“It’s a gift to not know what to say,” was my writing teacher’s response to my whining about the weekly grind of producing a Sunday sermon. I was looking for an escape from being caught between the wall of what I am supposed to say and the ocean of silence of what I can say with conviction. When Diana Goetsch, our writing instructor, met with us the first night she said that, “writing is not self expression. It is other expression.” She explained that the goal of the workshop was to slip the noose of the ego because “the lease creative force is the human ego.”
I like being told that my writing is good. I enjoy likes on Facebook and praise comments on my blog posts. During class Diana would give us writing prompts and we would write for five or ten or fifteen minutes. If we wanted we could what we wrote. But we didn’t give feedback. In the silence after sharing what we read I could feel the little ego inside of me jumping up and down and asking, “what did you think? Was it any good? Am I any good? Do you like me?” But writing, or any art for that matter, that is motivated by the ego’s need to be admired will never tap into the holy.
And that’s not the only way the ego gets in the way of art or revelation. The ego likes to be in control and thinks it has the right answers. We can’t truly explore if we already know where we’re going.
During one class we spent a significant portion talking about “negative capability,” a phrase coined by John Keats in a letter to his brother. He writes, “…several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
Negative capability is demanded by true spirituality and so often squashed by the church. We like our doctrines and our disciplines and our clear understandings of right and wrong. We like to pin God down, and stick him behind glass where we can point at him with admiration and pride and say, “see what I found.” Negative capability invites us to understand the Holy as a hummingbird that flits into and out of view in the same moment.