Writing a spiritual autobiography

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
September 30th, 2023

There will be eight of us, nine if you count me, the workshop leader, lighting up those little Zoom squares like stars blinking onto a twilight sky, one here, a cluster there, a straggler or two until the screen is filled.

This has become a familiar routine since the start of the COVID pandemic. We are here to begin writing what traditionally has been called a “spiritual autobiography,” the story of our personal journeys to discover the guiding principles that have shaped our lives from childhood to the place where we are now.

For some, this will include the spiritual dimension of life as expressed in the religious practices of a particular faith or in their own private relationship with a higher power. Others may derive a sense of meaning or purpose by living in harmony with higher principles such as nature, beauty, community, or other cherished values.

Whatever they hold dear, whatever makes them feel connected to something bigger than themselves, they have come to this place through a lifetime of searching for what Socrates called “the good life.”

Some may have already found what they are looking for, some may be still looking, and others may simply take life as it happens without any felt need to search for more, but if they are lighting up one of those Zoom squares, they have a story they want to write.

Spiritual autobiography is a literary genre dating back to St. Augustine, whose fourth century “Confessions” is considered the first Western spiritual autobiography, telling the story of his repentance and renunciation of the sinful ways of his youth.

Every century since has produced its share of spiritual autobiographies, which have broadened in scope from the strictly religious to the more universal search for better, more satisfying ways to live lives that had either taken a destructive turn or simply felt devoid of purpose.

Although I had read a few spiritual autobiographies, most memorably Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain,” I had never considered writing one until the opportunity presented itself in a weekend workshop offered by Dan Wakefield, an author I admired.

In our first session, Dan explained that he came to spiritual autobiography by taking a workshop offered by his minister, the Reverend Carl Scovel at King’s Chapel in Boston. He expanded the 10-page story he wrote in the workshop, first into a story for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and later into his book, “Returning: A Spiritual Journey.”

It was only after meeting Dan that I learned he was also the screenwriter for a television series, “James at 15,” about a boy who had moved with his family from the Midwest to Boston. As newcomers to Boston ourselves, my wife and I had enjoyed these episodes in the early days of our marriage.

Because Dan was condensing an eight-week workshop into a weekend course, he presented an abbreviated version that included a shortened form of all the essential elements and left the writing of the final autobiographical essay to be completed at home. The technique consists of a series of drawing, writing, and sharing exercises designed to bring participants back in memory, first to childhood, then adolescence, followed by drawing and writing about a mentor, friend, or guide, and concluding with drawing a map of our spiritual journey and writing the story of how we came to the place we are now.

Dan describes the details of the procedure in his book, “The Story of Your Life: Writing A Spiritual Autobiography” (Beacon Press, 1990).

Impressed with the richness and variety of the stories my classmates wrote in Dan’s workshop, I adapted the technique to help psychology interns and graduate students do the emotional work of saying goodbye at the end of their training year.

Drawing, writing, and sharing their thoughts with one another in a group setting elicited emotion and mutual support, stimulated discussion, and produced useful and sometimes surprising insights. The exercise became a rite of passage for psychology students in the hospitals where I worked until I retired.

In recent years, I have offered the full Spiritual Autobiography Workshop to groups as small as two in my local senior center and then on Zoom to as many as eight.

Dan Wakefield considers 10 to 12 people to be ideal, with a lower limit of two and an upper limit of 15. Don’t do it alone and cap your group at 15, simply because you need to allow enough time for everyone to read their papers. Although my sample size is small, I have found that when participants understand what they are signing up for from the beginning, their level of engagement is high and the narratives they produce are rich with emotion, deeply considered, and well written.

I typically join group members in doing the exercises and, time permitting, read what I have written. One is never finished writing a spiritual autobiography. It is a living document, always there to be revised with new insights, embellished with new examples, and extended with new learning experiences.

Participating in this workshop, first as a student and later as a group leader, I have joined my fellow group members on journeys of memory and imagination as they described the joys and sorrows of their childhoods, the challenges of adolescence and the family, friends, or passing strangers who were there when they needed them most.

We have walked together over bridges of empathy through sunshine and shadow, discovered the enduring values that sustain us, and written the stories of our wandering.
Now with the last Zoom square blinking another star onto my desktop cosmos, we are all present and accounted for. And so, once again, we begin.

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