I recently stumbled across an old article that Fr. John Hardon had given to me more than 20 years ago. The title of the article was “Writing and the Spiritual Life.” He gave the article to me after telling me that I had an obligation to influence other Catholics through the written word. After rereading the article, I decided to republish it here so you could also benefit from Fr. Hardon’s wisdom.
WRITING AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
Few people realize the value of writing. It was St. Augustine who confessed, as he said that he was “one of those who write because they have made some progress and who, by means of writing, make further progress” in the spiritual life (Letter 143).
The proverbs of all nations praise the value of writing:
• “Nature’s chief masterpiece is writing well”
• “Look into your heart and write”
Except for the inspiration to write, we should not have the Sacred Scriptures. What is the Bible except the inspired word of God in written form?
My purpose here is to look briefly at some of the reasons why writing is such an asset of the spiritual life. To be convinced of the worth of writing, daily – if only a few words – is to have made a giant stride on the road to sanctity.
Discipline for the Mind. Left to themselves, our thoughts tend to roam about. Our minds are not naturally under control. They tend to run in all directions at once and are not spontaneously under our command.
That is why writing is so important. It provides a pathway for the mind. It gives direction to our thinking. It helps us to master our faculty of thought.
Intellectual Humility. Cardinal Newman explained why more people do not write. The reason, he said, is that writing demands humility.
When I read what I have written, I must look at myself as I really am. I must see the vagueness of my thinking, the inconsistency of my logic, the triviality of my life and the experience is humiliating.
The pathway to humility is humiliation, and the deepest humiliation is being humiliated in my own eyes. Writing is a proven way of lowering myself in my own estimation by looking at my real self as reflected in the thoughts I have set down on paper.
Record of Graces Received. One reason why some of the great saints of history have written so much is that they wished to keep a record of the graces they had received from God in mental prayer.
On the one hand, writing helps to keep us humble by giving us visible proof of our own weakness and folly. But writing can also be a tribute to God’s wisdom and a record of His graces. We Honor Him when we set down in writing what ideas or inspirations He gives us during the day, especially while we are quietly meditating in His presence.
Cultivating the Memory. We remember what we want to remember. By writing down our thoughts and spiritual experiences, we make a strong act of the will to remember what we have written.
This is one reason why making even a brief notation, say, of a quotation from one of the saints helps to fix into our minds what we wrote down.
It is a good idea to begin collecting choice sayings from the masters of the spiritual life, as a powerful aid for deepening our own spiritual resources.
Whatever is memorized becomes part of the treasury of our mind. Our memorized thoughts contribute to everything we think, say or do for the rest of our lives.
Moral Inventory. St. Ignatius stressed the importance of a daily review of our conduct, put in some written form. This serves many purposes:
• It shows how serious we are about overcoming our failures.
• It shows how honest we are about growing in the virtues we need.
• It gives us the opportunity of looking back over the progress – if any – we have made in our imitation of Christ.
• It makes us conscious, during the day, of what we plan to put down in some written form at the end of the day.
The Art of Speaking. We are told by St. James that, “every kind of beast and bird, and of serpents and the rest is tamed by mankind; but the tongue no man can tame – restless evil and full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8).
The apostle does not mean we cannot tame the tongue. What he means is that we cannot tame it ourselves. We need the constant help of God. And God will give us the grace to tame this wild creature if we do our part. A most valuable part is to write down our thoughts while saying a prayer before we start writing, as we write, and after we have written – to obtain the divine light we need to see what God wants us to say and the divine help to say it.
People who do this will go a long way to using their tongues as God wants us to. The effort and grace required to write down our thoughts are a major contribution to mastering our speech.
Too often we speak without first thinking. But we cannot write without thinking. The practice of writing, therefore, will develop the art of speaking according to God’s will. The reward? “If anyone does not offend in word,” we are assured, “he is a perfect man” (James 3:2).
The Charity of Sharing Our Souls. Writing is a proven trainer of the tongue, to prevent us from failing in charity through speech.
But there is more to the practice of charity than merely avoiding failures against the virtue. Charity is, above all, sharing with another what I have, in order to enrich the person whom I love.
What is our dearest possession? It is the gifts of the spirit that the Holy Spirit has generously given to us. If I am to share these gifts of my soul with others, I must do several things:
• Acquire as much grace as I can by reading, prayer and self-denial.
• From my record, I share – as occasion arises – with others what the goodness of the Lord has shared with me.
It would be a good idea if we started keeping a written record of past experiences, interesting episodes, uplifting sentiments, whether our own or those received from others.
When God became man, He taught the people mainly through short stories – we call them parables. He wants us to follow His example. In practice, this means we should make a written memo of the parables in our own life, to share them with others and thus bring everyone we talk to closer to the Heart of Christ.
John A. Hardon, S.J.