Writing Spirituality

My last blogs have been about my experience singing Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, the “Symphony of a Thousand,” with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel.  But looking back at the blogs, I was struck how inadequate were my descriptions of what it felt like to learn, rehearse and perform this incredible piece with the full forces desired by Gustav Mahler (there were over 1,000 people on stage).  I realized that writing about a spiritual experience is not just difficult, but almost impossible.

Gustav Mahler

How do you describe a profound, moving, even life-altering spiritual experience?  “It was swell” doesn’t seem, somehow, to fill the bill.  Even turning to authors, like Thomas Merton, who was a talented writer, practiced and experienced in introspection, doesn’t always help.  He may have accurately described his own experiences, but even in his most moving passages, is he describing yours?

Poetry has been held up as more of a road to the sublime than prose.  Repetition and rhyming or alliteration can, done correctly, create a trance state.  See, for instance, Robert McDowell.  Irish bards in pre-Christian Europe were not just honored but feared for their mastery over the language, which enabled them to write and improvise poetry.  Their words could curse, bless and defeat armies.  Much of the liturgy of the world’s religions is in poetry, rhymed or free.  In Classical Greece the Muses of Poetry and Music were the same:  Polyhymnia for sacred poetry/music, Calliope for epic poetry/music, Euterpe for lyric poetry/music, Erato for erotic poetry/music, and Thalia for comedic poetry/music.  For the Greeks the two were intertwined.

But what if you’re not a poet, as I’m not (English as she is spoke)?  Well then, how about the musical side of the Muses?

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn wrote:  “These [words] seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.”  And this may be so:  think of the last time you heard a piece of music that made you want to fly, or explode, or weep.  Could you attach words to it?  And yet, you want to tell your friends about it.  Can you accurately describe the first flush of a new love?  Or of discovering the vocation you were created to follow?  What if your experience was religious in nature?  The waters really run deep where spiritual revelations are concerned.

But I’m not a composer.  I can listen to or perform Beethoven’s Ninth, or Mahler’s Eighth, but are my descriptions adequate.  If I walk the tightrope between the banal (“It was swell”) and purple prose (“the profundity of my sensibilities cannot be fathomed…”) I still run the risk of not connecting with you.  Or of accurately conveying my experience.  I could burst into tears, but that’s hard to do in a blog.

So, what passages or writers have moved you, or described something you felt, or at least accurately and adequately (to you) described their own experiences?  Let us know.


6 thoughts on “Writing Spirituality

  1. I’ve always felt that music continues where words leave off. This is banal, yes, but nevertheless true for me. Sometimes facial expression, gestures and posture speak clearer and more truthfully than words alone, and THAT leads us into theater. Couple theater with music and poetry and you have opera, musicals, and song, the world I’ve lived in and loved all these many, many years.

    Have you read the poetry of Jane Kenyon? Her poetic voice is especially meaningful for me. William Bolcom has set several of her poems for soprano. Someday, before my voice is gone, I hope to perform them.

    Beautiful writing in this entry Sharon!

  2. Of course I turn to Le Guin, who has, for me at least, utterly captured certain states of feeling–and the inability to capture states of feeling–in words. You’re facing a two-fold problem, however. No one asks a poet to express the poem in music, or a novelist to dance the novel–but people in the other arts, such as music, are asked to talk about their art in words, so we poor mortals can better “understand.” I can’t speak for what music feels like to a musician; I do work in words (as critic and in my attempts at artistry)–but I do know that some music moves me deeply. Back to Le Guin. In the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness she says, “The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” (This is why I think she’s so much fun to read.) But a musician says in music what cannot be said in words–so of course you are wordless in trying to explain it. This is rambling and unfocused–it’s tired and I’m late–but I think you get something that might approach a gist.

  3. Fundamental emotions and experiences are quite difficult to describe in words. As you very rightly point out, music and poetry help fill this void. So do dance and the visual and performing arts in general. In all written work, over the years writers have created various means, such as simile, metaphor, alliteration and many other methods to reacfh for the ineffable by engaging more than the sense of sight and more than the intellect. There is a sense some people have (I don’t) called synesthesia, which is the experience of seeing sounds or hearing smells (there are other combinations). I think when we are attempting to describe in prose an experience or an emotion, we are trying to in the words we set down cross over the senses in the way synethesia does. As we quoted in our book, one of the best examples I can think of is Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish.

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