According to an old Norse legend of the early days in the time before this time, the god Thor patrolled annually a circle around Middle- Earth. With his massive hammer, he battered back the enemies of order, which threatened to swallow life, light, and goodness into the dark maw of chaos. As Thor aged, his arm grew weary, and the circle occupied by gods and men shrank ever smaller and smaller. All seemed lost. His father, Odin—the greatest of the Norse gods, the one most favored by the Vikings, and I might add, the god of war and wisdom—went to the king of the trolls, wrestled him down, and demanded to know how order might triumph over chaos.
“Give me your left eye,” grunted the troll king, “and I’ll tell you.”
Without hesitation, Odin plucked out his eye and threw it into Mimir’s well of wisdom.
In some versions of the tale of Odin’s blinding, he gives up the eye in exchange for a drink from the well. His outer blindness results in inner sight, and Odin is considered the first bard to delight humans with his songs. He drank from a horn the mead of poetry. This mead was, some say, blood mixed with honey—probably the best description of inspiration I have heard. The poet is mystic and prophet, with a central role within the community, and possessing a message gleaned from experience and suffering, bringing both sorrow and joy, much like the scroll Isaiah eats, sweet on the tongue but bitter in the stomach.
But let’s get back to this version of the tale. What was the wisdom Odin learned from the troll king after sacrificing his left eye? “The secret is,” the troll king snarled, “watch with both eyes!”
John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, says that Odin’s eye was the last hope of gods and humans in their dwindling kingdom of light beleaguered by darkness. Now all that remains is Thor’s hammer. Neither Thor nor Odin is of any help to us because they have withdrawn from our view, if not the world. We have only the hammer abandoned by Thor—if we’re able to figure out how to use it.
Thor’s hammer is double-headed, and Christians, seeing the potential within the older mythology for delivering the good news, often combined their central symbol with it, sometimes casting the hammer as a cross, sometimes carving crosses within its two heads. As a result, Thor’s hammer becomes, as is the cross itself, a paradoxical symbol of brutal force and beauty; death and fertility; destruction and creation.
An abandoned weapon, a half-blind pagan god of poetry and war, inspiration as honey and blood, art as brute force and destruction: what are we to make of this in a discussion of writing as ministry in a Quaker context?
When I came to Earlham School of Religion four years ago to direct the Ministry of Writing Program, I knew of its students’ many contributions to Quaker and wider audiences. Tom Mullen, who started the program in 1984, kept a list of published students that included 110 names, a quarter of the school’s total graduates! Just in Friends Journal alone, at least 23 ESR students have authored 44 articles, 11 book reviews, and several poems and reports. And many of our alums have published books that were reviewed in FJ. (I thank Bruce Heckman, current ESR student, for providing this data.)
One of the first questions I had to wrestle with was what it means to teach in a program that names writing as ministry. Now I had no problem as a writer embracing the concept; in fact, I had hoped that my writing and teaching did indeed minister to others, but would I want to make changes in the way I had taught writing all those years at state universities?
T. S. Eliot argues in his essay “Religion and Literature” that no one should want to be a religious writer because such a classification limits not only the subject matter one can pursue but also the approach and audience, resulting in, quite frankly, a lot of bad writing. Rather, he says, the best religious writer is one who is unconsciously so. The writer’s faith will determine his or her worldview, which will in turn appear in the work. So my first thought was that I should just go about doing at ESR what I had done elsewhere: concentrate on teaching students to write well, and let their other coursework at the seminary clarify, transform, develop, and deepen their worldview.
But that did not seem the right tactic, for, after all, the original designers of the program had possessed the vision to call it the Ministry of Writing Program, and I wondered why students would want to learn to write at a seminary rather than in an MFA program. I needed to explore more deeply what it means to write as ministry.
The first creation story in Genesis emphasizes that God spoke the world into being out of chaos. John’s Gospel links the Incarnation to language: the fleshing out of the word, a phrase I frequently use to prompt my writing students to make concrete their abstractions. Language, in a sense, does create our world. Scholars debate just how directly language links to reality, whether we can see only that for which we have words. Is my experience of snow different, for instance, from that of the Eskimo, who has far more words for the frozen stuff than I do? Yet whether or not language controls our physical perception of the world, it does control our interpretation of it. If a child grows up hearing nothing but negative statements— you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re bad—those statements far too often become the child’s truth, regardless of his or her native intelligence, physical attributes, or moral inclinations.
Annie Dillard once quipped that if you want to keep your memories, don’t write a memoir. Writing, in the imposition of structure and point of view and imagery, often reveals, perhaps even creates, a meaning in those past events we did not see during the living of them. The written account becomes our memory.
Writing, therefore, has the power to change the past—not the actual events, of course, but how those events continue to influence us. Writing has tremendous power, most certainly. But when we play with that power, will we cast a light into the darkness surrounding us, or diffuse the light into an impenetrable fog where we lose our way?
