritual autobiographies at my parish, the church ran an advertisement in the bulletin. To my surprise, dozens of e-mail messages inquiring about the class began rolling in and kept coming in until the day of our first meeting. There were so many e-mails I began to worry about whether we would all fit into the appointed room.

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We fit, but barely. On the first evening, nearly 40 people turned up. I had asked everyone to read a few sections of Augustine before we met, and I fanned out copies of the syllabus and a handout with some facts about Augustine’s life. This included a quotation from James J. O’Donnell, an Augustine scholar at Georgetown University: “Prayer is private, but literature is unfailingly public; prayer is humble, but literature is always a form of self-assertion; prayer is intimate, but literature is voyeuristic.”

“And this is what we’ll be wrestling with this summer,” I told the students. “Can we pray on paper, and make it interesting to read?”

Unlike my young writing students at the University of California, Berkeley, who are just discovering what they want to say about the world, my parishioner students came to class with everything to say about life and faith. Because my parish is near the Graduate Theological Union, the class drew in a few graduate students who knew theology backwards and forwards, but who rarely got the chance to examine their own spiritual growth. And since the church is down the hill from a senior housing complex, quite a few retirees also climbed the stairs to the room where we met. Some wanted to write their spiritual stories for children and grandchildren, others for themselves. Working adults, a few people between jobs, many practicing Catholics, a few lapsed ones and some spiritual seekers whose faith was undefined filled the chairs.

Each class meeting followed the same format: a short talk about the author we were reading, small group discussions followed by a whole-class colloquium, a writing exercise and time to share the writing students had done over the past week. Choosing the authors we read was not difficult; to start us off, I went to the classics. After Augustine we grappled with Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. After Merton, we waded into Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness. After Day we read a contemporary spiritual autobiography, Sara Miles’s Take This Bread. In the five weeks we met, the only regular complaint was about the volume of reading. And yet the storires they did read were powerful: Some students had read Merton and Day decades in the past, and rediscovering what it felt like to encounter those huge personalities was like being reunited with past versions of themselves.

For most of my students, the writing was an even bigger challenge than the reading. Writing memoir is difficult for writers at any level. Parsing out segments of one’s own life, deciding what to include and not to include, taking real people, including yourself, and turning them into characters, making decisions about chronology versus thematic organization and figuring out your focus cause even the most accomplished writers to scurry away from the form or to fictionalize everything instead. There is a reason why Edna O’Brien waited until she was 82 to publish her memoirs.

O’Brien’s impossibly fascinating and often difficult life may have seemed too daunting to whittle down until she was darn ready to do it. (How many writers have had Paul McCartney write songs about them?) But memoir is also the only form that comes close to the way most people pray: talking directly to God, only in this case with the reader as proxy for God.

When we pray St. Ignatius’ Examen, we unspool our days and try to find the moments where we have moved closer to or further from God. That is what great spiritual autobiography does. It brings the reader into those moments along with the writer. It creates intimacy. This can be seen in the writers I have mentioned and in newer voices, like Christian Wiman and Mary Karr. And, slowly but steadily, I saw it unfold in the work of my students.

The first assignment was blatantly stolen from Ignatius and mashed up with an assignment I give my creative nonfiction students: create a verbal snapshot of a moment from your life. “Let’s start by brainstorming a list of details that surrounded you at either a low moment of faith (like Augustine’s pear tree incident) or a high moment of faith (like his ‘take and read’),” I told them. This exercise begins with a list: only sensory details, only things the reader can see, hear, taste, smell or touch. Then it expands from the most vivid details into a couple of sentences, which I asked the students to share with one another. After the class had paired off and erupted into loud chatter (I had to stand up and wave my arms around to quiet them down), I asked how it went. “It was hard to decide,” a retired union organizer reflected, “but once I got started, things kept coming back.”

