Writing as Survival

By Sara Mannen

“For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers.”

            -John Ames in Gilead 

The need to write is an impelling force in my life. Sleep proves elusive if I do not write regularly. I struggle to fall asleep and to stay asleep when my mind is not working away at a writing project. After a year of non-stop work on my thesis and an article for publication, I decided to take 2 months off from academic work. To my surprise, I slept worse than when I was laboring over my thesis. My husband observed, “You just have to write, or you won’t sleep.” Part of my recent theological endeavors includes discovering my own formation as a theologian. My intent is not anthropocentric navel-gazing, but the hope that by better understanding what makes me tick I will come to realize my own biases and tendencies as a theologian. Not that I am trying to reach an elusive pure objectivity resulting in pure theological knowledge (neither of which are possible, in my estimation, since we are persons and involved in the theological process). However, I am seeking to understand the lenses through which I view theology, history, and the Bible. Why do I feel driven by the need to write theology in such a way that it affects my physical body if I am not writing?

A long way around to answering this question starts with an examination of the relationship between Dante, Beatrice, and his poetry. Etienne Gilson makes several interesting observations about Dante and how his love for Beatrice affected his writing. Beatrice was the muse who inspired Dante’s writing, “That Beatrice, a real woman, was to the poet that was Dante this inexhaustible source of profound and stimulating emotion; . . . of liberating in him the flood of lyrical inspiration, is what Dante himself says in every chapter and almost on every page of the Vita Nuova.”[1] Gilson argues that as Dante comes to grip with his consuming love for Beatrice, including her physical beauty, he eventually finds a way that makes his love for Beatrice pure and redemptive: ““[B]ut there are two classes of men who redemption is effected as if of its own accord: the saint, who perceives all beauty as a reflex of divine beauty, and the artist, who, incarnating these emotions in his works, creates for them a body made to measure in order that they may express themselves in it and survive it.”[2] Dante is an artist.

His poetry is the work through which he can survive his love and, in a sense, redeem all the ways he allowed it to lead him astray. This is beautifully rehearsed by Beatrice’s sharp rebuke of Dante and his youthful wandering after her long-anticipated arrival in Canto XXX of Purgatorio. The redemption of Dante’s love for Beatrice culminates in a stunning personal confession of sin and contrite repentance in the following Canto. The Divine Comedy is a written work of penitence and how Dante “survives” his love for the long-departed Beatrice.[3]

A crucial aspect of Gilson’s argument revolves around the unconsummated nature of Dante’s relationship with Beatrice before her early death: “One is inclined to say that, from the days of the chivalrous love down to our own times, the creative instinct of poets has led them to choose inaccessible princesses in order to protect from themselves the sources of emotion that quicken their art.”[4]  If Dante had consummated his relationship with Beatrice, his emotions would have ceased growing and feeding his artistic work the more accessible she became.

Gilson’s observations of Dante and his work have import for my own compulsion to write. In many ways, as a theologian, I write as an artist. It is the need to “survive” the overwhelming emotions and insurmountable intellectual challenges that come with my Christian faith that drive me to write and create. I am not the saint, as Gilson describes, who easily perceives the truth of reality and my faith. I often look at those who have a pure and simple faith with envy. It is because of my struggle with doubts, God, and myself that I pick up my pen. Writing gives me a way, or a body of work, to measure and incarnate my emotions and, hopefully, this becomes one of the ways the Lord is redeeming and sanctifying me. Even academic research and writing is a form of prayer for me.

The second observation Gilson makes regarding the inaccessible nature of Dante’s muse also applies to the process of writing. However, this needs to be qualified in light of the Triune God. The Father freely gives himself to us in Jesus Christ through the Spirit. God is not inaccessible; however, God is inexhaustible as the infinite one. As a finite creature, I will never circumscribe or grasp the infinite God. Though I believe we are given true and accurate knowledge of God in the economy, the economy does not exhaust the immanent Trinity.[5] Humanity’s inability to fully grasp God is not a source of dismay, rather it is the source of pure joy and the reason theology is never a finished task. According to Gregory of Nyssa, God’s infinite nature means, “that the participation in the enjoyment of it will be infinite also, for more will be always being grasped, . . . and this search will never overtake its Object, because its fund is as inexhaustible as the growth of that which participates in it is ceaseless.”[6] The Triune God of the Bible as subject, or muse, if we may so boldly speak, is infinite and inexhaustible. For those of us artists and saints, we are given the freedom and joy in our infinite God to struggle, worship, grow, and create. My greatest insight from better understanding my need to write is to be watchful of an attitude that uses writing as a way to control, rather than to worship, understand, and “survive” God.

Sara Mannen spends her time caring for her two precocious daughters and husband while attending seminary and working.  Professionally, she has worked in banking for 17 years. Sara’s passion is for discipling and teaching the youth in her church where her love for teaching the Bible and theology are utilized. She graduated from Multnomah University where she majored in Bible and Theology and Youth Ministry, and from Multnomah Seminary, where she graduated with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies.

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[1] Etienne Gilson, Dante: The Philosopher, translated by David Moore (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 60.

[2] Ibid., 71.

[3] Ibid., 66.

[4] Ibid., 287.

[5] I am fully aware of the McCormack versus Molnar and Hunsinger debate regarding this issue as it relates to election, the being of God, and how to correctly interpret Barth. I clearly disagree with McCormack’s post-metaphysical theology. I know this statement is not in keeping with certain interpretations of Rahner’s rule as well. However, I don’t have the space to argue this highly contentious issue.

[6] Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, NPNF  62.