Writing a Spiritual Memoir

by Jack E Nelson

A pilgrimage is a journey where the destination may be vague, though often idealized, and the road is unclear. Such excursions have been popular for thousands of years and the practice of pilgrimage exist in all of the world's major religious traditions. The chemin des Saint-Jacques, originating in multiple locations in France, converging in the Pyrenees Mountains, and heading west to Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain, has been a popular pilgrimage route since the 10th century. Pilgrimages to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia; to the Buddha's birthplace at Lumbini, India; or to Hindu spiritual centers such as Hardawar, in northern India, are other examples with long histories.

But a pilgrimage is really an inner journey of mind and spirit, and a person need not have physically traveled anywhere other than down the road of life to have been on a pilgrimage. These are journeys of inner transformation, where the search is for spiritual truth and assurance. A spiritual memoir is the story of the journey, the adversities encountered along the way, the insights learned, and the lessons to be shared with others.

Spiritual memoirs are a popular genre. Among the forms they take there is the "quest for the holy grail" experience. People lose their childhood innocence and start questioning the religious views they were raised with. Disillusioned, they go in search of something more authentic, more rationally defensible, or more consoling. For many the journey continues for years, with repeated disappointments. A more skeptical, even cynical, outlook may emerge, but there remains deep within a longing to find a truth that will bring contentment and conviction.

Sometimes these searches end up back where they began, with a person re-entering the community of faith she or he was raised in, rediscovering a long-lost feeling of belonging. Still, the long quest does not seem like a fruitless pursuit. A more mature outlook has been gained, along with a greater appreciation for simple truths, and an emerging desire to look after the spiritual needs of others.

Quests for the holy grail often lead to something different than what people thought they were searching for. People desperately search for one kind of security and end up realizing a more astonishing source of solace lies elsewhere. A "letting go and letting God" kind of experience is frequently written about as a turning point in people's quests.

Another form spiritual memoirs frequently take is the "dark night of the soul" ordeal. A crisis forces a person to re-examine his or her understanding of the meaning of life. Critical medical conditions, social upheavals or psychological conflicts can bring on a dark night of the soul. The 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, who wrote the original book with this title, spent two years in a dank prison being tormented by his enemies. He came away from his suffering feeling gratitude toward his captors. They had inadvertently taught him that the soul must empty itself of the self before it can be filled with God.

Frequently in these kinds of spiritual memoirs afflictions force a person to be open to new spiritual insights. People learn from their pain of less conventional but more meaningful perspectives on life. Spiritual resources that don't work are abandoned in exchange for others discovered in the depths of despair.

Yet another form a spiritual memoir can take is a straightforward recollection of a life of pilgrimage. This can be less a seeking and finding experience and more an occurrence of a spiritual fulfillment lived out in diverse ways. People are sometimes satisfied with the religious commitments they make early in life. Major turning points in their lives are understood to have a spiritual dimension. The choices they make are profoundly influenced by the religious beliefs and values they hold dear. Their spiritual memoirs are the stories of how they put their faith into practice and how their beliefs carried them through difficult stretches in their lives. Reflections at the end of the journey can bring a sense of validation and a feeling of closure.

For those who have learned much from their spiritual journeys, the lessons gleaned ought to be shared with others who are questing. A spiritual memoir can make a wonderful gift in the form of a testimony of hope and inspiration.

Jack E. Nelson, from Charlotte, N.C., devotes his time to helping people write engaging books, mostly personal memoirs and autobiographies. He can be reached at 704-243-4447.

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