Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Today a book came to hand in the unsorted library of Grace Watkins.
Grace, in her early days, aspired to be a journalist and later helped in Parish worked and act as Catechist with the children. Her books and diary show her love of writing. She left a note, shopping  list, in this book of Van Zeller. The Chapter, "Spiritual Writer's Cramp", recalls the interests of Grace.

Downside Abbey
Dom Hubert van Zeller (1905–1984) 
was born in Egypt and entered Downside Abbey at the age of nineteen. He briefly left Downside to try his vocation with the Carthusians. A talented sculptor as well as a writer, his artworks adorn churches in Britain (many works can be seen at Downside abbey) and the United States. He was a friend of the great Catholic writers Msgr. Ronald Knox and Evelyn Waugh, and is the author of Holiness: A Guide for Beginners, Holiness for Housewives, and Spirit of Penance, Path to God, We Sing While There’s Voice Left.  

Internet Archive
We Sing While There’s Voice Left
by Dom Hubert Van Zeller 1950


ONE OF the things which hinder a writer on spiritual subjects is the fact that he cannot get away from himself. His case-book is his own soul, his stock-pot is his own past, he is his own yard-stick. [1] It is a drawback to him for two reasons: first he is forced in upon himself, examining, weighing up, racking his memory, testing his good-faith the whole time and this is bad, because the spiritual life is meant to be as objective as possible; second, his wares are thrown out into the open market to be viewed by the curious and the critical as well as by those whom he is doing his best to benefit. He becomes like a poulterer who decides that the best way of satisfying his customers is to lay himself on the marble slab along with the pheasants and partridges. He is, in a true sense, "game". The customers, quite rightly, take advantage of this. Peering and prodding, the reviewers make comparisons. Deductions follow swiftly. It is, for the person on the slab, all very intimate and shaming. But then the price of having a public is the giving away, to a certain extent, of what is private; it is a price which any writer should be willing to pay. If he is sincere, an author is the servant of other people the vast majority of whom he is never likely to meet - and service is always a privilege for which one has to pay. All the same, it does rather cramp one's style —to know one is virtually a confession at Hyde Park Cornet.

[1 Of course it works both, ways, because if he is fool enough to shy away from his own experience on the grounds of personal failure (or on any other grounds if it comes to that), he will show himself up pretty soon as an impostor. People know instinctively when he is drawing upon other men's findings. So it is safer in the long run to stick to what he knows from the inside from his inside.]

What has been said here not apply only to writers on the subject of spirituality: it applies to all writers, but particularly, in the secular sphere, to p0ets s novelists, and dramatists. In a lesser degree are historians and biographers involved, while clearly it has only the most accidental connection with political pamphleteers, economists, and students of sociology. Every craftsman however all the more so if he is a creative artist as well betrays his personality in Ms work He must do. It is to a large extent through his work that he expresses his own essential and individual self. A man may find means of fluent self-expression over a tankard in an inn or across a kitchen table when discussing household expenses with his wife, but if we are looking for the normal signs of a man's development, if we want to discover traces of the incommunicable ego, we must examine the kind of impress a man's character has left upon his work.

