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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: Writing and reconciliation

The New Monastic author explains why he has time for words, even when he is overwhelmed by the sense that he has no time for them.

iStock/ekaterina

March 13, 2012

Editor's note: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove led a seminar on writing as a vocation of reconciliation at the 2012 Summer Institute at Duke Divinity School.

I am, by inclination, a word person. When I was a child, I woke up early on Saturday mornings to read books. When I fell in love with my wife, I wrote her a letter every day -- sometimes, two -- until she finally told me, as tenderly as one can, that she was feeling a little overwhelmed. When I was an exchange student in high school, I wrote a book in my spare time. My host family was dumbfounded. “Don’t you like to go out to parties?” they asked.

It didn’t occur to me until I heard it from someone else that writing was my vocation. But I’ve always known that words are somehow at the heart of who I am.

Still, there are days when I am overwhelmed by a sense that there is no time for words. I live in a house of hospitality that opens its doors to strangers and friends, trying to keep our eyes open for Jesus. As it happens, Jesus almost always needs a ride to the doctor or help dealing with a lawyer or a visit in prison or, at the very least, someone to sit down and listen to his troubles. And this is just the Jesus at our door.

When we pray, I try to remember the mother in Afghanistan, the child soldier in northern Uganda, the young woman sold into sex slavery in Thailand. But the depth of our world’s brokenness is unspeakable. In the face of human need, who has time for words?

Because my natural affinity for words is not enough to sustain my vocation as a writer amidst overwhelming needs, I face a crisis: Do I give up words as a vestige of the privilege that I’ve been called to lay aside for the sake of Christ’s kingdom? Or can words be “born again” to somehow serve and sustain a ministry of reconciliation in the way of Jesus?

I often think of Dorothy Day, the radical journalist in 1930s New York City who converted to Christianity during the Great Depression. Joining the Roman Catholic Church, she was impressed by its social teaching. And yet, with so many hungry and homeless people on the streets, the so-called “works of mercy” sounded like “just words” to Day’s ears. She knew that something must be done to put these words into practice. She started the Catholic Worker as a movement of people who were willing to turn words into deeds with their very lives.

But Day never stopped writing. The Catholic Worker was a hospitality house with a soup line that fed hundreds every day. But it was also a newspaper, and Day took her journalistic work seriously. She spent a day sitting in one of New York’s homeless shelters and reported on her experience. She told the stories of unemployed immigrants who showed up at her door. She joined protests and boycotts and wrote to tell fellow Catholics why each struggle was their struggle, too. Day used words to name the Unspeakable.

One of Day’s contemporaries, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, wrote that “Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.” A writer himself, Merton could see how Day’s use of words contributed to a distinctly Christian vocation. She was telling the truth. Because her truth telling was rooted in Christian hope, it could not be silenced. The power of the Unspeakable, Merton knew, was fear. Every journalist hopes to tell the truth, but most stand frozen stiff when they look the Unspeakable in the face and realize that they could lose their jobs -- could lose their lives, even -- for telling some truths.

Day knew that the Unspeakable had crucified Jesus. She also knew that Jesus got up from the dead. So when the Catholic Worker newspaper lost more than half its subscribers because of its pacifist position against World War II, Day did not waver. This, she knew, was precisely where Christian hope begins.

When the Ku Klux Klan shot at her car as she joined a night watch at the interracial Koinonia Farm, she crouched down with a notebook and recorded the story. The Christian writer, Day showed us, can tell the truth at all costs.

If writing and reconciliation are to come together as a single Christian vocation, this courage to face the Unspeakable is essential. But the ministry of reconciliation is not waged in single acts of valor, just as good writing isn’t the result of a single burst of inspiration. Both take time. Both demand patience.

Flannery O’Connor said that the writer has to cultivate an “ability to stare.” While Day’s witness demonstrates how important it can be to “stare down” the Unspeakable, she did not dodge bullets every day. Because she was a good writer, Day also knew that she had to stare in order to see, as the poet said, “deep down things.”

For however much the vocation of writing and reconciliation is about naming our tragedy, it is also always about seeing that life is more than tragedy. We live and move and have our being in a world that has been redeemed. Or, as Day said so well, “Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

How does a writer keep this vision alive? From her journals, we know that Day leaned on other writers, especially Dostoyevsky. In the midst of her work, she did not have the time for the reading she had enjoyed as a young woman. But she kept copies of Dostoyevsky’s novels with all of her favorite passages underlined. When overwhelmed, she would retreat to her room -- often, late at night -- and soak up the vision of another who had learned to stare and see beauty, even amidst the world’s tragedy.

For my own part, I keep a copy of Day’s writings handy. I often don’t have time to read more than a page at a time, but I keep reading -- and I keep writing -- because I trust that the Word has become flesh and that we sometimes see flesh more clearly with the gift of good words.