Rosemary Moore, in The Light of Their Consciences, reminds us that early Friends, although avid advocates of written ministry, saw the failings, even danger, of the written word. Language, first of all, is inadequate to describe the Indescribable. Every name, every description, we bestow upon God captures but a fraction of the One who told Moses “I Am.” And in that capture, we often “fix” the piece we have, distorting it in our attempts to understand and communicate. The proper response when in the presence of God, many mystics and prophets have shown us, is silence. (Although if Moses and Abraham had not wrangled with God, where would we be? We will discuss that later.)
Yet language—Thor’s hammer, I would argue—is what we have. We must learn to wield it with humility and compassion, strength and courage.
In the myth, Thor swings the hammer against the darkness outside. Is that what we should be doing as well? I have learned, from years of watching my students and myself draft poems, essays, and stories, that those who begin with the goal of changing the world, of transforming others, may write competent enough works, but they feel flat with only the feeblest spark jumping from the page to the reader.
Several years ago, while researching Walt Whitman, I ran across an opinion of his that struck me as particularly powerful, so powerful that it has become the inspiration for how I teach and write, for how I interpret writing as a ministry, for how I interpret the Norse legend of the writer as creator and destroyer. Whitman deemed that a poet’s life should be his greatest poem.
Now let me first explain what I don’t think Whitman meant. I don’t think he meant that a poet should make his biography the subject of his writing or that a poet should write only from his own personal experiences, even if the poem is not autobiographical. Yet this is in essence the advice many teachers give to beginning writers: write what you know. I think it’s more exciting and fruitful to explore what I don’t know through writing. Researchers, including rhetorician Linda Flower and cognitive psychologist John R. Hayes, have discovered that the major difference between good and poor writers is their ability to tolerate the chaos of the writing process. Good writers are better able to sit with the confusion and insecurity of discovering new connections and severing old ones, of the formlessness of not knowing how a piece will end, of not knowing even what the true subject will be until it reveals itself in the draft. Poor writers grab the first subject that comes to mind, cast it into organizational structures they already know, and get through the writing process as quickly as possible.
What I do think Whitman meant is that when poets undertake the search for meaning, for truth, in such an intentional way, they not only write poems that capture that truth, they actually live the truth, they then become the truth themselves. When Abraham bargained with God over the outcome of Sodom, he discovered, not that God could be bargained with, but that good is far more powerful than evil. Even ten good men could transform and save a city. And whenever Moses complained to God about his inability to perform the ministry God had laid before him, he learned that God could transform his perceptions of himself as a murderer, as an inept prophet, or as a leader separate from the sinful actions of his people.
In each example, the ministry was internal before it became external. Old ways of thinking and being are destroyed and new ones adopted. Recall that Thor’s hammer has two heads: one for the writer; one for the reader. Although the writing process is not the only place to engage in such transformational dialogue with the Spirit, it is a powerfully effective place because of its concern both for questions of meaning and for questions of technique: what we know and how we have come to know it.
Whitman’s statement can be further unpacked, for it calls us to discover where it is that we find truth, where we should go looking for truth. One of my professors told me long ago that he knows he’s reading a great poet not because the poet tells him something he didn’t already know; rather the poet makes him realize yes, yes, I knew that, but I didn’t know I knew that! Ralph Waldo Emerson said it more elegantly when he remarked that his spirit leaps to the trope. I agree. I know I am in the presence of great writing when the truth within me recognizes the truth of the poem or essay or story. Without the literature, my spirit will possibly wither away, malnourished and distrusted. Without the spirit, the literature remains but so many dead words on the page, untried and false.
Because truth lies within each of us, the creative process is the discipline writers embrace in order to encounter the mystery of the truth of their experiences and of their beings. Slowly, ever so slowly, poets grow into the poems they were meant to be.
To enter into writing in such a way is indeed to enter into ministry, for it is to become the Incarnation. Vinita Hampton Wright says, in The Soul Tells a Story, “This is God at work. It may be divinity at its finest, because the whole point of the Incarnation was that we understand finally and with clarity who we really are—made in God’s image and possessing gifts with which to express God’s very self to the world.”
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once said that we will be judged not so much by what we have done as by what we hoped to be. Now we may be tempted to reply to him that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. However, Unamuno is not talking about the difference between intention and action. If we truly hope for something, we will make every effort to achieve it. Our desire will be the center and motivator of our lives. Our desire will possess us until we become that desire. Whether we accomplish the goal is irrelevant because we have become the goal.
The warning is that we must be very, very careful what we hope for. I suggest that we must respond that the only thing worthy of such a hope is the God Incarnate, the word made flesh, the creative impulse in the world. Living out such hope is drinking the mead of blood and honey. Living out such hope is finding the strength to grasp firmly Thor’s heavy hammer and learning to swing it. Living out such hope is both the blessing and the cost of writing as ministry.