(Note: My second presentation on Saturday morning was about meditative writing.)
(Matt. 9:18-25; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:42-48)
When I was reflecting on this passage of Scripture, one question kept coming back to me: Why didn’t the woman with the hemorrhage ask Jesus for healing? Why was she so furtive about it?
It’s important to listen to the questions that come to mind when we hear Scripture proclaimed or when we read it ourselves. Those questions can be God knocking at the door, attempting to open our hearts and our minds to a new way of looking at a situation which is troubling us or a new insight which will bring healing into our lives. Sometimes, just reflecting on the questions themselves can help us to grow in the Spirit so that we can better reflect him into the world.
Meditative writing is one way that we can do this through exploring reflectively the questions which arise when we encounter the Word of God. Father Francis Dorff, a Norbertine priest and spiritual director, has written a lovely book on this: Simply SoulStirring: Writing as a Meditative Practice. I want to hit on a few high points of this practice before I again illustrate with an example and give you a chance to try it.
First and foremost, meditative writing is NOT like the kind of writing you learned when you were in school. It’s not about spelling and punctuation. It’s not about sentence structure and paragraph styles. The goal of meditative writing is NOT to put together a piece of polished prose for an audience. Rather, this is very private writing, more akin to keeping a journal than any other kind of writing you might do. Similarly, it’s also not about writing down thoughts or insights you have while praying, because the writing itself is a form of prayer, a way of drawing near to God.
Father Dorff recommends having an uncluttered place set aside for meditative writing. He says finding or creating a place like that can help us focus, and that just going there sometimes can help us get started. I, personally, do have a desk in my apartment set aside that I use only for prayer, reading Scripture and meditative writing. But I have also found that having a special notebook for this kind of writing is just enough to get me started. When I travel – for example, to visit my granddaughters – I will take one of the icons I have, my prayer notebook and the current copy of the Magnificat. That is enough to set the stage for meditative writing.
Father Dorff also recommends choosing a specific time and using it consistently. This doesn’t necessarily have to be daily. Perhaps Saturday morning is the only time you have to devote to this kind of prayer or maybe it’s a practice you will use only on retreat. You have to find what works for you. I, personally, use it almost daily, but I like to write, so that’s not surprising.
Finally, he recommends using tools you are comfortable with. You don’t want to go out and buy an expensive journal you will be afraid to use. You want something you are comfortable with, something that feels like a friend to you. Maybe you want to try a spiral notebook or maybe you want a bound journal. Maybe you prefer college-ruled paper or paper that doesn’t have lines on it. It doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as you’re comfortable with it. I like to buy relatively inexpensive notebooks and decorate the covers myself. I also like them to be relatively small so that I don’t feel guilty starting a new one if I feel a new movement in my life.
The same is true about writing implements. Write with something that feels good in your hand. I, personally, hate Bic pens – or any writing implement that doesn’t have a smooth flow of ink. I use G-2 gel pens or Pilot pens. I like the way they feel in my hand. I like the way the ink flows from the tip of the pen. I like the fact they come in colors so I can change colors for emphasis or to mark something that’s important. That’s my preference. You have to find what works for you. I do recommend keeping a writing implement you like with your prayer journal so that when you sit down to write, you can write. If you have to look for something to write with, you might decide not to do it at all.
Finally, there’s no one approach. Maybe you want to write a letter to God or one of the participants in a Scripture passage. Maybe what you read will make you want to write a letter to a deceased person. Maybe you will find, for example, after reading the story of Joseph in Genesis, that you want to write your spiritual biography. As I said earlier, sometimes what I write is like Ignatian contemplation. Sometimes it’s like Lectio Divina. You just never know. The best thing to do is to simply be open. Father Dorff recommends a number of books with writing exercises that can be helpful. I don’t have all of them, but I do have a few you can look at while you’re here. I do ask that you not take any of them with you. They are all currently available at Amazon.com, so you can have any one that interests you within a week. Just write down the title and the author.
