Writing, Quoting, Creating: On the Use of Other People’s Words in the Midst of Your Own

Speaking to the Shalem Institute a few years back, Richard Rohr told an amusing story about a retreat he gave to the monks of Gethsemani Abbey (where Thomas Merton lived) early in his ministry. Feeling a bit intimidated by leading a retreat where his audience was mostly older than him and represented a lifetime of monastic observance, Rohr peppered his talk with quotes from Merton — but he found that every time he invoked the famous author, the retreatants looked away uncomfortably. Finally he pulled aside one of the brothers and asked if he was making a mistake by quoting Merton so much. The monk replied that Merton was not universally loved in his own monastery, because he told the community they were not true contemplatives, just introverts!

In telling this story, Richard is illustrating how even monks can sometimes misunderstand contemplative spirituality. But I’m invoking this story for a different reason — I’d like to reflect on the perils of “quoting experts” when one writes about spirituality (or, I suppose, any topic).

Spiritual Writing, Telling the Truth, and Quoting Others

Writing non-fiction has its own unique challenges. While poetry and fiction are infinite playgrounds where the only limits are imposed by the writer’s own imagination, non-fiction implies a commitment to telling the truth — at least, the truth as the author most faithfully understands it.

Every now and then there’s a kerfuffle in the literary world when a book that has been passed off as non-fiction is shown to be, at least in part, made-up, a product of the author’s imagination (or duplicity). Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea are just three examples of books in recent years that have been published as “true stories” only later to be challenged as partially or entirely fictional. Indeed, there’s an entire page on Wikipedia devoted just to documenting Fake Memoirs.

But even if one is not writing a memoir, truth and truthfulness still matter in non-fiction. In terms of spiritual writing, this  has traditionally meant that authors are expected to support their claims and assertions by appealing to some sort of authority: the Bible, the saints, the mystics or other respected voices in the tradition.

When it comes to writing spiritual non-fiction, there’s a kind of continuum. Writing for academic and scholarly audiences typically relies almost entirely on external authorities — quoting other scholars or voices from the tradition. At the other end of the spectrum is writing that is based entirely on the author’s own (inner) experience. Many mystics (as well as psychics or new age “channelers”) fall into this camp. Take Julian of Norwich, for example: her writing is based entirely on the authority of her own inner experience. Readers are free to judge if what she has to say carries any value or merit, but no one can dispute that Julian herself sincerely believed that her own experience gave her the authority she needed to write.

Many — perhaps most — spiritual writers fall somewhere between these two extremes. I fall into this camp. When I write, I seek to give voice to my own insight, intuition and experience as a contemplative, but always in “conversation” with the wisdom of those who came before me. This is because I believe that spirituality is most robust and healthy when it occurs in some sort of communal context. Even when a person prays and lives largely in solitude, bringing the light of a larger community to one’s spiritual experience is a way of supporting it (like a trellis supports a vine). We can see this dynamic at work even in the visionary writing of Julian, who repeatedly mentions “Holy Mother Church” and her desire to integrate her mystical visions with the teachings she receives from her community of faith.

There are pitfalls we can fall into when quoting “authorities” in our writing. Richard Rohr’s story shows what happens if we rely on quoting from sources that our audience is uncomfortable with. Much academic and scholarly writing, while meticulously researched and extensively footnoted, can be dry as dust — great content, but almost impossible for the average reader to wade through. You can quote the most amazing voices in the tradition, but if your writing is not compelling and interesting, no one’s going to read it.

Quoting Others for the Wrong Reasons

And then there’s another problem that can arise — from the reason why we quote certain authors. The anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing has something to say about this:

In the past, writers followed the humble practice of not sharing their own opinions unless they supported their ideas with Scripture and with learned quotations from the Church Fathers, but now that practice has degenerated into arrogant erudition and clever grandstanding. You don’t need that, so I won’t do it.

I remember really being blown away by this quote, the first time I read it. As a writer, I had to ask myself: do I write about the wisdom of great mystics and saints in a humble way, because I want to share their insights with others? Or is it more a matter of pride: I am trying to show off how much I know? And then there’s even a third possibility: that writers keep quoting other authorities because they lack confidence in their own authority?

I don’t think I’ve ever tried to be a show-off in my writing (partially because I’m so keenly aware of how much I don’t know, about mysticism and theology and just about everything else!) But if I’m honest, I know I’ve relied on quoting other writers as a way to avoid doing the deep work of recognizing, and then giving voice to, my own inner authority.

