I went west for graduate school in September of 1984, packing up everything I could fit into a Chevy and heading out on Interstate 94, ending up (1,100 miles later) in Missoula, Montana, to rearrange words for a few years. The university abutted a small mountain with a giant, concrete M on it, and the town itself was as equally full of hippies as rednecks, all coexisting in this gorgeous divot in the Rockies. There I was, a young woman fresh out of college, who felt as though she had just fallen off the literary turnip truck, uprooting her life to pursue an MFA in poetry. It was there in that place so foreign to my Midwestern leanings that I sought in earnest to begin a life with words.
Missoula turned out to be just the right setting for me: a laid-back environment with a no-nonsense attitude about writing. I remember the three-hour Wednesday night workshops, fifteen of us huddled around a rectangular table and the pressured discipline of creating a piece to offer every week. Sundays ushered me to an avant-garde church that grew to be home, located a few miles from campus. But for all the time I spent in those two places, the distance between them barely diminished, my writing and spiritual lives separate shores within me.
Looking back, I was seeking God amid those mountains where I was conflicted, unsure how to frame the spiritual journey inherent in my choice to become a writer. The evangelical college I attended never talked about vocation. My MFA peers seemed to enfold into themselves the goodness of their words — some, I could tell, to build a self, an image. I was the only one asking the questions I held, chief among them: what did it mean to be a writer of faith in the world?
Eventually, some lines of poetry by Wendell Berry gave me a gift to carry into my wonderings: “There are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places.” I recognized the flicker of truth in those words. I grew to believe that the writer’s mission is largely to cultivate a spiritual recognition, a loving gaze that penetrates to the heart of things. Such a one recognizes the sacred that surrounds us, articulating its deeply embedded goodness.
My work with words is anchored in a belief that an essential charity pervades a marred creation capable of lighting some small path of grace across the page. The world is beautiful and broken, and both need telling as we search for a wholeness in this life. There is a Hebrew phrase for what I’m describing: tikkun olam, which means to repair or fix the world — a call to humanity to collaborate with God in setting things right. Tikkun olam sums up the trajectory of the writer of faith’s vocation.
Recently, a writing colleague and I hopped into our cars with eight senior writing students from the college where we teach, heading north to a monastery for an overnight retreat. It was April, the close of a hard winter, but that afternoon the sun sparked off the asphalt as I drove, the young people in rapid conversation in the back seat — a good day. We set them loose, letting them read, write, and laugh, gathering in the evening to talk about vocation and what that journey means. I saw my younger self in the searching, the desire for a creativity that rhythms out beyond the merely human realm.
The next day, the sun pressed close, a reprieve from so much lingering cold, and some of the students wrote in journals or lingered at laptops; others lay in the grass a while outside our meeting room, giving themselves to all the energy spring could muster. Before leaving in the afternoon, we gathered to debrief in the lounge, a comforting circle of couches and chairs in front of the fireplace. As seniors, these young people were on the verge of launching into the world, and we all felt the fragility of the gathering.
What had stood out to them in our discussions about vocation? The sharing came slowly, one student offering a few thoughts, then another, a few with tears as they understood the retreat to be a bridge to the beautifully blank canvas of the rest of their lives. I shared my own journey, how I came to understand my writing not as an end in itself, but something offered for the sake of the world. I spoke of tikkun olam, how for us as Christians this means seeing our writing as participation in the restoration of all things in Christ, offering our words as spaces for God’s healing work in and around us.
Afterwards, I gave each student a gift, a symbol, little crosses made by a couple in Liberia, fashioned from brass bullet casings littering that troubled country. This cross embodies our vocation, I said, a reminder of spiritual possibilities: peace from violence, life from death, restoration from desecration — the fixing of the world. “You don’t know,” I told them, “whether the bullet this casing held might have injured or killed someone — so what will you do with it now?” Some of the young people cradled the cross in their palms as if it were a holy object. I felt grateful to be sitting with them in the circle that day.
Over a year later, my own bullet cross stands on my desk in my home office where I write, its patina mottled and aged. The top of the cross has a tiny rent in the metal, resembling a minuscule lightning bolt. I love it more for that, another reminder that redemption and vocation both involve a struggle, a cost. I feel far removed from that young writer in Montana, more years behind me than before me, my own self a little weathered and worn. My thumb smoothes the metal as if touching an ancient wound. It’s like holding the world in my hand, here in this quiet moment, with all these words still inside me. And now a different question comes, a call actually, one that will take the rest of my life to answer: how can I offer my creativity so that I — all of us — might better love this unrepaired world?
Judith Hougen is the author of a collection of poetry (The Second Thing I Remember) and a spiritual formation book (Transformed into Fire). She teaches writing at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, and blogs about spirituality and writing at Coracle Journeys. As for the bullet crosses, they can be purchased through Trade as One, a fair trade organization that supports the poor throughout the world.