In his two highly readable books “The Contemplative Writer: loving God through Christian spirituality, meditation, daily prayer and writing” and “Eat, Write, Grow: Cultivating prayer and writing together” writer Ed Cyzewski offers loads of advice, is very pastoral and encouraging, and delves into intersections of life that many Christians will find familiar.
I recently heard a podcast about how “bookish” Christians can be, and these two books might exemplify this truth in a beautiful way. I’ve known as many people who wish to journal daily or write a book or series of poems as I have who wish to pray daily. Perhaps you are among them.
In The Contemplative Writer he says that while he has written about spiritual practices before he, “wanted to offer a life preserver of sorts to writers of faith who perhaps feel like they are drowning in the shifting currents of life and have no hope of integrating meaningful contemplative practices in their days.” I couldn’t help but think that this would be useful to me as a pastor who “produces” a lot of “content” each week.
One early encouragement in the book is an argument against thinking one is wasting one’s time (or as a pastor the time so generously given by the trust of congregants) by sitting quietly and waiting. Ed writes, “contemplative prayer is about ‘resting in God,’ recognizing that such rest is a ‘gift from a loving God.’ Striving to make this happen won’t help you. Bearing guilt or shame about prayer won’t help either.” So start now and don’t feel bad about previous starts that fell to the wayside. Start now and don’t worry that you look foolish or that you are wasting your time. Start now, to embrace a gift from God himself.
This book admits the writer found prayer tough, felt silly, and feared failure. It also speaks to the grace we ought to give ourselves whenever we try to attempt something good or grand. It’s the voice of grace that made this book so helpful and encouraging. He points out things like it takes time to stop feeling silly and, “you’ll primarily see small, gradual spiritual gains over years, not in minutes or hours.” So don’t feel bad if you don’t “hear God’s voice” or speak in tongues. Learning to accept what God has for you is part of the journey.
Helpfully Cyzewski writes about the role of mentors. Many people are scared of mentors, we hate to admit we don’t know everything and might need a little guidance. Yet, “spiritual disciplines aren’t ideal as a DIY project. You need help from people who have gone before you on this road.” In other words, it is wonderful to seek out help, it isn’t a sign of weakness but a sign of eagerness and it suggests that one just may succeed in one’s goals.
The key to prayer, as in writing, has a lot to do with habit, which may be the best measurement of success we can find when it comes to such exercises. “If you develop a habit for a particular practice, you start to remove the need to make a decision about that activity. A habit more or less happens on its own without necessarily making a decision to take action.” We can all get there, in writing daily (a page, 1000 words, whatever the goal) and praying daily (1 minute, 1 psalm, one set of relatives, again whatever the goal). It can be difficult to measure success in these things because often the mere practice of them is the success.
Just as you may seek to run a certain time in a 5km race, you may seek simple to run regularly, and in the case of prayer there is really no equivalent to the unbiased clock in the running world. The results are often nuanced when it comes to a contemplative life. Calmness, peacefulness, compassion, direction in life, better marriages, better parenting, these all may well spring up like mushrooms, but they aren’t really the goal (the goal being a closer relationship with God), so they aren’t a great measurement.
In Eat, Write, Grow Cyzewski again ponders the overlap between writing and praying and the need to pay attention to the day. He got close to me when he wrote, “I’d been using podcasts to avoid being alone with my own thoughts.” He then describes his journey away from filling his days with the noise of the media, even Christian media, and towards filling it with God. As time has gone on he has craved quiet and contemplation more and more.
We all need advice on how to pray/re-invigorate our prayer lives from time to time. “If you want to improve your prayer life, try writing. If you want to improve your writing life, try praying.” Personally I have found this to be true, writing in the morning using the SOAP method I picked up from Wayne Cordeiro, has transformed both my writing and prayer life.
Again Cyzewski focuses on the need for this to be practiced and for acceptance that practices take time to develop. There isn’t a fool-proof system nor a great measurement tool. Have we succeeded in making habits out of the things we value and desire, like writing and praying, or not? The challenge is the daily-ness of it, Cyzewski writes about how his children create and endless stream of distractions and excuses (as a man with 4 kids 6yrs and under in my house I can relate!) but he doesn’t accept that as a righteous or healthy path forward. He also notes that part of the difficulty is that our culture has taught us to crave speed and stimulation and both writing and praying offer little speed or sensual stimulation. I think that might be a big part of the appeal of writing/praying to many people today who just need to get off the merry-go-round.
It’s important to remember that every addition to our lives requires some form of subtraction. Before embarking on a path towards more writing or praying we must consider our time and resolve on one or two things we currently do that we will either no longer give time to or dramatically reduce our time with. Our lives are complicated already and both prayer and writing are undermined if we perceive them as merely more clutter in our day. “Anyone” points out Cyzewski, “can pray or write, but few make the time for either.”
If you are like me and have no choice but to produce content regularly, or if you yearn to express yourself through writing, and if you happen to be a Christian, then either of these books are worth a gander.
I must admit that much in them was forgotten quickly, perhaps because he writes like a homely uncle and everything feels so obvious as he says it. This isn’t serious issue though since one can always re-read a book.
Note these books are under 2$ on Amazon Kindle at the time of writing.