Theatre and drama as spiritual discipline

Theatre and drama are not spiritual disciplines, in one sense at least. Spiritual discipline is a matter of private individual agency, conducted largely in solitude and indeed frequently enough derided and ridiculed by communities that see little practical use for it. Theatre and drama (and perhaps all art) are a means of aesthetically bearing witness to suffering (even and perhaps especially if its more contemplative examples elicit a temporary refuge from it). In the Western spiritual tradition, individual suffering is the central corporeal experience; Christ on the cross, bereft even of certainty in God. The scriptures are contradictory when counseling our reactions to our own suffering, from “an eye for an eye” to “thou shalt not kill” and “turn the other cheek.” These reactions are represented by dramatists from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Sarah Kane, but the creation of these representations themselves instill in us a recognition that we must make a decision as to how we are personally to respond to this witness and live in a world in which suffering is the defining experience. Craft may be informed by faith and spirituality, but faith and spirituality do not inhere in craft as essences. Instead, the provoke spiritual response from the individual auditor.

Apologetics and polemics are the domain of theology and dogma. It may be more instructive to turn to such writings as spiritual exercises and the stories of the saints, which as a rule disdain apologetic and polemic rhetoric. In the Christian tradition, among the finest are Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ and the anonymous Little Flowers of St. Francis, as they describe and counsel living in the world. The most powerful characteristic of both of these writings are an uncompromising renunciation of violent response even to the greatest suffering, and it is a renunciation made in intellectual ignorance. “Rest from inordinate desire of knowledge, for therein is found much distraction and deceit. Those who have knowledge desire to appear learned, and to be called wise. Many things there are to know which profiteth little or nothing to the soul. And foolish out of measure is he who attendeth upon other things rather than those which serve to his soul’s health,” Thomas writes; and in the Little Flowers, the story of St. Bernard is instructive:

Brother Bernard, making the holy sign of the cross, in the name of holy obedience, set out for Bologna; but when he arrived in that city, the little children in the streets, seeing him dressed so strangely and so poorly, laughed and scoffed at him, taking him for a madman. All these trials Brother Bernard accepted for the love of Christ, with great patience and with great joy, and seeking to be despised yet more, he went to the market-place, where, having seated himself, a great number of children and men gathered round him, and taking hold of his hood pushed him here and there, some throwing stones at him and others dust. To all this Brother Bernard submitted in silence, his countenance bearing an expression of holy joy, and for several days he returned to the same spot to receive the same insults.

In this case, spiritual practice is renunciation and quiet solitude, but it would be wrong to assume that this has no practical consequences in the world. Both Kempis and Bernard offer representations of spiritual practice — perhaps one might categorize them as those of the “turn the other cheek” variety — but the renunciation of activity and response that these representations counsel do one most important thing in a world defined by suffering — they minimize the possibility of our contributing additional suffering to it. It is a pacifism of silence and humility, rather than noise and pride.

This kind of spiritual counsel is utterly foreign to contemporary theatre and drama, so enamored of ideas of activism and so-called relevance (a relevance informed by the kind of proud and certain knowledge that Kempis castigates). It is not a call to collective action but to an individual agency, toward humility, simplicity, and quiet, to the extent we are able to pursue these as individuals. Theatre and drama are invitations to this pursuit.

One thought on “Theatre and drama as spiritual discipline

  1. Joshua Ruebl

    For me the process of creating is spiritual only in the fact that writing or performing is a way of acknowledging suffering and the mystery of existence. The act of writing is solitary and meditative. The idea of performing is communal. In a quality production, I have felt a sense of “balance” after performing, a sort of spiritual cleanse. It’s hard to explain, but it is not a religious or mystical feeling. But rather a profound way of getting in touch with something bigger than your individual self.

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