Tonight I picked up Henri Nouwen's book, Return of the Prodigal Son. It's a book that I've been reading on and off for a year or so. I picked it up today, curious to see how far I had gotten, as well as to look again at the passages that I had underlined.
As I looked through the book, I began thinking of the different styles and voices of the authors that have meant so much to me over the past couple of years. I think much of the power of Nouwen's writing comes from his honesty and vulnerability. He's very open, sometimes uncomfortably so, but I think he reached a point in his writing where he decided that it was better to bare more than less, since the story of God's redemption in his life was all the more powerful.
Here's an example of his openness:
Constantly falling back into an old trap, before I am even fully aware of it, I find myself wondering why someone hurt me, rejected me, or didn't pay attention to me. Without realizing it, I find myself brooding about someone else's success, my own loneliness, and the way the world abuses me. Despite my conscious intentions, I often catch myself daydreaming about becoming rich, powerful, and very famous. All of these mental games reveal to me the fragility of my faith that I am the Beloved One on whom God's favor rests. I am so afraid of being disliked, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father's home and choose to dwell in a "distant country.
It can be difficult reading about someone who is asking those kinds of questions, and at times, when I read Nouwen, I cringe. Perhaps it's because he's sharing so much of his inner life that I don't feel comfortable reading it, or perhaps I cringe because it hits a little too close to home. What I find in reading him, however, is that he has a very distinct voice, one that desires to come alongside the reader and says, "You know, you and I are very much alike. I have traveled the same journey as you, and in fact, probably have known valleys of despair as deep as your own. Come. Let us travel this road together, you and I."
Elisabeth Elliot's voice is completely different. She tends to "call it like it is," and sometimes her voice is a clarion call to wake up and grow up. Nouwen could be accused at times of being a bit whiney. That's not Elisabeth Elliot at all. At times, I think some could call her a bit harsh at times, but there's no question that she speaks the truth.
Here's some classic, no-nonsense Elliot, from A Path Through Suffering:
"It'll never work for mine," someone is tempted to say. Are you sure that your problems baffle the one who since the world began has been bringing flowers from thorns? Your thorns are a different story, are they? You have been brought to a place of self-despair, nothingness. It is hard even to think of any good reason for going on. You live in most unfavorable conditions, with intractable people, you are up against impossible odds. Is this something new? The people of Israel were up against impossible odds when they found themselves between the chariots of Egypt and the Red Sea. Their God is our God. The God of Israel...looks down on us with love and says, "Nothing has happened to you which is not common to all. I can manage it. Trust Me."
Elliot calls a spade a spade, and calls her readers to wake up to the adulthood that is theirs in Christ Jesus, where as Nouwen woos with empathy and compassion. Merton seems to me to be more dispassionate in his writing. His voice is more matter of fact, writing about the way things are, and with the implication that if you are wise, you will choose to accept that wisdom. His writing seems to me to reflect more the writing of the early church fathers, speaking of the value of giving one's life to complete abandonment to God, for His sake, and for ours. Merton continually appeals to the belief that true happiness will only come from submitting to the will of God. It's not a wooing through empathy, or a wake up call, but rather he describes what Clement of Alexandria called the "Blessed Life." I think the power of his writing comes from creating a description of what our true calling is as Children of the Most High, and the belief that by revealing the truth, the image of God in all of us will recognize it and be drawn to it.
I've excerpted the following before on my blog, but if you read it, I think you'll see what I mean.
Every baptized Christian is obliged by his baptismal promises to renounce sin and to give himself completely, without compromise, to Christ, in order that he may fulfill his vocation, save his soul, enter into the mystery of God, and there find himself perfectly "in the light of Christ."
As St. Paul reminds us (1 Cor. 6: 19), we are "not our own." We belong entirely to Christ. His Spirit has taken possession of us at baptism. We are the Temples of the Holy Spirit. Our thoughts, our actions, our desires, are by rights more his than our own. But we have to struggle to ensure that God always receives from us what we owe him by right. If we do not labor to overcome our natural weakness, our disordered and selfish passions, what belongs to God in us will be withdrawn from the sanctifying power of his love and will be corrupted by selfishness, blinded by irrational desire, hardened by pride, and will eventually plunge into the abyss of moral nonentity which is called sin.
Sin is the refusal of spiritual life, the rejection of the inner order and peace that come from our union with the divine will. In a word, sin is the refusal of God's will and of his love. It is not only a refusal to "do" this or that thing willed by God, or a determination to do what he forbids. It is more radically a refusal to be what we are, a rejection of our mysterious, contingent, spiritual reality hidden in the very mystery of God. Sin is our refusal to be what we were created to be-sons of God, images of God. Ultimately sin, while seeming to be an assertion of freedom, is a flight from the freedom and the responsibility of divine sonship.
Every Christian is therefore called to sanctity and union with Christ, by keeping the commandments of God.
As I write myself, I wonder what voice will emerge through my writing. One thing that I've learned from Merton is the beauty that is our individuality, that it is through our very uniqueness that we reflect the love of Christ to others in ways that no one else can, or ever will again. That's what comes through in the different voices of Nouwen, Elliot and Merton, and all the other great Christian authors we look to for guidance. I think the temptation for me is to try and parrot the voice of these authors I love so much. As I write sometimes, I find myself thinking about their writing, and how mine might resemble certain passages from their books. I believe that what any Christian writer must do to become a great writer is to learn to find his or her own voice, not as he or she desires it to be, but as God intends for it to be. That could be a very different thing than what we desire, but as with all parts of life, it is by submitting to God's will and direction for our writing that we will find the most fulfillment, and by extension, where our writing will be used most powerfully in the lives of others.
My prayer is that my genuine voice will come through, loud and clear, and that I won't attempt to parrot the writing of my literary heroes.