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Between November 10th and November 15th, I taught a creative writing and painting workshop at Athentikos’ I Am Art camp in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Several artists from the United States banded together, left the comfort of their homes and family, and journeyed into the heart of Zone 18, an area of Guatemala City riddled with violence, poverty, and oppression.
In my creative writing workshop, we explored the relationship between writing and prayer. There is an obvious connection in which both are expressive, a relationship between a speaker/writer and a listener/reader. Prayer can often be thought of as a letter. Above all else, writing, like prayer, is a form of communication. And to truly communicate, one must not only speak or write, one must also listen.
This side of prayer and writing is often overlooked, because when we think about prayer and writing we think about words, content, message. Even when we listen, we imagine or think in words. The words will often get in the way of listening. I don’t know how many times I’ve forgotten something my wife told me get at the store.
“You don’t listen to me,” she says.
“I just forgot. I heard you. I’m sorry.”
Hearing and listening are two separate entities. When we write, we may hear the world around us but never truly listen to it. This, I believe, is what separates great writers from good writers. Listening goes beyond the ears and into the heart. Listening transcends words and language. The sound of rain needs no translation.
Contemporary poetry aims to listen. It accepts the flaws of humankind and of language, and learns to dance and sing amidst it all. It is the music underneath and beyond. I was hesitant about doing a creative writing workshop for the Guatemalan youth due to their age and the language barrier, but I was pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm and interest; everything fell into place.
On the first day, I was dealing with a fever. I took my class out into the forest behind the main complex and asked them to sit in silence and to listen for something that they would normally overlook or disregard as unimportant. My illness played a significant role in this decision, but it was the perfect way to begin. Writing arises first from true silence, from sitting within the world. Goethe says that “poetry is a secular gospel.” Religious groups, especially Christians, shy away from this word: secular. But the secular and the sacred go hand-in-hand. They cannot be separated.
“[Religion] makes itself the ultimate and despises the secular realm. It makes its myths and doctrines, its rites and laws into ultimates and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it. … This is the reason for a passionate reaction of the secular world against religion, a reaction which has tragic consequences for the secular realm itself. For the religious and the secular realm are in the same predicament. Neither of them should be in separation from the other, and both should realize that their very existence as separated is an emergency, that both of them are rooted in the experience of ultimate concern.”
–Theology of Culture, Paul Tillich
This idea of opposites-in-harmony has been on my mind over the past few months. I’ve been criticized by family and friends for taking an apophatic stance on God and religion, because people tend to prefer answers and clarity, shying away from the abstract and the obscure. But clarity and obscurity need each other, just as the light needs the darkness. Where else could it shine into?
I do not want to say that we brought light into the darkness of Zone 18. The light was already there. Children are the sparks that will shine through any darkness. What was our purpose being there? If nothing else, to bring kindling, to fan the flames, to ignite another spark.
“Put ragged clothes upon your back and sleep upon the ground,
And tell police about your rights as they drag you down,
And ask them as they lead you to some deserted door,
Yes, I know you’re set for fightin’, but what are you fightin’ for?
But the hardest thing I’ll ask you, if you will only try
Is take your children by their hands and look into their eyes
And there you’ll see the answer you should have seen before
If you’ll win the wars at home, there’ll be no fighting anymore.”
–What Are You Fighting For? by Phil Ochs