“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).
The title to this post is not in reference to the great literature which can realize marvellous responses in us and in many instances also have a marked effect on our culture; rather the question is directly addressed to spiritual writings. So why go to the trouble of writing? If it is a case of the author trying to convince his or her readers of a religious truth then the effort is largely doomed from the beginning. Language which is a tool of communication, and itself the subject of many definitions, is more limiting rather than revealing. As a result it is a notoriously difficult instrument to share or to express spiritual beliefs which are in themselves typically opaque. For this reason some religious have chosen either to not speak at all or to communicate their theology largely in ‘negative’ or apophatic terms (i.e. what God is not rather than what God is). We need not be adherents of philosophical schools which argue that meaning cannot be reduced to “ultimate simples” to recognize the traps should we reckon our voice possesses some unique clarity outside of the rest. Yet, even universally recognized spiritual writers would not suggest that religious language can capture the underlying essence of their subject, or the motivating desire of their contemplation. What is crucial, however, is to be clear on what we want to say and to have had some experience with the subject. If we are writing on prayer, for example, to at least have made the effort to pray. It is also helpful to remember that often enough it is how we practice our religion which determines our spirituality.
A great poet might ask of their work, “Is this beautiful?” An author on matters of the spirit is not too concerned with technique, he or she will ask, “Is this useful?” Then there are those, like Saint Symeon the New Theologian and the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross whose tongues have been set aflame, who might write both beautiful and useful. So when a writer who is fascinated by the ‘tremendous mystery’ and risks speaking on the great topics of God, Love, Faith, and Death, for instance, what do they hope to have achieved? Let us assume that outside unavoidable clichés the effort is genuine and sincere (and that the goal is not self-aggrandizement), what then is the point? Certainly, there are diverse answers, but hopefully the aim of all who engage in this quest will be distinguished by a common goal. That is, to lay out an honest reflection of the soul’s journey and to have been inspired by the need to partake of this spiritual pilgrimage with travellers on a similar path. If these efforts help to guide others with alike intuitions, revealing to them some of the received ways of entering the kingdom of God which is “within” (Lk 17:21), then it is good the risk was taken to write. This is a prime motivation for one of the most beloved books of the Bible, the Book of Psalms, which appeals not only to the congregation but also to the human will with its continuing encouragement: “These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I went with the throng, and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:4).