Why do you write?
For some, the answer to that question might be as narrow as “because my professor told me to,” or as vast as a daily necessity to understand your own thoughts. Wherever you land on this spectrum, wherever your choice of study and career takes you, writing has the potential to be meaningful in your life both materially and spiritually.
At the most basic level, writing is a valuable skill to have in your repertoire, no matter what sphere of society you end up serving in: whether that is music, art criticism, or theology. You will also benefit from writing both in the professional world and in your personal relationships. However, the material world is not where the merit of writing ends; the practice of writing can foster spiritual disciplines that can help you understand yourself, God, and your relationship with Him to a deeper and truer extent.
What happens when we write?
When we write, we are forced to come face-to-face with what we truly believe. Spoken words disappear as quickly as they are voiced into existence, only recorded in a listener’s imperfect memory, and thoughts vanish before we may even register that they were there in the first place. But when we write, we are committing to the words we place on that page: there is something more at stake than in speech or thought. We cannot brush aside our half-formed convictions and undefined beliefs; we are sharply and abruptly faced with the challenge of acknowledging our own attitudes, perspectives, and judgments and naming them in a way that we are not compelled to do in other modes of communication.
Stephanie Paulsell, a professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, articulates this reality through an analysis of Virginia Woolf’s diary: “[Woolf] has a revelation, often painful, of some real thing behind appearances and, she writes, ‘I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words . . . that it has lost its power to hurt me.’”
In order to hide from these truths, Woolf contends that we have surrounded ourselves with wads of “cotton wool of nonbeing”: things that we half-believe, have left to the unknown, or frightening questions we choose not to face for the sake of seemingly blissful convenience and ease. The more we do this, the more of ourselves we will fail to understand. It can even affect our relationship with God as we begin to fail to see where we fail. Through writing, Woolf argues, this cotton shell we’ve built around ourselves can be pierced through, and those truths we would rather disappear into insignificance are brought into the light in such a way that cannot be ignored. Once we start paying attention to them, God can shape our understanding of Him and ourselves in relation to His purposes, and that is the ultimate goal of spiritual practices themselves.
We find a clear, Biblical example of the importance of the written word manifested in the Ten Commandments. These were physically written down for a reason; of course the Israelites generally knew that murder was wrong, but actually inscribing the words “Thou shalt not kill” into stone connects that spiritual reality with the physical one.
Writing something down reveals what we believe to be true. It is a practice of intense self-reflection. We may realize that what we have written is, in fact, untrue or uncomfortable and in need of further thought and exploration.
Paulsell includes in her essay that when we write, “finishing a degree or getting a grade is the least of it. Write to learn, to understand, to communicate with another, to seek what is real and true.” If we write solely for the completion of an assignment, the benefits of such writing will begin and end with the grade we receive. Writing for an assignment can be just as valuable as writing on your own time, but only if you enter into it with a focused and ordered mindset. In order to grow from our writing, we must first pay attention.
As Christians, spiritual practices are disciplines that are meant to turn our hearts and minds toward God in order to cultivate our spiritual development. This means that we must be willing to expose our understanding of who He is to discernment and even change if need be. Connecting such an important part of our faith to writing, and more specifically academic writing, can seem unimportant or even impossible, but it is valuable and feasible if only we can pay attention.
In her well-known essay on how schoolwork relates to the love of God, Simone Weil writes that such work can have a profound effect on the development of our attention to God and His work, especially when it comes to the attention required for deep, meaningful prayer. “For Weil,” Paulsell writes, “academic work done not for some external reward but out of a desire for a deeper life with God and others, is a pearl of great price, worthy of the sacrifice of our time and resources to pursue.”
Take note of how you write. What words do you choose? Why did you emphasize that certain phrase? What kind of mindset does this tone reflect? Paying attention to these choices can reveal how we see the world and understand the experiences of ourselves and others. It can allow us to untangle our wild mess of emotions, thoughts, and motivations, and cultivate those habits of self-reflection and attention that drive us to better understand God and our relationship with Him.
When we pay attention, we open ourselves to God’s guidance and discipline, bringing ourselves to the state of humility that allows God to shape us more fully into what we were created to be.
Even if you don’t see yourself writing in your grand plan for the future, take a moment to consider that what is immediately apparent to you is not all that holds value in your day-to-day life. Consider writing not just as an assignment with that imposing deadline looming in the distance, but as something that has the potential to hold intrinsic value for your life in communion with God. Let it force you to come to terms with often-uncomfortable truths, to pay attention to God and His work. Writing does not have to be just for English classes or authors or journalists, it can be a spiritual practice in which everyone can partake.
Paulsell, Stephanie. “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline.” In Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words, by Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, 202-216. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020.
Weil, Simone. “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.” In Waiting for God, trans. Emma Craufurd, 105-116. New York: G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1951.