While Father Dorff does recommend a number of books on journal writing because they contain some good exercises, journal writing is different than meditative writing in one very significant way. In journal writing, you want to know yourself better and you want to reflect on your life. In meditative writing, you want nurture a more intimate relationship with God, you want to be receptive to what the Spirit is doing in your life.
So, regardless of what approach you use, you need to begin by putting yourself in the presence of God. Make a sign of the cross. Take a few deep breaths. I usually begin with prayer. Since I do my meditative writing in the morning, I usually start with the Morning Prayer in of the Magnificat.
Then, take a passage of Scripture or something else that you find to be inspirational and read it slowly and prayerfully. For a while, I was going through a book of prayers called Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits. Whatever inspires you is a good starting place for meditative writing. Read the passage two or three times until something captures your attention. In this way, it’s like Lectio. What you are doing is opening yourself to the whisper that is God’s voice, to the movement of the Spirit stirring the waters of your consciousness. What captures your attention will be your starting point.
You don’t start writing with a goal or a conclusion. You write down the thought or phrase that comes to mind and then you write down the next thought or phrase that comes to mind and then you write down the next so that one sentence, one phrase, one word at a time something begins to emerge. If I were to compare this kind of writing to another life experience, it would be to playing with a child or improvisational jazz. When you play with children, you have to be flexible and be willing to go where their imaginations lead. In the same way, improvisation with jazz unfolds on the spot. That’s the way this is
The important thing is to be really open, and to be very humble. If we enter this expecting to come up with clever insights, we’re not going to get very far, because it will be about us and not about God. Meditative writing really needs to lead us to God. That being said, sometimes you will gain an insight that does thrill you and you’ll have to share it. That’s part of the process, too.
When I first started doing this, I again was very skeptical, just as I was with Ignatian contemplation. I kept thinking, “Is this wishful thinking or is it God speaking to me?” Somewhere along the line – and I’m really sorry that I don’t remember where I found this – I came across a way of discerning whether God was at work. I put the three tips in the study guide, but I’ll review them briefly.
- First, there’s often external confirmation. It’s absolutely uncanny, but it actually happens. You will write something that moves you, and you’ll run across it someplace else. Or the priest will a give a homily in which he makes the same point. A recent example from my life: I realized with my job hunting, I was using a scattered approach and needed to be more focused. I really wanted to discern God’s will in all of this, so I sat down and did this Ignatian decision-making thing, and specifically considered whether or not I should be focusing my efforts on the Custer area. I’d been asking God to let me stay, but I thought I might be selfish in that desire. So I’m using meditative writing with Ignatian decision-making thing, and the phrase “rich soil” keeps coming to mind. In the end, I feel I need to focus my job search on the Custer area. I flip on my computer, go to the Loyola Press website for my three-minute retreat. Lo and behold! The Scripture passage for the day was: “Some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold.” (Matt. 13:7-9). I interpreted that as definite confirmation.
- The second thing is that the insight you gain will be consistent with what you know about God and what the Church teaches. If your meditative writing leads you to think you should steal $5,000 from your boss and take a vacation, that’s probably not inspired by God.
- Finally, the insight will lead you to greater intimacy with God and will enable you to better reflect his love into the world.
So let’s take this back to the Scripture we’re considering at present. As I said in the beginning, as I reflected on this passage I kept coming back to one question: Why? Why didn’t she just ask? Why was she so furtive?
Jesus didn’t turn people down. He healed wherever he went. He healed the blind, the mute, the crippled. He healed lepers and cast out demons. He even healed in the synagogue on Sunday and healed those who were not Jewish. He had come to bring the good news of God’s great love for his people, and that love poured out of him in the form of healing wherever he went. So why did this woman creep up behind him, reach out and touch his garment, and then slip away into the crowd? It didn’t make sense to me, so for nearly a week, I just opened myself to that question.
