I just returned from Minnesota, from a writing workshop called “Deepening Words: Writing and the Spiritual Life,” led by writer and scholar Lauren Winner. She led twelve of us through a week of exploring how writing leads us further into the nuances and complexities of our spiritual lives. We had time to write. We had time to workshop each other’s writing, to open ourselves to feedback. We considered why we write, what it is we aim at when we attempt to put thoughts into words. Writing helps us pay attention to the world, to our lives, some of us said. In writing we discover things, we express what we find important, interesting, compelling enough to share, we said.
I let that question simmer all week. Why do I write? I found it easier to come up with reasons I don’t write. I feel the desire to write constantly, but the resistance mounts its case. Why bother, my resistance tells me, when so much has been written already; is there really anything new to say? Why try, when you’ll never have enough time to get it quite right, to say exactly what you mean? Why expose your thoughts publicly, when it only invites critique? Why labor over personal reflective writing when you should probably be writing an academic treatise? Why, when it’s so hard, so time-consuming, when it’s arduous to get started and agonizing to decide when to call it done?
On Saturday, after enjoying one last dinner together, we sat in a circle and took turns reading aloud, three to five minutes worth of something we’d invested in during the week. Five days earlier we had been strangers to each other, and now there were bold, vigorous, sharp, vulnerable, funny, true, real things coming to life through the words we voiced to one another. We reaped communal rewards from our solitary labors.
Maybe that was partly a product of the community we had been steeped in all week. We were at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, on the campus of St. John’s University, where Benedictine monks live and worship according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Hospitality is paramount, in keeping with Benedict’s instruction that “guests are to be received and welcomed as Christ.” The welcome is palpable, felt at every turn, every accommodation, every gesture. I am glad Benedict of Nursia took the time to write down that Rule all those centuries ago.
When I returned to my room after the final readings on Saturday night, I heard that George Zimmerman had been pronounced not guilty of the charges against him in the death of Trayvon Martin. I was shocked, disappointed. I was furious with the limitations and technicalities of our justice system, and its failure to bring justice in this case. I lost heart.
I thought of the monk I’d seen on my morning run the day before, how there was no fear or aggression when we passed each other, though I was a guest, and he a permanent resident who “belonged.” The long black robe of his hooded habit swirled around his ankles as he walked. He smiled at me, nodded, and waved. I returned the greeting and continued on towards the lakeshore. What simple things we take for granted.
Our interaction was wordless, yet nonetheless built on words we have taken to heart in our lives. Be kind. Do unto others. Words that the hoodied Benedict took to heart and then to paper.
I do want, and need, to write, and I need to read and hear what you have to say. I need someone to tell me in words how it can be that in 2013 we are mired in yet another episode of the same plot that has long marred our nation’s story. How have we not gotten further than this? Explain.
Tell me, mothers of the jury, what was it like to be confined by the wordsmithing of our justice system, to utter the words “not guilty of manslaughter” in front of a man who had no doubt slaughtered a teenage man? Tell me, Rick Perry, what did you really mean yesterday when you said, “I believe our justice system is colorblind”? Tell me, fellow white people, what is it like when you catch glimpses of how your whiteness insulates you from some of the daily worries that plague others? What do you do with that? Tell me, my black brothers and sisters, about the words that have sustained you, about the writings of Martin Luther King and Langston Hughes and Howard Thurman and Audre Lorde and W.E.B. DuBois and how their voices have shaped yours.
Tell me, someone, anyone, where are the words to inspire deeds that will get us from where we are to where we need to be? To a place where the George Zimmermans of the world say, “Hi, I don’t recognize you. What’s your name?” and the Trayvon Martins of the world say, “I’m Trayvon, I’m visiting family,” and the Georges say, “Ah, you’re a guest here. I’m George. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
With what sentence shall we start? Tell me. I want to write it down.