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.
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.