I’m a strange girl: I have a thing about the Church Fathers. In fact, I did my Ph.D. on humanist translations of their work in the Renaissance period and how they were used to make points about contemporary culture. My former English teacher was shocked when I told him what I was going to research – when I could’ve looked at anything in literature …!
But then maybe it’s not so weird. The sixteenth and seventeenth humanists who did these translations were/ are my passion because they were geeks like me – and so were the Church Fathers. They loved nothing more than sitting with their piles of expensive tomes, wrestling with difficult ideas, consumed by words. Writing, writing, writing …
The humanists also believed that learning had a social purpose – that it had to make a difference somehow, that it had to be useful (compared to the logical Medieval scholars who they – wrongly – suggested were only interested in how many angels would fit on the head of a pin). I partly blame them – along with the nascent capitalism and Protestant movements of the time – for helping to construct the work ethic, the accent on doing over being – which has generated so much havoc in my life. But this notion that ideas can touch others and even change the world is a powerful one and something which I share.
Like the humanists, I believe that we writers have a responsibility to spread our creative insights – and this is a beautiful responsibility, a contribution which all of us can make, no matter how talented or skilled we are at our craft. Everyone without exception has experiences which are valuable to others, even if they’re clumsily conveyed. And this is why it’s important that we get to the page, even when those red cowboy boots on EBay look much more inviting!
That aside, I’ve always thought that a certain tale about one particular Church Father, St. Jerome, encapsulates so much about the writing life. Various stories circulate about him taming a lion by removing a thorn from its paw. Images abound of this lion sitting next to his desk whilst he studies.
The point is, for me, though that all writers have a lion next to their desks – writing is about pacifying the lion of fear which can stop us working; the lion who roars with life’s dramas and trivialities and won’t let us find our creative peace.
But the lion is also there as our protector, I think – the lion who stops our sacred writing time being interrupted; the lion who guards us from those who doubt us, those who would bring hell into our heavenly place.
St. Jerome’s relationship with the lion also resounds with compassion – by removing the thorn from the dangerous beast’s paw, the story speaks of having the bravery to sit with what scares us and tend to those wounds. To look at our issues as a writer and gently say: “It’s okay, I know you’re terrified – but come here anyway.” St. Jerome’s story tells us that although writing can be big and may potentially maul us, we should embrace that – we must trust in its grace and our ability to survive any attacks.
Jack Kornfield says of meditation that: “When we take the one seat, we will find we are unshakeable” – that by sitting non-judgementally with whatever arises will we learn steadfastness in the face of the mind’s monkey mischief. One of my former writing workshop participants (now a dear friend) makes a point of going to her desk every night, even if she’s too tired to work after her taxing job. It gets her used to being there whatever mood she’s in and it also gives her comfort. Steadily, the once spooky desk becomes home, becomes retreat and sanctuary. I think this is something we all need to try, as well as making our desks as welcoming places as we can – maybe we could even get a cuddly lion to guard us while we type!
Because that’s what I think St. Jerome’s tale ultimately tells us – stay at your desk and keep on doing what you love, even if a lion walks in.