Trial by Ordeal
Twenty-some years before writing Souls at Rest (SAR), I was a young, struggling Christian with a whole lot of growing to do. Writing was clearly to be my life, but God asked me to let it first fall into the ground and die. In His infinite wisdom, He prevented me from getting on with it until my own spiritual formation was on less shaky ground. During those years, I inhaled books – wolfing them down in quantities impossible to fully assimilate. Now and then one stopped me in my tracks and by affecting, rather than just stimulating me, invited a response.
Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture was such a book. Its thesis was my antithesis, but somehow it quickened in me an attraction to something beautiful but distant – some truth about my own being that was just out of my grasp. I struggled spiritually and intellectually to apprehend it, and SAR is the fruit of that effort to make it my own. So, through the long, slow years of continual conversion, this fast-talking, impatient, action-oriented girl with zero tolerance for staying still became the one, ironically, with a message for the world: “Be still, and know that I am God. Be still and quiet and take heart. Keep a quiet heart.” God definitely has a sense of humor! Luckily, this agonizingly slow foundation was succeeded by relatively faster phases, or I would have been a hundred years old before SAR saw the light of day!
When true leisure had become much more fully realized in my own being – as much by my longing for it as by its presence in my life, I was given an extended sabbatical rest – nine months in Europe with my family. Though these months had their own considerable stresses and strains – constant pain from a badly arthritic knee, for instance; lack of fluency in German, Italian, French, or Spanish, for another – the period was marked by long stretches of time to pray, journal, meditate, compose poetry, and connect the many dots of my life and reading into a coherent picture.
For the first time in my life, I experienced full restedness, and it brought such deep healing and integration that I came home wanting to shout about it from that mountain-top. We returned in August to a very busy life – hitting the ground running, as usual, but I was inwardly changed by a rest that now colored all my activity. I’ve long kept what I call ‘seed’ files for writing projects. Some grow more than others and get moved to ‘seedling,’ then ‘sapling’ files before bearing fruit in finished work. By December I had a lush vine on my mind that was overrunning every other project – growing within my being, as I still had not had any time to write.
Finally, in one miracle week of exhausting 8-12 hour days of writing, it was done. I call it a miracle, because the time seemed to come out of nowhere in a life that normally begrudged me even four connected hours of quiet, happy-kids, in-the-mood-to-write, demands-suspended, time. Every day of this Book Week was its own story, with its own miracles of exhaustion and renewal, of resolving impossible tensions, of solutions to every extraneous life issue (picture a path opening through the Red Sea!).
As the book took shape in my mind the first day, I faced the daunting task of forming it inside a word limit that turned out to be ten times too small! I still can’t explain where I got the idea I had such a tiny frame, but believing it to be necessary, I exercised my poetic chops on what later became a ‘tithe’ of the book – a tightly written prologue of small essays into Sabbath territory. Corrected by a Catholic publisher who must have thought me insane, I breathed a sigh of relief and gathered up the mountain of material I’d been ‘forced’ to exclude.
Days 3-7 saw the reiteration and deeper exploration of the initial ‘booklet’ of thoughts. Every day I exhausted every ounce of energy I possessed, but went to bed content to leave the continuation in God’s hands. Completely spent, not another clue as to what direction to take next, praying, “Mary, I put my writing in your hands – please guide me,” I’d go to sleep and wake with a clear idea of my next day’s work. The result was a book my spiritual director – a woman with a large interior capacity for poetry and contemplation – affirmed was a work of spiritual beauty. It was also a work that needed to be written in much simpler language and style for a typical lay audience.
A Better Baby
So, you’ve just written a book, or had it written through you in an agony-and-ecstasy of cooperation with the Holy Spirit, and it’s time for a do-over. What do you do? You do it over! My director’s request was for a pamphlet form of it that she could hand out to college students. Writers, I know you understand how humbling it was to give 40,000 hard-won words and be asked for a 1,000-word digest!
But, long before, I had come to the awareness that nothing I wrote would be ‘new’ (such a debt I owe so many others for every word of my own!) and that we can but hope to find things worth saying and saying again in new forms. So…a pamphlet! Next, a new book. I was willing to rewrite the book I called Shabbat Shalom, but had no idea how. It was a whole of its own, a poem that couldn’t be dismantled. I left it in a file and prayed that God would show me the next step to take.
About nine months later, I experienced the ‘aha’ of seeing it re-formed, and went through a long ‘labor’ to birth SAR. Shabbat Shalom had been a mere ‘conception’ by comparison, but SAR couldn’t have been written without it. SAR retained much of the voice of SS, but left behind the less accessible, almost circular structure without becoming a start-here, end-there academic proof of a thesis, or a snappy ten-talking-points treatment.
During this period, I had several opportunities to give talks, small meditations, and retreats on the ideas in SAR. In this way, the book was formed in community, by authentic communication motivated by love for real people. I highly recommend this process to writers, though at times you get tired of reworking, reframing, reiterating the same ideas, or of giving away the gist of the book you’d rather sell. The ‘exercise’ of my thoughts helped get them into shape. The responses of listeners helped me write the accompanying discussion questions.
This business of giving away first what I would sell has become my mantra. I really believe you should not sell what you have not learned to give away. Fr. John Hardon expressed the need for Catholic writers who will give of their talent for the Church and its apostolates (see http://www.mariancatechist.com for his article on writing as an apostolate). He’s not against earning a living by writing, but for a detachment from money, glory, and the fruits of one’s talents.
Many photocopies were given before I sensed it was the time to make it more widely available. Love’s labor was slogging through what was for me an almost impossibly steep learning curve – desktop publishing, website creation, internet marketing…these things do not come naturally, or easily to me! Each step of the get-this-book-realized process seemed tortuous, sometimes scary, often discouraging, but little by little it got done, and I keep ‘getting done’ through the work.
My life’s duties and constraints (family, home, etc…) did not interfere with so much as impede the flow of my writing. Like the fiber of an orange that slows the rush of sugar to the bloodstream, this is a good thing! There have been several times during all this that I’ve had to sit down and re-read my own book – to reconnect with the message of calm, interior spaciousness and to recollect myself within the Sabbath rest of God.
After all that ‘labor’ to get my book self-published, there have been three ‘new births’ from the project. I was asked to write Making Sunday Special for the Catholic Truth Society’s Deeper Christianity Series. Without all the prior work, and the willingness to keep placing my message in new formats, this little booklet could never have been written. Then, when Angelico Press picked up Souls at Work, they also published Souls at Rest, to my great delight. This development added another two years to the ‘flow’ – impedance which has, surely, been good for the whole “Holy Leisure Trilogy” (I’m working now on Souls at Play) and for me.
The lessons I hope fellow writers will take away from my experience:
- Let it be written in your own being before it goes into print.
- Don’t sell it until you’ve learned to give it away.
- Say it again and again in new ways for new people.
- Dedicate your writing to Mary and continually reaffirm your trust in her guidance.
- Pray without ceasing.
- Be slow. Be still. Be quiet. Be in community. Be not afraid.