A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, December 5, 2010
ON WRITING A LETTER TO A DICTATOR
A Meditation on a Letter Writing Campaign as a Spiritual Practice
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
— Ranier Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, XXIX
So, there I was, last year just about this time. I was sitting with bunches of people over in the parlors, copying out sample letters to send to various generals, dictators, potentates and other bad actors as well as their ambassadors asking as politely as possible that they stop torturing someone, and, if they could, please, pretty please to go one step further and let that person go free. Well, copying isn’t exactly right for how I do my letters. People have noticed I’m not the most compliant person they’ve met, and so yes I made various changes on the fly while doing my best to honor the intent and the tone suggested by Amnesty. Considering their successes in this their most important project, that seems the wisest course.
Then as I paused to rub my hand, I realized how rare it has become for me to hand write a letter. While working on my knuckles and fingers I thought how quickly things change. Along with reading newspapers and sending Christmas cards and other things of bygone eras, I recall back to my childhood and how my mother insisted writing letters and notes were what any polite person does. I don’t think I did it a lot, but I do recall a couple of hard written, always belated thank you notes to my grandmother, usually, at least in my memory, for socks.
As I thought about notes thanking my grandma for small gifts and how it was a discipline, and how I was now writing letters, well, much more copying than composing, and how the emotion that I was feeling at that moment was in fact at odds with the tone of the letter that was flowing from the pen in my hand, I realized how this mapped the frequent experience of real spiritual practices.
These days in the circles in which I move and in which many, likely most of us move the term “spiritual practice” is fairly common. What it means, however, is less certain. So, for instance the other day I mentioned to someone I’m off this coming week to a Zen meditation retreat. He sighed and said how much he could use a couple of days off, himself. Making it obvious he’d never been on a Zen retreat, which involves getting up very early and plopping oneself on a small pillow on the ground and sitting still for about nine hours a day, broken by brief periods of walking meditation every half hour, the rhythm punctuated by brief liturgical activities, including simple meals eaten in the meditation hall, a little work, and very short rest periods. It involves a fair amount of physical discomfort, actually even a certain level of physical pain, which is nothing compared to the agonies revealed as I, as we relentlessly watch our brains doing their thing. It turns out the human mind tends to as run tape loops, the same stories with minor variations, looping over and over again. Not precisely what I’d call relaxing.
So, while spiritual practices don’t have to hurt, at some point most do, to some degree. No pain, no gain is a motto for this kind of enterprise. And, so, there I was, rubbing my sore hand. I’d written I don’t know how many letters, and, I was facing a fair number more. While hardly the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, it was moving into some kind of work.
And, there was something more going on. I mean one doesn’t do the Zen thing for how it hurts or how it can be amazingly boring. There is a point. And I saw it over in the parlors as we were writing those letters. A couple of hours into it, my sense of connection to the people I was writing about began to deepen. They weren’t just names. Their stories began to seep into my heart. I began to genuinely feel a connection to each of these folk experiencing some pretty harsh things at the hands of tyrants. I also noticed the person sitting across from me stop and shake her hands a couple of times. Our eyes met, we smiled, and we both turned back to the project. In that moment I felt connected to her as well as to the victims of oppression, and from there, if only to the smallest degree, my heart shifted again, and I felt some sense of connection to the general I was at that moment writing.
That’s when you know you’ve found a spiritual practice.
Another reason I know writing is a spiritual discipline is how people make extravagant claims on its behalf. On the web I found someone claiming how “research suggests that writing (as a spiritual discipline) improves memory, makes you healthier, happier, and better able to achieve your goals.” Might even be true. More important, however, much more important as I see it, is that turning of the heart which may occur within those who follow this discipline that enlarges us, and helps us see into the great secret: we are all family. Every precious one of us belong to the same family.
Getting there, really getting there, not just thinking, oh yes, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, after all it’s the first principle of Unitarian Universalism. Our practices take us to a gate, which when we walk through it on our own two feet, brings us face to face with the reality, we really, really are one family. I’ve seen how this works with chalice circles, our small group ministry, as well. While I don’t think everything is a spiritual practice, there are quite a few out there.
The point in these disciplines is taking something we’ve heard about ourselves, our uniqueness and our radical interdependence, and coming to know for ourselves whether it is true or not. And it is very important, much more important than the side effects such as being a little healthier and a bit happier. Knowing this intimate reality of our lives, that we are connected to the victim and the oppressor, that there is no part of this planet that isn’t family, then we can make decisions, and chart a course of action that is more likely to be of use in this world. It’s that important.
So, I’m up for writing as a spiritual practice. And it’s practice in that lovely dual use, it is preparing us, preparing the way, and it is the doing right now, complete. Pretty cool. And another marker that this writing letters is the real deal.
Now there’s a fair amount out there on writing as spiritual practice. And I commend looking into it. Mostly, I’ve noticed, in the form of journaling. Among my ministerial colleagues there is interest in a corollary discipline, sermon writing as a spiritual practice. No doubt there are lots of ways writing can be a spiritual thing, a practice, a discipline, a way into deeper matters. Here I’d like to hold up a smaller and more focused possibility, first of letter writing itself as a spiritual practice, and then of letter copying as a particular discipline.
