My vocation is to write.
When I’m tempted to distraction or guilt over all the other work that needs doing in the church and the world, I must repeat this to myself: My vocation is to write.
We’re all called to kingdom building, but words are the only tools that fit in my hands. When I’ve tried to do anything else it has been with discomfort and ineptitude to the point of comedy. I’ve known this about myself since at least second grade, but I didn’t realize that my particular gift, which has also felt like a burden, could be useful or even necessary within my church—that a calling to write or to be an artist could be a spiritual call wasn’t clear to me until graduate school.
I went to an M.F.A. program in creative writing in Pittsburgh. I was trying to write my thesis, a collection of profiles of the many brilliant and troubled women who worked with artist Andy Warhol, but I was hopelessly stuck. I found myself intrigued mostly by what I was learning about Warhol himself—that he was a lifelong Catholic who worked in soup kitchens to feed the homeless and attended daily Mass. I began to attend daily Mass myself. And it wasn’t until I began to write about my religion and spirituality that the words came easily again.
It was that simple, and it wasn’t simple at all.
To follow this call I risked being discredited as an artist. Even Catholic writers we revere, like Flannery O’Connor, sniffed at the idea of being labeled Catholic and shunted into a pious box or policed for orthodoxy by the church. Was there a way to be a Catholic, to write for and within the Catholic Church, and yet preserve artistic integrity? It’s an ongoing battle for me and not a lucrative one. Yet this space of creative tension is exactly where my writing thrives and where my work seems to have the most impact on individual readers. I often feel like an accidental evangelist, as I’ve never set out to convert or persuade or defend. I simply tell stories. And yet it’s when doing what I do most naturally, by being what I have come to realize is most fully myself, that I feel I have served God and the church well.
When writing feels useless and ineffectual, which it often will for any writer, particularly in times when we are witnessing great suffering and injustice, I’ve been tempted to crusade or divert energy into other missionary actions. I’ve been tempted to spend the time I spend writing instead serving bread and soup. But writing well, for me, even if it comes “naturally” in that it uses a God-given facility and love for language and storytelling, requires single-mindedness. This is when I must repeat to myself: My vocation is to write. I have the ability and therefore the duty to provide succor to the suffering in this particular way. Art can be another path to God. Art can be another kind of food that helps people to thrive.
Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash
This article is part of a series of reflections on faith and vocation that appeared in our August 2017 issue. The essays will be collected here as they are published.