Kindness stories in the modern spiritual mode

tender.jpgEvery generation throws up popular reflection on how best to live. Much of it comes from within religious traditions. It is designed to help people reflect on their lives by building bridges between religious traditions and the world in which the reader lives. It is instructive to note how its style and emphases vary with changes in the religious and broader culture.

Julie Perrin‘s recent book Tender, a collection of short reflections, grouped thematically, is splendid in its own right. It is spare and elegant in its writing, inclusive in its address and open-ended in its invitation to reflection. It also offers an occasion to reflect on the ways in which spiritual writing has changed.

Seventy years ago much spiritual writing was based in the language, ritual practices and shared faith of religious communities. Readers outside the community would normally feel themselves made outsiders. A reader wandering along shelves of spiritual books would look first for their denominational origin to see if they were Anglican, say, or Catholic. If readers drew on their own experience or on contemporary news, they usually did so simply to illustrate a point already made conceptually.

Fifty years ago many churches were becoming less tribal, ascription to faith was less certain, and people looked to a range of authorities when seeking wisdom. Though spiritual writers generally worked within a particular tradition, they also drew on other Christian and religious traditions and appealed to psychology and other secular sources. The writing was often exploratory rather than didactic. Readers measured it, not by its denominational solidity, but by its spiritual depth.

Today another genre coexists with those earlier ones. In it, writers with a strong and questioning faith address a general audience, using anecdotes, inherited wisdom, contemporary social debates and a broad cultural reference to encourage their readers to move beyond inherited prejudice and ask themselves what really matters. The heart of the exercise is to find the right words that will disclose the depth in ordinary experience. The writing encourages readers to pay attention to the world around them, to wonder, and to celebrate God’s presence there. Readers evaluate it by the quality of the writing and its attentiveness to the depth of ordinary human experience.

Among writers familiar in Australia who write in this vein are Michael McGirr, Terry Monagle, Pádraig Ó Tuama and the much missed Brian Doyle. Their writing does not merely describe but evokes and creates a world, and shapes a human response that respects its variety and mystery. Significantly, too, these writers are masters of short anecdotal pieces which invite us to see the great in the small. They also write fastidiously, choosing words that disclose freshly aspects of reality which the language of traditions conceals at first reading. Following the age-old advice to writers their words don’t merely tell but show.

These qualities are evident in Tender. Even the title is evocative. Not Tenderness, a lovely word, but sometimes tainted with sentimentality, the adjective Tender suggests at once rawness, vulnerability, affection and offering. In the subtitle — stories that lean into kindness — lean intimates the delicacy of an invitation to follow a direction without compulsion. It also suggests the intimacy shown when we lean on another’s shoulder, and perhaps trust that the reader will respond to the gentle invitation. Kindness evokes both generosity and our shared humanity.

The encounters and reflections that compose the book display the same sharp attention to the rawness and pathos of reality and the possibilities of words. Behind the initial detail of description of place, time and ordinary actions, a deeper reality is disclosed that leads to reflection inviting readers to ask themselves what matters. In ‘Bank Teller’, for example, the opening paragraph sets the scene through simple, carefully observed detail:

In Melbourne, I’m walking along Sydney Road, Brunswick, the traffic is stretched bumper to bumper. There is a taxi at the kerb outside the bank. As I enter the foyer through the glass doors a young man is walking towards me. His arm is outstretched as if to make a space ahead of him. With his other arm he is guiding a woman dressed in long flowing robes and hijab.

The succeeding paragraphs fill out the description. The young man is corporately dressed, sharp, but in his attention there is something unexpectedly ‘decorous, almost tender’. The woman’s face is a mass of scarring, with no nose, and she seems to be blinded. As they talk together, ‘he leans his head closer, so he can hear’. The final paragraph sums up the story into which the reader has been drawn and invites them to ponder a larger question:

Human cruelty and human kindness, they sit closely together. The bank teller carved out a space for the scarred woman to walk in. Her presence and energy called something out of him, and from other witnesses to their conversation. What will it take before we can make space on our shores for people who carry their scars less visibly?

In this writing, every word, every punctuation mark, every turn of phrase has been considered in order to draw the reader into the human reality of a simple action, to share the writer’s compassionate regard, and finally to embrace a question that ripples out into widening circles. Our shores can be those of our inner life, our domestic relationships, of our workplace and, evidently, of our nation.

In this book, as in the genre of which it is representative, the writing encourages the readers to draw on their traditions, not as authorities to close conversation but as resources to open it. It displays devotion to the word fleshed out.

Reposted from Eureka Street.

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Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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