04/29/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2013

Writing as a Spiritual Practice

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I am writing now as a spiritual practice -- and I don't mean writing liturgy or prayers or preaching anything to anyone. I mean using the first and most primary human art form -- language -- to explore my own deepest questions and express my own most important experiences and imaginings.

A long time ago, I had a hair-dresser named Fred who was a rehabilitated truck-driver. Stepping into his truck one winter day, he slipped on ice and damaged his back so badly he could no longer drive his truck. He went for vocational testing, and when he learned that the top recommendation was hair dressing, he was, to put it mildly, horrified. But it was explained to him: You are very intelligent; you are very independent; you need to be your own boss. Hairdresser. After some agonizing he decided if he had to be a hair dresser, he would be the best hairdresser. He enrolled in a top level school in New York City, and came out of it a talented man with comb and scissors.

What I loved about Fred was, as a high-end hair man, he never lost the twang of the trucker. My brother was a trucker, I knew the breed well. Fred and I became good friends, and when he learned more about me, he offered to do my hair free in return for talking to him about some concerns he had. One of my concerns was the cost of haircuts, so this was a desirable arrangement. He was a practicing Catholic, but had lost the privilege of receiving the Eucharist because he had had a vasectomy. He was vastly afraid of hell. Some time after we worked through that dilemma, he suffered a heart attack, survived and needed to discuss an even more desperate question.

"I'm going to hell, Pat. This time I know I'm going to hell." As he cut my hair he described the pain of the attack: "It was the worst pain I've ever experienced. I lay there on the table, and I said to God, 'Kill me or let me live, but take away this fuckin' pain.'" His face in the mirror, meeting my eyes, was blanched with fear. "You can't talk to God like that," he said. "I'm gonna go to hell."

Sometimes when things are so real they hurt, words come that T.S. Eliot called "what we know and do not know we know." I said, "Fred, I bet God is delighted! For the first time in your life, you talked to God in your native tongue, your own natural voice -- like you talk to your best friend. Catholics believe that God is father, right?" He nodded. "Supposing it was your child who cried out like that in pain, what would you do?"

He got it, and I myself "got it," too -- that what we need in our spirituality is intimacy with the mystery that we may call "God" or "Allah" or a presence that is beyond our ability to name. But intimacy with mystery requires that we ourselves be present. We must be most ourselves, not hidden behind religious ritual or rules of grammar. We need our own voices to cry out our deepest cries, to express our wildest joy, to plumb our hardest questions. And we need to begin with our ordinary, complicated, but beautifully nuanced and perfectly adequate, ordinary everyday lives. Let me finish here by quoting from my book with Oxford University Press, "How The Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice":

Writing can be a spiritual practice. To write about what is painful is to begin the work of healing. To write the red of a tomato before it is mixed into beans for chili is a form of praise. To write an image of a child caught in war is confession or petition or requiem. To write grief onto a page of lined paper until tears blur the ink is often the surest access to giving or receiving forgiveness. To write a comic scene is grace and beatitude. To write irony is to seek justice. To write admission of failure is humility. To be in an attitude of praise or thanksgiving, to rage against God, or to open one's inner self and listen, is prayer. To write tragedy and allow comedy to arise between the lines is miracle and revelation.