Sense memory is a powerful thing: just think of Proust biting into that madeleine. But it is also a trigger for memories of faith. A cold chapel, a sour mouthful of Communion wine, the rough fabric of a habit worn during a brief stint in religious life. When we begin writing from details like these, the experience of memory thickens and connects us with readers. In recapturing sense memories, we write from the depths of our souls. And we get closer to the truth.

From there, they filled in the background of their stories, the who/what/when/where/why every journalist begins with. And as we read Merton and Day, I asked them to look at how those writers portrayed influential figures in their own faith lives: Robert Lax in Merton, who casually tells his friend to be a saint; Peter Maurin in Day, whose visionary nature pairs with Day’s problem-solving pragmatism. Figuring out how to turn real people into characters requires the same shift in perception it takes to see ourselves as characters.

The writer Phillip Lopate gives us a simple instruction: start with your quirks. When writing about others, do the same. So my students found holy people with quirks. A priest who sang Kurt Weil songs in German. A burly family friend who sold a car to B. B. King and knelt at daily Mass. In those quirks there were more moments of closeness to God. Remembering those scenes and recreating them on the page requires acts of imagination, yet another form of prayer straight out of St. Ignatius’ playbook. When a writer puts herself back into a moment of grace, into an encounter with someone who pushed her faith to a new or unexpected place, it can be like walking her way through a meeting with Christ, who, after all, is present to each of us. And as they stitched those moments together, my students’ stories began to emerge.

The real gift of teaching this class was the people who gathered week after week to read and talk and write and share their work. Two of my students had actually met and worked with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker in New York, and both of them wove her into their stories.

One evening, two other students sent me e-mails back to back. One let me know she would not be returning to class; the rare form of cancer she had been fighting through years of experimental treatments had made a return. Another needed a note from me because she had been admitted to a homeless shelter. The shelter doors locked at 6 p.m. and we met at seven; without a note, they would not let her back in. Yet they kept writing even when making it to class was difficult or nearly impossible, kept getting down the words that explained something about this fragile, perishable thing we call faith.

Some students worried that in contrast to the books we read, with their dramatic moments of revelation, their own faith lives were not interesting enough. There are very few books about the weekly trudge to Mass, the annual repetition of sacraments or the day-to-day life of your average believer in the pews. And yet those are the stories we most need to hear: we need the stories behind that trudge to understand why we keep making it.

When we write about the faith that keeps us going, it may not always be as spectacular as Merton rushing into his monastery, fleeing his sinner’s life. And yet every Mass, every confession, every Easter and even every moment of doubt and crisis has meaning. Each story we bring to the page has the potential to connect with a reader who has lived those same moments. So, no, my students’ stories were not always dramatic. But they were deep. Each brimmed with meaning and passion and grace.

I explained this work to a Jesuit friend, and watched as he got more and more excited. “Think about it,” he said. “This is something other people could do. It’s the laity in action. It’s the laity speaking for themselves.”

And it is true: anybody could offer a class like this. It brought people at my parish closer together, and the pastor had only to unlock the doors when we showed up and lock them when we left. You do not have to be an expert writer to teach writing or to write, you just have to arrive at the page with the desire to connect—with other writers, with the reader, with God—because writing your spiritual story is not just writing. It’s prayer.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Chris Thomas
4 years ago
Thank you for this column. This morning, I sat down to write a column of spiritual encouragement for our local parent magazine. This article is just the encouragement I needed! pax et bonum....
Beth Cioffoletti
4 years ago
thank you for this article. I try to write some everyday, mostly as a way to process (and let go of) the incredible "wordiness" that can clutter up my head. Sometimes I write things that seem (to me) to be profound and I don't know where they come from. I figure it is divine guidance within me. But what your article has given me is attention to the details - the smells, the colors, the incidental things that I might gloss over. That means slowing down for me. Taking the time to notice, to tell. Again, thank you. I am in a very precarious medical situation now (metastatic breast cancer that has spread to the brain) so this is all very important and real for me.
Diane Scharper
4 years ago
Great article. I teach memoir at Towson University and would like to see your syllabus. Can you email it to me? dianescharper@yahoo.com Thank you..

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