As I said before, meditative writing is very much a step-by-step process. One word, one phrase, one idea leads to the next. Because I meditated on this over a period of days, I’m not going to read everything I wrote. I’m just going to hit some of the high points on my search for an answer. I’ll warn you in advance, I ended up in a place totally unrelated to the question!
I started by reflecting on her suffering – and the length of time she had suffered. Twelve years. For twelve years she had been unclean, untouchable. I’m guessing she wasn’t married, because she couldn’t sleep with a man. That was forbidden. In the book of Ezekiel, we see how seriously that offense was taken. “Thus, the word of the Lord came to me: Son of man, when the house of Israel lived in their land, they defiled it by their conduct and deeds. In my sight, their conduct was like the defilement of a menstruous woman.” (Ez. 36:16-17).
If she wasn’t married, where was her place? I’m guessing the only work she could do involved those tasks that would make individuals unclean, such as preparing the dead for burial. This must have been very difficult for her. How many of us live for more than a decade alienated from others for something over which we have no control? Mark’s gospel said she spent everything in an effort to be healed and suffered greatly as a result. I began to understand why she acted in such a furtive manner. I could almost hear her mother telling her to accept her lot in life. I could almost hear the neighborhood women gossiping about the poor fool willing to try anything to get a man. I could hear her brothers telling her that instead of wasting her money on charlatans, she should contribute that money to household expenses. I began to suspect she was furtive, because she didn’t want anyone to know she hadn’t completely given up hope. That brought to mind the poem which was part of an Advent prayer I incorporated into my daily devotions during Advent a couple years ago. In the poem, we see both hope and the fear of hoping; we see how our sinfulness kills something within us and how rebirth will make demands on us.
PRAYER FOR HOPE
O God, we dare not place our hope in you / because we have no hope to place. / We have forgotten mercy, like the dew; / we have lost sight of days of grace. / Our heart’s bowl brims with hollow emptiness. / Our dreams have vanished like the smoke / of incense burned to gods of faithlessness / upon an altar stone that broke.
O God, you have stirred up the darkened heart / with promises of light to come. / The embers of our cold hearth shift and start / a flicker that may yet become / the fire we fear because we shy from burns / our soul once suffered at the hands / of our own treachery. If life returns / for us, we dread rebirth’s demands.
O God, ignore our plea for cold despair, / its ashes undisturbed, its chill / unwarmed by any hint borne on the air / by unseen angels, crying still / that promises are kept. Grant us instead / that small perturbing flick of flame / that wakens even in the living dead / just hope enough to call your name.
“If life returns for us, we dread rebirth’s demands.”
The first demand on that woman was to tell Jesus what she had done. At that point in my meditations, my question changed. Why did Jesus do that to her? This is where more than a week of meditation led me:
“Because Jesus isn’t just a person. He is Christ who is present in his Church. It’s together we are the Body of Christ. This poor woman had been untouchable for 12 years, marginalized and probably lonely beyond bearing. Christ wanted to bring her back into the fellowship, into community.
“When Jesus felt the power go out of him, he felt that loneliness. It wasn’t a shoulder that bumped him, it was a hand closing for a moment on his garment and then letting go. A child would have tugged on the tassel to get his attention. The person who let go, he knew, didn’t believe she had the right to ask for his attention.
“He wanted her to know that in his eyes, she did have that right. He wanted to hear what she had not been able to say to anyone. He wanted her to know that her story meant something to him. And he wanted her to know that in reaching out to him, in allowing hope to overcome the barrier created by those who had ridiculed her efforts, she had ultimately placed her faith in God who loved her dearly.”
When I stepped away from my prayer table that day, I felt so incredibly humble. How many times have I failed to listen to someone’s story, have I failed to hear what was in their hearts? We all need to be heard, and if I am to be Christ for others, I need to listen.
I wasn’t expecting that to come out of this Scripture. Not at all. Very often, that’s what happens with meditative writing. We find ourselves in places we never expected to go.