Sunday, November 12, 2017

the colour of spirituality in the craft of academic writing

Examen is a spiritual practice. It involves prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence. It tends to involve words, in the form of questions, that seek

In the last few years, I have found myself adapting the practise of examen. Instead of words, I use colour. I call this visual examen in which colour is used in seeking to detect God’s presence. This involves 4 colours
- yellow – where is surprise?
- blue – where is wonder?
- grey – what brings clarity?
- green – what brings growth?
To begin I use colour pencils and scribble the four colours on a blank page. I then reflect on a particular event, looking for surprise, wonder, clarity and growth. (For the story of how these questions developed and how they shape my regular work, see my book Built for change: A practical theology of innovation and collaboration).

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This week, for the first time, I found myself using visual examen. Not on an event or a day, but on a project, spread over months. I undertook a visual examen of my academic writing. On Monday, I heard I’d had an article accepted for publication. On Wednesday, I submitted another academic article to another journal.

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Two such significant events in the space of a few days got me thinking. Could the presence of the divine be detected in the craft of academic writing? Could a journal article, a project spread over months, be a spiritual exercise?

There was certainly the need for clarity/grey. This came in the careful choice of words. It also came in the need to choose keywords and hone a 150 word abstract out of an 8,000 word text. The seeking of clarity was also evident in the task of footnoting and creating a bibliography.

There was certainly growth/green. This came in the commitment to original research which is at the heart of every journal article. It came in the synthesis of the literature and the creation of an argument that would sustain results, discussion and conclusion. For both articles, on Monday and Wednesday, I ended the writing sensing that I had grown, in my understandings, through the requirement to turn vague thoughts into words, link them into sentences and finally turn out paragraphs on a page.

There was certainly surprise/yellow. This came in the curiousity that creates a research question and begins the process that will eventually result in an article. It comes through the way that research is at times a haphazard, unexpected, dropping down a rabbit hole, a la Alice in Wonderland, into a whole new world. It also comes in the structuring of the argument, the use of topic sentences to create a flow, the use of introduction, anecdote and example to create and maintain interest.

But what of wonder/blue? Pondering this colour took the most work. But in both articles, I eventually located wonder. For the Monday article, it was the grace of finding of insight in the indigenous culture of another. For the Wednesday article, it was the delight in weaving an Orthodox icon with the theological insights of Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ.

I have, over the last few years, used visual examen to lead myself. The four colours have shaped my working leadership, allowing me to pursue a daily workplace spirituality. It was a rich exercise this week to use the same four colours to reflect on a project over time and a particular task, that of writing an academic article. The four colours breathed life into what is a demanding and extended process. It suggests that academic writing is so much more than an intellectual exercise. It is also a spiritual pursuit, in which my soul is invited to clarify and create, in the finding of wonder and surprise.

Posted by steve at 07:11 PM | Comments (0)

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