A Feature Review of
Writing – The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice
Rami Shapiro and Aaron Shapiro
Reviewed by Rachel Diem.
“The most troubling and hence potentially liberating discovery is yet to come,” Rami Shapiro says in his preface to this book, and I did find the experience of working through the exercises in Writing – The Sacred Art both troubling and liberating. The troubling part led to what I can honestly call ‘soul searching’ – the process of questioning and beginning to clarify the relationship between my religious beliefs and my direct experience of the divine. I found it troubling; and yet when I sat down to make some notes toward this review, the first thing I did was make a list of the friends with whom I wanted to share the book.
Rami Shapiro has been a rabbi for more than thirty years, and for much of that time has also been a spiritual teacher / guide / mentor, in books and in person, for individuals from faith traditions other than his own, and for those living on the fringes of, or outside of a faith tradition, as well as fellow Jews. My first introduction to his work had to do with what has come to be called ‘eco-kashrut’ – integrating the practice of keeping kosher with (or re-envisioning that practice as) a profound awareness of ethical consumption and a compassionate relationship with the rest of creation. Rabbi Shapiro has written other manuals of spiritual practice, including, among others, Recovery – The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice; The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness: Preparing to Practice; and Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity. Rabbi Shapiro has also published translations of the Biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Pirke Avot, and other texts from the Jewish spiritual traditions. If you’re curious, check out his blog: http://www.rabbirami.blogspot.com/. Aaron Shapiro is an award-winning poet who teaches writing and literature at Middle State Tennessee University. Whatever else they have created together in this book, I think it’s an antidote for complacency.
Writing – The Sacred Art is not a writing book, in the sense of a book on the craft of writing or the business of writing – it’s not about creating a plot or a narrative voice, and it’s even less about creating a platform or a brand. It’s more of a toolbox, or a manual – or maybe a cutting torch or a crucible or a lens. The writing exercises in this book are practices that help strip away what the authors call “the illusion of self” to allow the apprehension of Spirit. The exercises focus attention or explode attention, radically altering your perception of reality and yourself and the relationship between the two. At least – that was how I found it. I have a hunch it would be possible to use many of these exercises in less potentially alarming ways. (Several of them can even be used as games.) But if you are committed to a set of beliefs, or dependent on particular conventions or habits of mind that you’re unwilling to have disrupted, this might not be a toolbox you want to open. This book means to shake things up. Aaron Shapiro, in his preface, describes these exercises as opportunities that may or may not bring you to an encounter with the unknown. My point is, if you’re not looking for those encounters – proceed with caution.
If you are looking for ways to shake up your writing, your spiritual life, your encounters with reality and yourself – I recommend this book to you. I recommend this book to my writer friends, especially those whose relationship with words has grown stale or rigid. I recommend it to my friends in faith traditions who look for a new way to crack open their experience of the divine. I recommend it to you if you are in either of those groups. I also recommend it to those of you who think shaking up your own habits of mind is fun, or frightening, or a big adventure. You can work through all the exercises in a week or two (and then begin the spiral again, more on the ‘spiral’ below); you can pick up and put down the book over the course of a year; you can do most of the exercises alone, or all of them with others (although you may not want to share the results). As Rami says in his preface, (each of the co-authors has his own preface) this is not a book, or a practice, that has to do with writing for readers. “You aren’t writing to be read; you are writing to be freed.”
The “five worlds” model of the human being as spiritual being – body, heart, mind, soul, spirit – forms the spine of the book. The authors do not conceive this as a vertical (or horizontal) spine with a tailbone and skull, but as Mobius strip of a returning spiral, following which the reader/writer travels inward and outward, not ending except in integration (or dissolution?) and beginning again. Each ‘world’ has a variety of exercises to open that world, and to open the reader/writer to that world. Although some exercises come more readily, and some may feel more “fun” (or easier or more difficult) than others, none of these qualifications are necessarily associated with their impact. Some exercises (those that require other people, for example, or a newspaper) you may not be able to do at the time you first read them. Come back to them.
Writing – The Sacred Art will rattle your cage. Maybe it will rattle it so much that the door will fly open. I hope so.
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