Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Recollective essay circa 1977

    It was ten years ago, one evening after I had returned home from a visit to a contemplative convent, that I first began to think of using the events of meditation and mysticism as material for novels. I had gone to the convent to instruct an elderly nun, who loved music, how to play the ukulele, and in the course of our conversations she told me that neither she nor the sisters generally read novels. There was not enough theology in fiction, she said, to make such reading worth their time.
    I was at work on a novel at the time, rewriting the third version of a plot I had been developing, at intervals, for a dozen years or so. The manuscript was lying on the table where I had left it for the ukulele lesson, and when I picked it up again to continue work I knew I felt challenged to write fiction that would contain enough theology to make it worth the time of contemplative sisters.
    The challenge in fact seemed Providential, for I had been studying the classic writings on meditation and mysticism for almost as many years as I had tried to write novels and stories, and I always felt that my personal relationship with my writing was somewhat hamstrung by my avoidance, generally speaking, of the material that I had found so interesting. I spent quite a long time thinking about what the sister had said, quoting her to my wife for her opinion, and wondering how and when the new thoughts would affect my inspirations.
    The answer came very quickly, although not in the form of a new and hyper-spiritual plot, nor, at that time, in a radical revision of the story under way. I was within a few weeks called upon to write a long series of letters to a student contemplative and was not long afterwards drawn from my field of school teaching to that of counselling and spiritual direction. My researches of the contemplative life, it would seem, had only fairly begun, and if I were to acquire the understanding out of which to write satisfactory stories on the subject, I had much more work to do before I would be allowed to write about it.
    But not for the old sister. She said she would pray for my work, and always remembered me at the fourth station of the Cross, where Christs meets His mother, but she died before her bodily eyes could read any of the effects of her prayers. Besides that, in the years that have passed, the reading public for contemplative subjects has expanded much beyond the walls of convents - and not just because so many convents no longer have walls - but because the younger generation has of its own accord acquired a taste for these matters, and as that age group has moved this way, it has aroused the interest of generations ahead of it. The Maharishi and Thomas Merton have had their say, Zen Buddhism has a wide reading and it is probably that the meditative approach to religion has a larger following now than at any time since the sixteenth century. And it is more than a lip service kind of following. The past decade in North America alone has probably witnessed more individual revolts in the name of a meditative conscience than any simply economic or political movement would ever dream of inspiring. God is not dead, but what He has done is slaughter an enormous number of sacred cows, which, when they thought about it, were probably happy to die.
    Perhaps such a movement, for both its best and worst aspects, needs a chronicle, perhaps it also needs a story teller's introduction to the masters of the systematic writings.

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