You just don’t know what can come out of a regular discipline of correspondence. While researching something else, I stumbled upon an exchange between the poet Ellery Channing, a nephew of the great Unitarian divine William Ellery Channing and his friend Henry David Thoreau. Channing writes, “My Dear Thoreau, -- The handwriting of your letter is so miserable that I am not sure I have made it out. If I have it, it seems to me you are the same old sixpence you used to be, rather rusty, but a genuine piece.”
He goes on to suggest Thoreau build himself a hut in the woods and spend some time discovering what solitude might teach. A few months later Thoreau did. Of course not all letters lead to such things. At Perkins where Jan works, I’ve seen a letter Thoreau wrote applying for a job as a teacher. He didn’t get it. Although, I notice they did keep the letter, which you can see if you go to their little museum next time you’re in Watertown.
Truthfully, just writing doesn’t make something a spiritual discipline. It needs some regularity. And it also needs to be to some purpose. Now, we don’t have to know what that purpose is. I’ve read how the only rule in journaling as a practice is to put down the date. Beyond that, well, the purpose is yet to be revealed. But the form itself can incline us toward that goal even when we’re unsure, ourselves.
Still, in writing letters or journals, essentially the discipline is facing a blank page and at that moment embarking upon a voyage of discovery. There’s a lot about journaling as a spiritual discipline. But not so much about writing letters, and I want to hold that up, if only briefly. Letter writing as a spiritual practice moves us away from the solitary to the communal. The danger always in journaling is solipsism. Letter writing involves another person, and in that simple shift, offers us the opportunity to break out of our shells and to find the undiscovered country that includes the world.
I hope you will consider trying writing some letters. And, yes, pen to paper. You don’t need to write lots of them. But there must be someone who should get a letter, someone you’ve meant to write, but just haven’t. Well, put the paper down on a nice surface, write the date at the top. And open your heart. After you’re done, even if you’re not so sure it was a spiritual practice, at least you’ll know whether to mail it.
Okay, that said then there’s that copying out letters. The thing I was doing and which we’re all invited to do today. For the rest of these few moments let me hold up copying texts as a spiritual discipline.
There is great potential in the copying of letters as a spiritual practice. Copying is part of an ancient tradition, particularly copying sacred texts. Frankly, as I see it, the most important thing that was learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls wasn’t the new texts from what is usually called the Qumran community, although some prefer Essenes. These were writings from about the first century of the Common Era. Nearly half were biblical texts, and these are now the oldest actual physical documents for much of the Hebrew Bible. When compared to the Masoretic texts, which were the previously oldest known documents and date from nearly a thousand years later, the texts were about ninety-five percent identical. Not perfect, but astonishingly close considering hand copying.
Christian texts have not been quite so successfully transmitted by their copyists I have to note. More of their scribes appeared to be like me, taking liberties here and there as felt appropriate. But with the Hebrew texts, copying, transmission is amazingly consistent. The Koran has a similar record of accuracy over the years of hand copying.
In other traditions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, copying of sacred texts is acknowledged as a vital spiritual discipline. There is something powerful that is revealed as we take our bodies and particularly our eyes and our hands and we copy out a text. Particularly, I suggest, for us if that text is a letter requesting someone who has power to free someone from torture and imprisonment. Even as our hands copy out the letters and the words into sentences and paragraphs we make the great discovery, the hidden continent of our hearts, the truth about who we are.
There are these letters waiting for us. While I don’t think it necessary to copy these letters word for word, it is necessary to give them heartful attention, to know they are very important. If you have time later this afternoon to join us you will meet a number of people and their torturers. And who knows what gates will open?
There are the prisoners of conscience. You’ll meet the Iranian journalist and filmmaker Arzhang Davoodi, imprisoned now for many years for helping to make a PBS film about human rights abuses. You’ll meet Mao Hengeng who has been imprisoned in China for protesting the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo. You’ll meet Filep Karma imprisoned in Indonesia for raising a flag. You’ll meet Gambian Femi Peters imprisoned for participating in a peaceful demonstration. You’ll meet Dhodup Wangchen, imprisoned for making a film about Tibetan attitudes toward the Dalai Lama. You’ll meet Su Su Nway, imprisoned in Burma for participating in a demonstration. Most have been tortured. All are guilty of thinking and speaking, but of little else.
There are also the human rights workers living at risk. You’ll meet Justine Masika, an activist against the use of rape as a political tool in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her family has been assaulted and all live under constant threat. You’ll meet Guatemalan Norma Cruz who has received numerous death threats for her work documenting cases of violence against women.
And then there are the people who have vanished into prisons, like Walid Yunis Ahmad, an Iraqi journalist and translator imprisoned without charge by Saddam Hussein’s regime, but who has not since been released or charged. And there are the continuing calls for justice. Forty-five Mexican women associated with a peasant organization were arrested, beaten and sexually assaulted. They continue to wait on any action from their government while their kidnappers and torturers continue to function as local police.
There are letters about them waiting for us to copy. Have a few minutes? Have a couple of hours? Any amount of time you can dedicate to this project is good time. And more, it is the act of drawing ourselves into the heart of the world, into that voyage of discovery, into the purpose of all spiritual disciplines.
Finding who we are, finding who we are related to, finding, finding the face of God.