The Spirit Listeth

I stayed home from work today. I meant to go into my office after I voted, but when I got home from the polling station, I just couldn't get myself to pack up and get on my bike. Excuses, excuses. This morning I woke to the sound of helicopters hovering over our neighborhood. Obama's polling station (an elementary school) is right across the street and the news vans were already in place at 7am to catch his participation in our electoral process. My polling station was right around the corner at the high school (go figure, we live in a densely populated neighborhood). The line wasn't too long; it only took an hour to get to the booth. But by the time I finished, I knew my concentration was shot. So, instead of spending the day working on my chart of liturgical Uses for the Little Office of the Virgin, I've been reading Alan Jacobs' intellectual biography of C.S. Lewis.

Oh, my goodness, did C.S. Lewis write a lot of books! After The Pilgrim's Regress, which he wrote in two weeks while on holiday in Ireland, Lewis "would produce thirty-five more books of prose--slightly more than one a year--and hundreds of articles and essays on an astonishingly wide range of subjects" (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis [2005], p. 156). How did he do it? How? Jacobs notes that Lewis never learned to revise; many of his books could do with some editing, but all--at least, all of the ones that I've read--are nevertheless quite well written, even in their less satisfying moments when you can sense that there is a thought there that is not quite worked out. But who am I to quibble? I've only published one book, albeit a long one, and a handful of articles. And instead of being at my desk today working on the research for the next big book (God, please don't let it be too big!), I'm here at home reading about somebody else's life as an author.

I know that Lewis' Christianity has something to do with it. It is surely significant that his great outpouring of work followed on the cusp of his conversion, of which The Pilgrim's Regress is an allegorical retelling. Nor is Lewis alone in this level of productivity. G.K. Chesterton, Andrew Greeley, Bernard McGinn, Jean Leclercq, Jaroslav Pelikan, Gillian Evans: all are authors of astounding productivity, all taking Christianity, its history, theology and defense as their life's work. One wonders that there can be anything left to say, and yet see how many books they publish, year after year. It makes one feel quite inadequate, dull really, not to be able to see all the work still to be done. What mystifies me is where they find the energy.

But I know that there is more to it than that. I spend my life reading, reading, reading, and yet, I still can't seem to catch up. These authors manage to write more books than I can manage to read, and yet they themselves are (or were) voracious readers. It can't be that they are (or were) spending all of their time writing, otherwise they would have nothing (at least, as academics) to say. We all work at our own pace and some of us take longer than others to work through our ideas. Nevertheless, does my one book every ten years (at best) actually balance their book a year in thoughtfulness and depth of research? How is it that they have so much and I have so little to say?

Here's my theory (and since at least some of them are still alive, maybe they can respond to it): it is not they, but the Holy Spirit who is writing through them. The reason they have so much to say is that they do not labor over what to say themselves; they simply open themselves to the Spirit and write what it says. In contrast, everything that I say, at least in formal academic prose, is wrested, word by painful word, from my own limited understanding. Or, perhaps more accurately, since under this theory, none of us can write without the help of the Spirit (call it a Muse, if you prefer; but it is still divine), I am blocking the Spirit's working rather than surrendering thereto. Even caring about how many books one has written is a form of blocking: it is claiming for oneself the fruits of one's labor.

I'm doing it now, blocking, that is. What's holding me back? Fear, as always. Fear of looking foolish, of not being "academic" enough, of believing or saying something that others will consider naive. This, to me, is what conversion means: no longer being afraid of what others will think. But I am still afraid. It's interesting; my timid foray into political commentary last week taught me how very fearful I really am. Not about politics so much, although I do hate being called naive in my ability to interpret what our politicians are saying, but about my faith and about Christianity.

I fell back today on Jacobs' biography of Lewis because I needed right now, on this day in which our nation is deciding its future, the security of feeling that there is somebody out there (Jacobs, as well as Lewis) who knows what it means both to question and to believe, to have felt--as Lewis did for years--that tug of uncertainty and the desire to be sure, and yet who, at long last, albeit at a younger age than I am now, was able to surrender to the Spirit and allow it to work through him. I am still holding back. I can feel it, in every question that I raise about the historicity of Scripture, in the despair that I experienced visiting the churches in Belgium, in the futility that I sense in the research that I am doing, for what, after all, will I be able to prove? Nothing that those who pray the Little Office of the Virgin don't already know; nothing that those who don't will ever actually believe.

Election night jitters? Grief over the death of our cat? Residual effects of food poisoning? Simply where one is after a few months of research? I'm still waiting for that moment when suddenly my pen is freed and the years of reading and thinking and questioning are let loose into prose. Which, in itself, is very likely a Temptation of the Enemy, the fantasy that one day one will no longer have to Work, but will instead be lifted up into a life of Ease.


  1. Does the block to your writing parallel the block to your fencing? Does your fear of looking foolish block the flow of inspiration that could guide your blade? I feel that is true for me. I am limited by my fear, and pride, and small self. Each action, in the millisecond of execution, is subject to the critical oversight of my conscious mind and, in that moment, loses its sponteneity and grace.


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