Have you ever wondered about contemplation and what motivates an international organization to discuss Thomas Merton’s writings? Have you thought about the popularity of his journals? Did you ever consider a connection between his writing practice and his spiritual journey?
Thomas Merton lived and wrote in a contemplative environment as a Cistercian monk in the mid-20th century. Even though he was supported by numerous forms of prayer, he constantly sought additional solitude and silence. The outcomes of a lifestyle immersed in contemplative prayer are seen in the depth of Merton’s cognitive skills. The synergistic relationship between creativity and spirituality is evident in his insightful writing about a wide range of topics.
Merton’s contemplative writing helped him to consider more closely the ideas, or “winged seeds,” that dropped daily into his mind. He unloaded stress through his typewriter and pen, finding strength and joy in the creative process.
Contemplative writing, then, is defined as writing during prayer—adding a solid dimension to spiritual practices. One way to give structure to writing during contemplative prayer is the use of Lectio Divina, a Latin term that literally means “divine reading.” Lectio Divina, a prayer process with four stages defined in the 12th century by a Carthusian monk, Guigo, gradually moves from reading Scripture to contemplative prayer, where in letting go of thoughts, the soul rests in God’s presence.
There are various ways of practicing Lectio Divina, as evidenced by a recent explosion of literature on the topic, but Guigo’s description of the four phases remains fundamental. Writing can be added during two, as described here:
- The pre-writing process begins in the first stage, Lectio (reading) with a slow, a close reading of the spiritual text. Vocal reading can be included, along with releasing burdens and quieting our souls.
- When key words start to shimmer, we stop to ponder them and Meditatio (reflection, discursive meditation) begins. Here we start writing, beginning with phrases, lists and synonyms as meaning from the text is extracted from words quickened by the Holy Spirit.
- After the soul is thus nourished, we enter the third phase, Oratio (response). Here, rich writing can unfold, saturated in Divine presence. The writer may find a structure, such as poetry, to hold the formed response. This is the sweet spot that artists seek in the creative process.
- Post-writing reflection occurs during the fourth stage, Contemplatio (resting), where we sit silently, continuing to open our souls, listening in Divine presence.
There are many places and opportunities for contemplative writing. Just be ready: Bring a notebook, settle your soul and welcome creativity as you pick up your pen and write. Don’t over-think; enjoy, with surprise, the words flowing from your soul. (Two websites for writing “any place and any time” are structuredjournal.com and 750words.com.)
Contemplative writing can also promote wellness, augmenting our natural capacity for renewal. Dr. James Pennebaker, a professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin and author of Writing to Heal, has found that writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events for 15 to 20 minutes a day for four consecutive days can strengthen the immune system and improve sleep and social connections.
Wellness writing techniques can be incorporated during the third phase of Lectio Divina, and prayer-filled activities can augment the healing impact in the fourth phase.
The immediate effects of writing about a stressful event may include sadness as emotional issues are reviewed. However, many positive long-term physical, social and emotional outcomes have been found, including memory improvement, happier feelings, and less absenteeism. Other positive outcomes were measured using physiological markers (blood pressure, immune system) and mental health symptoms (depression and general anxiety).
Writing for transformation and guidance has a long tradition and is still very much needed to support traditional medicine and spiritual practice in today’s violent and traumatized world. Surely the Divine embraces all of our efforts to pursue a life transformed, helping us capture and attend to those “winged-seeds” dropping daily into our souls.
By Claudia Hill Duffee ’12 MAS
Claudia Hill Duffee earned a Master’s in Christian Spirituality from Bellarmine University and the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary in 2012. She uses this degree as a foundation for writing contemplative poetry during personal devotions and leading writing retreats and spiritual formation groups for Equipping Lydia Renewal Ministry. Claudia also helps church groups build prayer teams and educational programs to embrace creativity in the expression of Christian spirituality.