The question for the individual worker to decide is how much or how little of himself lie need or possibly must reveal. In order to make his work a true and finished realisation of what was originally conceived, he may not divorce the maker from the made. He not only may not, but cannot. He will expose himself somewhere. Certainly the history of literature has shown that whether authors have or have not consciously approached the question of self-revelation in their work, the question has in fact -though variously and according to the different natures involved been, decided. Some have obviously made up their minds to give away no more of themselves than they could help; others have gone the whole length and allowed the world to see them as, accurately or inaccurately, they have seen themselves. Others again, and let us hope that there are more of these than of any other, did not seem to mind what came to light about their interiors provided the main purpose of truth (or of art, or of politics, or of morality, or of whatever cause it was that they were trying to further) was served. Thus you get Dickens, for example, guarding the secrets of his own personal struggle, and putting people off the scent right and left. Not even Dickens could altogether cover up the frustrations which were his by circumstance and temperament. In another column you get such widely different writers as Tolstoi, Chesterton, Graham Greene, Dostoievski, Ibsen, Elizabeth Bowen, Mauriac, Virginia Woolf, Compton Mackenzie, Emlyn Williams, each in his or her contrasting way ready to reveal as much as anyone wants to know.
Their essential natures, though not necessarily their moral conflicts or unique spiritual aspirations, are open to the skies. Finally you get a smaller group of writers who quite deliberately investigate the nature of man by carefully studying their own. These are they who tell the time by the ticking of their own hearts. Other people's problems, whether fictional or actual, are seen as projections of their own. Given right principles such writers, on account of their first-hand approach and intuitive grasp, can be enormously helpful in the world. All too often, however, they go round and round in circles always coming back to themselves as the focus of interest. It is all right to start off from self, but it is a mistake to be so absorbed in the starting point as to be for ever returning to it. D. H. Lawrence, Stendhal, Proust, Flaubert, Joyce, Matthew Arnold are names which suggest themselves, but such a selection is entirely arbitrary and probably most unfair. At It is curious that among this last company, whether or not you happen to agree about the actual in the secular list, must be numbered most of the more widely read spiritual writers. This is not so curious when you consider two things: first, as already noted, that the of research is necessarily the soul of the person writing; and second that, in the effort to suppress what is wrong about his own geist or daemon, the spiritual writer is letting off steam. This last point is worth a final paragraph.

It must be remembered that the writing of books is often for this kind of author the only outlet. Where another may find parallel or complementary forms of self-expression in rearing a family, in travel, in running a farm or an estate, in going to race meetings and the theatre, the ordinary writer of spiritual books must particularly if he has not the active care of souls and does not play the piano or paint work the creative urge out of his system somehow. The apostolic urge is only an aspect of the creative urge, and both find fulfilment of some sort in writing books about the spiritual life. If all this energy came forth in the form of fiction it would probably be an even greater release, as it was for instance in the case of Mgr. Benson, but it is probably true to say that when celibate writers take to telling stories out of their heads they tend to do so with more reference to their hearts than to their minds. Psychologists would tell us that where there has been no experience of passionate romance a good enough substitute may be found in writing about it. Rather than turn themselves into romantic novelists, authors with any sort of interest in the spiritual life are inclined, wisely, to walk on safer ground.

To conclude. Whatever we may feel about releasing tie incommunicable ego, and allowing for die drawbacks already mentioned in this essay, it does seem to be worth while for a man to exploit any inclination which he may have towards writing for the benefit of his fellow men. [1] It will mean that he has not only to test his subject by his knowledge of himself, but that he has also to test himself by the practice of his subject. And this is very good for him indeed. The same is the case with regard to preaching: the value of what is said is measured by the sincerity of its source, and the source is valued according to the sincerity of its purpose. There are dangers of course: the writer may become an exhibitionist, he may be more concerned with his powers of perception and exposition than with what he perceives and exposes, he may cheapen his vision or use it for ambitious and material ends. There is no knowing what a man may not do with the gifts God gives him. But assuming that the soul has a right intention and is not deliberately unfaithful to its call, the dangers will be to him drawbacks only and to be bracketed with the trivial little things which we considered at the start. It is always the same in the spiritual life: such dangers have power to cramp but not to crush. Does it so very much matter if our style is toned down and our freedom of expression is limited? So long as we set out to declare what we conceive to be God's word, and stand by that intention till the opportunity of doing so is removed, there is no great likelihood of spoiling the work either by exposing ourselves too readily or congratulating ourselves too soon. We have our critics to thank for this.

[1] The reflections expressed here are intended to counter the misgivings suggested on p. 41.

1 comment:

Charles van Leeuwen said...

Thank you for this nice and long quote! It is also very revealing for a incredibly productive author like Van Zeller is. I am writing a short article about him, especically about the link between his 'creative urge' and 'apostolic urge'...

Charles van Leeuwen