Overcoming Doubts: A Writer’s Asceticism

In light of this morning’s announcement, let us hold Pope Benedict XVI and the Church in our prayers.

* * *

IMG_0006This Sunday’s readings really struck home for me this weekend. All of them are about being called by God, and all include a reference to the immense unworthiness the called person felt: Isaiah, Paul of Tarsus, and Peter the Apostle.

This sense of unworthiness really resonates with me for many reasons, but especially right now.  I’m almost at the midpoint of my first major rewrite of my book on the Eucharist, and I’m starting to undergo my midpoint doubts: “You don’t have anything worthwhile to say”; and especially, the doubt particular to this project: “You aren’t worthy/ready to write about the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.”

No matter how much I write, doubts like these always surface at these points:

1) Right about the time I’ve committed to the work and have a deadline

2) From 1/3-2/3 of my first draft

3) Beginning any major rewrite

4) Midpoint through any major rewrite

Sometimes the doubts are so strong I want to give up. But giving up is a mistake. Giving up shakes my self-confidence in general, not just for writing. Overcoming the “inner obstacles” to fulfill our call to write requires a particular asceticism, in addition to the usual asceticism we practice as Catholics and in our spiritual lives. (Asceticism in the Christian sense is the discipline that helps us to free ourselves from tendencies–sinful or not–which can be obstacles in the spiritual life. Mortification, training, moderation, and self-restraint are all terms that highlight particular aspects of asceticism.) Since we start Lent this week, I’ve been thinking a bit more about asceticism.

Blessed James Alberione, who has developed a wonderful spirituality for communicators as the Founder of the Pauline Family, encouraged an approach to asceticism that I find especially helpful. While he recognized the need for discipline and mortification, he felt that it was really important to “replace” whatever we give up with something positive. Alberione’s Pauline spirituality, focused on the person of Christ, encouraged communicators to live Christ in our minds, wills, and hearts. Perhaps because they were less spoken about in his day, he focused in a particular way on sanctifying our thoughts and feelings. He encouraged replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and nurturing holy desires to replace desires that don’t lead us to Christ. 

Since I intend to complete my rewrite during Lent, what ascetic practices could helpful for me to continue, even when I undergo strong doubts?

Sanctify my thoughts

*Let go of or dismiss overwhelming doubts
Sometimes it helps if I challenge my doubts with reality. (e.g. “My editor must think I can write this book, since she accepted the project.” Or: “One of my test readers liked the chapter they read.” This happened to me just the other day, when someone called to tell me what a difference my book, See Yourself Through God’s Eyes, has made in the life of his friend.) Sometimes it is helpful to see my persistent doubts as a temptation from the devil, so that I bring them to prayer right away, asking Jesus to overcome them. 

*Make a habit of thinking positive thoughts about my writing and about this project.
Positive thoughts are not to build up my ego, but simply to encourage me through the challenges. High expectations derail my writing, so it’s important to stay rooted in reality and let go of fantasies like writing “the best book ever.” Realistic, positive thoughts such as this can give me the encouragement to keep going: “My book might help some people to begin adoration, and it might help others to deepen their appreciation of the gift of the Eucharist”

Sanctify  my will 

*Don’t stop writing no matter what.
Some ways that I keep up a writing momentum:
–Start each new writing session with a writing exercise or brainstorming
–If necessary, break my writing down into small steps and just focus on one step
–Take a break by doing a practical task that I can complete in an hour or less. 

If I really get stuck, switching to another writing project can be extraordinarily helpful.

*Take care of myself spiritually, emotionally, physically; practice moderation in my day to day choices even more than usual.
When my writing session is going really well or really poorly, I tend to get overly preoccupied and start to ignore things like meals or exercise. In this case, living with other people is helpful, even when it interrupts a great writing session. The convent schedule helps provide a balance: prayer together, meals, meetings, recreation, etc. (My community and I have agreed that one day a week is a more intensive writing day, and the sisters know that I won’t be present at certain times that day.) On my more intensive writing days, it’s even more important than usual to stick with a healthy routine that includes exercise, enough sleep, etc.

Sanctify my heart

*Watch out for the emotional highs and lows that come with writing intensely.
For me, this involves: accepting the intense feelings, offering them to Jesus, and letting them go whenever possible. Journaling or talking with a trustworthy friend about the intense highs and lows can also help me to process intense feelings so that they don’t become overwhelming.  

*Let go of paralyzing fears
Though I may still feel fearful, I don’t focus on my fears. When fear becomes particularly intense, I pray for the future readers or viewers of my project. Focusing on their needs helps to keep my fears in perspective.

*Entrust the project and all my feelings about it to Christ, so that He can make of it what He wants.

None of us will ever be “worthy” of our call, whatever we write. Following Christ is not about becoming worthy, but it is about trusting in Him and His love. As I continue to pray with yesterday’s Gospel (Luke 5:1-11), I ask for you and myself that we may put aside our doubts and wholeheartedly put our trust in Christ so that we can “put out into the deep” in our writing. 


2 thoughts on “Overcoming Doubts: A Writer’s Asceticism

  1. Hi Sister Marie-Paul! I just found your blog and this immensely helpful post. It has given me a nice and timely boost for my own writing today – thank you, God bless you in your work!
    Agnes Ecsedy


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