So that’s something I’ve tried to be mindful of when I write. I love to write about the mystics, but I also know that most people have access, thanks to the internet, to more information about the mystics then they’ll ever need or want. So I figure the only way my perspective on the mystics (or any other topic) matters is if I weave together the wisdom of these great ancestral voices with my own perspective, however humble it might be.

This leads me to another quotation — the one that really inspired today’s blog post. It comes from a book called The Mystery of Death: Awakening to Eternal Life by Ladislaus Boros, SJ (recently re-published with a new introduction by Cynthia Bourgeault). It’s a slender book that weaves together philosophy and spirituality to reflect on the meaning of death. It’s beautifully written and well worth reading.

In the introduction to the second part of the book, Boros has this to say, referring to philosophers that he will be quoting:

We shall not, however, limit ourselves to a merely descriptive account of their thought. We too shall endeavour to be creative and to progress further along the lines they indicate, taking their basic insights to their final consequences.

Once again, this passage brought me to a moment of reflective wonder. Just as the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing challenges writers not to quote other authors for vain or superficial reason, this author points out that quoting an authority matters most when a writer responds to that quote with creativity and insight.

In other words, don’t quote someone just to prove a point. Quote them as a  launchpad for your own creative thinking.

Creation… and Interpretation

The wisdom of the past not only needs to be listened to, and savored; it also needs to be interpreted.

Interpretation is a creative act. We human beings receive an onslaught of external stimuli every day. Most of it we have to ignore, if we are going to respond to the bits that truly deserve our attention. We have to interpret all the data that flows through our senses — deciding, usually in a split second, what matters and what doesn’t. And when we decide that something does matter, we have to make sense of it, figure out what it means and why it is relevant to our lives.

Here’s the tricky part. So much of human language and thought can be interpreted in more than one way.

Consider, for example, a book by the British author Geoffrey Ashe called The Virgin. It is Ashe’s reflection on the meaning of Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. As a secular scholar who is interested in pagan spirituality, Ashe interprets devotion to Mary as evidence of vestigial goddess-worship that has crept into Christianity. So to his mind, when Catholics pray to Mary or reverence a statue of her, they are (unconsciously) participating in a type of spiritual practice that in ancient times was focussed on worshiping the Divine Feminine.

Obviously, most conservative Catholics are not going to be happy with Ashe’s interpretation. They take the same data and make an entirely different argument: that all the ancient pagan practices of goddess veneration point to the human need for a sacred mother-figure, and simply prefigure the coming of Mary and the devotional practices that grew up around her. In other words, pagan goddess worship is evidence that it is natural for humans to venerate a feminine mother-figure (never mind what Protestants think) — and that the highest and truest form of such veneration arose in history with the coming of Mary and devotion to her.

The same data, but two entirely different interpretations. Which one rings more true. You be the judge!

We see this at work in our politics as well. Liberals maintain that government needs to take the lead in providing social services to the most vulnerable members of society. Conservatives argue that such programs are too expensive, since they result in higher taxes on both corporations and individuals. Which is better: lower taxes and fewer services, or higher taxes and more programs? Once again, it’s a matter of interpretation.

Interpretation is creative because we have to put ourselves into the interpretive process. We have to “create” meaning by reflecting on the data we have, in the light of our own experience, our values, and our ability to discern. Writing is a creative act: we give birth to thoughts, ideas and perspectives that may be entirely a new (or, at least, represent a new perspective). Ladislaus Boros points out that it’s not enough just to quote external authorities; we have to “meet” those quotations with our own capacity to interpret their meaning, understand what insights arise from them, and then reflect on how these interpretations and insights can be used, under the guidance of the Spirit, to discover new perspectives and new ways of understanding.

If you’re not a writer, bless you for reading this far — since this post is clearly a writer’s reflection on what it means to be a writer. But if you are a writer, or involved in any other kind of creative work, I hope you will reflect on what we can learn from Richard Rohr, Ladislaus Boros, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. We need to learn how to access the wisdom in our own hearts. It’s good to know the wisdom of those who come before us, especially if we receive their guidance with humility. But a lot of quotes will not necessarily make our writing (or speaking or any other creative work) any better. In fact, if we are quoting for the wrong reasons (to show off, or to avoid articulating our own inner wisdom), then such quotes can actually work against us. Finally, when we do bring the wisdom of external source into our writing, let’s be like Boros, and never settle for merely quoting someone just to prove a point. Let’s be courageous enough to meet the wisdom of others with the insight of creativity of our own hearts. Then, in partnership with the Holy Spirit, who knows what will emerge?

And finally…

Here’s a video of Richard Rohr telling the charming story that I opened this blog post with. Enjoy!

Featured photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.