breaking through: the sacredness of words
The preparation is done, the centering of mind and heart by prayer, Bible study, or walking through nature and listening.
I sit down at my brown wooden desk in a dark room. The desk lamp lights only the paper. Everything else is back in the shadows. When I begin to write, my hand moves into the light.
The work of our hands is part of creation, because God’s work continues to be done in the world through human hands. Writers put words together and create sentences and stories, bringing the unspoken into the light and giving it form.
In the shadows I wait, listening until I see an image, hear an echo, or feel a presence. Then I wait for words to come that will root this into my time and place.
As words come, I write them down. When they stop, I set the pen aside and meditate on them. These words are the beginnings of thoughts that will lead somewhere, a labyrinth I have to find my way through. I read what has been written, looking for the insight, the glimmer.
Re-centering myself, I take the insight and begin writing again from there. When the words stop, I read them aloud, slowly, paying attention to other images brought to mind. Some are signposts that direct me further on a journey of discovery and deeper into meaning.
I listen for the spaces between words, for what has not been spoken. I also read aloud to hear when the language is slightly off or clangs.
Paring away the extra words, I cut back to the bare essentials. These are the bones. I flesh them out with new words, parsing out the subtle meanings to find the right shade, gauging each word’s weight for the right amount of touch.
This is like tending roses, cutting off the dead blossoms and pruning back to the last group of five leaves so that roses will bloom again.
On my bookshelf, a carved wooden monk reads quietly, meditating on words.
I expand and pare back again, a process of sharpening and fine-tuning until every word is there for a purpose, every word building on the previous and transitioning to the next, until only the words needed remain and images flow.
This path of writing has been walked by others for thousands of years, this listening for mystery’s presence in the night in the quiet hours before dawn, listening to the world waking up and birds beginning to sing and celebrate a new day – the desert fathers and mothers, the Celtic monks of Iona on the shores of the North Atlantic, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton leaning against a post on the porch of his hermitage and listening.
I write of what I find along the path using today’s words so that people today may understand. I am a pilgrim making my way through the world. As I grow in understanding, my writing deepens.
There is sacredness to words. When a word is written down, it comes into existence, with meaning and presence. I feel this way because I’m aware of the care that those who copied the Bible by hand took to not make a mistake. Part of this is because of the John passage that begins, “In the beginning was the Word.” And part is knowing that the wrong or right word can let people slip over the edge of despair, or pull them back and set them on the road to wholeness.
There is an obligation to write as honestly as I can and find the words that express the struggles of faith and the workings of compassion. What I do is nothing more than scribble notes in the margins of the sacred texts, as Jewish rabbis used to do, trying to illustrate the wisdom contained within.
I write to bring hope to those who walk in the valley of shadows, and direction to those who have lost their way.
Mark Liebenow’s most recent book, Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012. His essays, poems, and critical reviews have appeared in numerous journals. His nonfiction work has won the River Teeth, Chautauqua, and Literal Latte awards, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and been named a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2012.
His other books are about daily meditations for Advent and Lent, worship resources for the church year, and the theology of Christian fools. His essay “Tinkering with Grief in the Woods” describes a week he spent at Gethsemani Monastery. It was published by Literal Latte Journal. He lives in Illinois, where he writes about nature and grief recovery and works seasonally on an organic farm. He is a member of ASLE and the Yosemite Conservancy.