Reviews: Writing the Sacred Journey
Mystery and practicality
Elizabeth J. Andrew’s Writing the Sacred Journey is the most useful book about writing—of any kind—I have read in the last few years’ explosion of books about writing. As one who regularly teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Spiritual Autobiography, I know it will provide a significant resource. I have long been on the lookout for a book that combines practical exercises with thoughtful rumination on the genre and its significant practitioners, and have had to settle instead for good-hearted but frankly not very intellectually engaged guidebooks; these tend, as well, to express the language of Christian spirituality along its main-travelled roads—so much less penetrating than what my students themselves are writing. When they venture into other traditions — Sufi, Buddhist or Vedic — these writers provide little more than the spiritual equivalent of a Lonely Planet Guide.
Elizabeth J. Andrew has, by contrast, lived deeply in-country. I can imagine that she has read and reread the texts she speaks about, and has spent many hours staring out the window until she arrives at a lived-synthesis of what the great religions and irreligions have to tell us about the nature of the sacred. Her little snatches of biography help us to walk beside her on the path most of us take from traditional religious practice, through queries of every kind — about sexual identity, about the authority of mystical experience, about the claims of orthodoxy and the counter-claims of conscience — until we likely find at the center of a thicket of metaphors, something holy, something that makes us smile. This is the path any good spiritual director lays out, subordinating his or her own story to the unfolding of the novice’s own, yet nudging us to read the roadsigns others have left behind.
I know good books about writing that do not mirror much spiritual penetration and good books about spirituality which do not tell us about craft, though they may contain writing exercises; I even know books about writing-as-spiritual practice which seem, for my money, to go in the right direction but cannot offer a felt-sense of entry onto sacred ground. Thus I find it exciting to discover a writer who understand that the mysteries of writing are congruent with the mysteries of spirit and that to take on writing process with all the courage it requires is to wind up spiritually shaken in the very best sense. For example, to enter intuitively, without a preconceived structure, into the writing of one’s story is itself an entrance into mystery, an act of faith. To emerge from this plunge at the end of a ten-minute exercise or a year of fearless writing is to be reborn, as all the great traditions recommend. One must re-think, re-vision and, in a sense, bow in adoration of what one has seen, if one has been truly abandoned to the process. The obstacles of writing — blocking, resistance, simple wordless incomprehension — are the issues of spirit in motion and to wallow through them is to make pilgrim’s progress.
That established, how splendid to move with Elizabeth back and forth between the demands of writing and the demands of soul — moving from a sacred center, divided no more, and therefore with a certain smile. My copy of the book has at this point—I counted—some sixty pink, green and yellow flags to draw me back to ideas and exercises and analyses that help me to see this process from some new and illuminating angle. I look forward to rereading and living with this book, as with a wise and trusted mentor.
To return to my first reaction, as a text on writing, this one is dead practical. She has thought with exceptional depth and nuance about the inner processes of daily writing, what’s at stake in revision, what’s beyond the block– how to establish the best sequence of tenses, etc. etc. I know I will return again and again and assign it with confidence to my students. Elizabeth will just not let us fall. Though written for the non-specialist and thus mercifully free of the dialects of post-modernism or critical cant, Writing the Spiritual Journey helps me as a writing teacher to think through in student-words moves and habits of thought that become habitual to the practicing writer. She is astute not only on profound matters– the psychology of integrating mystical experience, for example — but also on the most practical, for example, how to cut a draft that’s too long or flesh out a brief, timorous account.
This book is excitingly good and I can’t wait to have it in my hands.
– Mary Rose O’Reilly, author, The Barn at the End of the World: The Apprenticeship of a Quaker, Buddhist Shepherd
Uncommon Wisdom and Generosity
In a time when books on spirituality abound, Elizabeth J. Andrew writes with uncommon wisdom and generosity. She weaves together elements of her own spiritual memoir with a practical array of writing tools that are precious and rare. She is masterful at plumbing the power of writing as a way of “attending to life’s submerged currents,” showing that writing itself can be an act of faith. To anyone skeptical that spiritual memoir may be sentimental or self-centered, Andrew believes “the real subject of memoir is not self so much as the human condition. Self is simply a atool to access broader questions and themes.” She urges us to write for the sake of the story itself.
Writing the Sacred Journey will appeal to readers of varied backgrounds. Its author draws deeply from her own tradition, yet she is wary of “the language ruts of religion,” and invites her reader to tap those “primary, organic experiences of sacredness prior to (and often alongside) the inculcation of a religious tradition.” The particulars of her own story sparkle with depth and authenticity. Her writing exercises help us appreciate “the many dynamics that comprise transformation.” This will be a book you return to again and again.
– Julie Neraas, Spiritual Director, Presbyterian minister, Professor in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program, Hamline University, St. Paul, MN.
Candid and Compelling
Elizabeth J. Andrew is a subtle and courageous spiritual memoirist. Her candid and compelling ability to share the hard won secrets of her artistry with fellow writers is borne out in this fine book.
– Lawrence Sutin, author, A Postcard Memoir
Open to Multiple World Views
In her dual roles as teacher and companion, Elizabeth J. Andrew offers powerful gifts to the writer–and also the reader–of spiritual memoir. She engagingly integrates challenge with reassurance and “how to” with “why?” Her versatile approach functions as an implicit form of spiritual direction, to use a classic phrase, that is wide open to multiple world views and life experiences.
– Mary Bednarowski, author of The Religious Imagination of American Women, New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America, and American Religion: A Cultural Perspective