Writing and the Sacred and Why I Can’t Write This Essay – An essay by John Backman

Writing and the Sacred and Why I Can’t Write This Essay

I can’t write about writing and the sacred. It’ll take me two stories to tell you why. 

Story one: I’ve nearly finished the manuscript for my first book. Only the epilogue remains, and lumps of it stare at me from my laptop, which sits on a desk in the monastery I’m visiting. I’ve had breakfast and coffee, and it’s 9:00 and why not work on the epilogue? I just want to see if anything will flow. 

Something does. It gathers strength as the morning passes.

I want to take my usual 10:30 break, but the flow won’t let me. At noon I’m starving and they’re serving lunch and the aroma of cheese wafts into the room, but the words will not stop. I barely manage to run to the dining room for an egg before hastening back. 

Then the flow turns into a flood. My fingers keep typing words I don’t recognize and they rush pell-mell onto the screen. It’s like speaking in tongues that way, the arrival of language from somewhere else. The end of the session is the end of the book; the last glittering sentences tumble out at 3:00. The sacred being what it is, the sentences are perfect. 

* * *

Story two: Many years ago I built a business. Part of that business—the OCD part, which comes into everything I do—demanded that I keep timesheets down to the minute. After all, clients shouldn’t pay me when I’m not working, not even for bathroom breaks, right? The timesheets helped me draw clear lines between work and non-work, productive and unproductive. 

Then the Spirit nudged me to write about spirit. 

Timesheets were useless here, because writing about spirit demands flow, and how do you time flow? Snippets of morning prayer would show up in my journal, journal insights would inform blog posts, blog posts would blossom into articles would become a book the insights in which would feed my inner work in morning prayer. Productive? Unproductive? Who knew? 

Also, the flow didn’t stop. At first I wrote an occasional weekend or two. Then an hour a day. Now it’s spilled over into every morning, and the water keeps rising, obliterating every clear line I’ve ever drawn. 

* * *

You may think these stories really are about writing and the sacred. But they’re not, not really. By the end they’re only about the sacred. The sacred takes over the writing—not just the words, but the process; not just for one ecstatic day, but for a lifetime—and draws it gently, lovingly, irresistibly into itself. 

And that’s the point. Writing becomes part of the sacred like everything becomes part of the sacred. Including us. 

It’s like water. We can direct it for a while, with dams and levees and conduits, control the flow to serve our ends. Beyond that, though, the water will have its way—its subsuming, life-giving way.  


As a spiritual director and monastic associate, John Backman writes mostly noncreative nonfiction about contemplative spirituality and its relevance for today’s deepest issues. This includes a book (Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart) and articles in such places as Spirituality & Health.

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