My Religion: Part 2

We talked in last week’s post about being at the depths of one’s Wilderness Passage and how, in that hyper-conscious psychic condition, one becomes sensitized to what is true and what is false in any writing or art that we might read or view or listen to.

I noted that for me, in such a period, the only works I could read were Homer, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible. 

Thinking more about this, I realize I’ve got far more questions than answers.

Why, when we’re in that raw, exposed-nerve place, do certain works (of books, music, movies, even food) seem so false and superficial, while others pour powerfully into our psyches and bring us comfort? 

What does “comfort” mean in a state like that? Myself, I certainly was not “healed” in any sense. My downward spiral kept rolling along for years. Did the relief and reassurance I felt reading the Iliad or Sonnet 64 “help” somehow on some deeper level? Did it pay off at some future interval?

And what about “content?” It seemed to me then that the actual subject matter of the piece that I read with such emotion meant very little. It wasn’t that Aphrodite had rescued Paris from the battlefield of Troy by enveloping him in a fog or that the breasts of King David’s beloved were like unto ripe pomegranates. It was something else. What? Beauty? Truth? The indefinable magic of verse and meter and rhythm?

Was it soul? Did the books and music my heart rejected at that time lack soul, while the ones that I embraced possessed it? What is soul anyway?

Do you remember the movie Network? There’s a scene where the actor Peter Finch, as the wigged-out news anchor Howard Beale, gets asked what it was that sent him over the edge. He answers, “I just ran out of bullshit.”

There’s a reason why Homer is Homer and Shakespeare is Shakespeare and Solomon of Ecclesiastes is Solomon of Ecclesiastes. There’s a reason why we’re still reading them thirty centuries after some of them were written.

I wish I could put my finger on it, but I can’t. A gift? Inspiration? Genius? 

And what exactly do they give us, except some once-in-ten-centuries elixir that enters our bloodstream like honey and, for a moment (or maybe more), gives us hope?

P.S. Here’s Sonnet 64:

When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d


When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defac’d

The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;

When sometime lofty towers I see down-ras’d

And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;

When I have seen the hungry ocean gain

Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,

And the firm soil win of the wat’ry main,

Increasing store with loss and loss with store;

When I have seen such interchange of state,

Or state itself confounded to decay;

Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,

That Time will come and take my love away.

This thought is as a death, which cannot choose

But weep to have that which it fears to lose.


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  1. thomas a. on October 11, 2023 at 2:02 am

    I think part of what makes these old works so powerful and lasting is that they were coming directly from Inspiration and the craft–without the constant flood of secondary influences we have today (media, internet–just an endless plethora of others people’s work, that didn’t exist when the ancients wrote.)
    Also we often don’t allow ourselves the raw moment of pen to paper, just letting the guts spill out, till the physical hand tires–without the computer’s ease of correction plus automatic spell and grammar check. It’s too easy to write with a sense of pleasing some “other” in the backs of our minds

  2. Kathy on October 11, 2023 at 3:47 am

    Damn, so much depth to you Mr Pressfield. Thank you, for helping me think, beyond where I was.

  3. Lubov on October 11, 2023 at 4:07 am

    I am not an native English speaker, therefore, I had to rwad the sonnet in my language to understand the idea better. It is so powerful and so relevenat to our aociety today. This what makes the masterpieces limitless. Whateever the era, thry are always relevant.
    Some arts will come and go, the true ones will stay.
    Thank you for a great reminder! It touched my heart and remined that many things and us are perishable.

  4. Jackie on October 11, 2023 at 4:27 am

    This set my mind in a whirl. Any explanation I came up with wasn’t right. I am merely mortal. How can some words, music, paintings, and art bring us to our knees and to tears in our most vulnerable moments?
    Magic. Everyday, I thank God for His hand in this world. Only this can reach the deep no bullshit zone we know that’s deep inside of us. Sometimes we forget it’s there and need the reminder.

  5. Kate Stanton on October 11, 2023 at 4:33 am

    I want to take Pressfield Philosophy next semester! Sign me up, please.
    “Ubuntu” community <3
    Only in the depths have I appreciated my light and the light in others. I had to lose all superficialities to get to the heart of the matter. Time is our most precious resource. When I’ve been depressed, even the perception of time is skewed. But it was in thinking about time that I realized we have no time to waste on not being our authentic selves. An old me died, as the new me went through growing pains. I’m not convinced I’m out of the downward spiral yet. That’s ok! I have hope. It drives me to write 🙂

    Thank you for this & sorry for the ramble!! Loved the last 2 prompts.

    • Tolis on October 11, 2023 at 1:49 pm

      Ah, I’m already signed up too my dear friend Kate <3
      Something inside me tells me, "beware the kind soul that went through darkness but survived and struggled and magnified. For it shall be the most disastreous force of nature that a wo/man may possess, and it will be shining in dark light like a thunder in the sky that never goes out."

  6. Christina on October 11, 2023 at 4:45 am

    I had a professor in grad school who often said that there was nothing new under the sun. He happened to be a Christian Brother with a Ph.D. in literature. He was one of the best teachers that I have ever had. He used a red pen and wrote very detailed challenges and comments on the blank sides of every paper you submitted to him. You would read on and on until the end where your grade appeared. After the first paper and an initial feeling of relief, I realized that he was teaching, not judging, us. He was imparting his knowledge, experience and humanity to us, to help and educate us. I had such respect and gratitude for this man as he gave us his best. He wore a black suit and a clerical collar. One much older student in the class always called hin Bro’. It never sounded right, it sounded cloying, something off introduced into the scene by someone stuck in Grade 9. The professor never reacted to being called Bro’. He ignored the distraction and held himself to his own standards. A class act. The student dropped the class, never finished the program. There’s nothing new under the sun.

    The opening line of John Keats’s Endymion, another classical piece of writing, captures this for me. ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’ Read that line and you may remember a glimpse of joy from your life. It’s true. Even remembering the line alone can nudge me out of the present gloom. I believe that writing that has stood the test of time asures us. We are feeling now something that has been felt before by the ancients, it’s ok, it’s still true today. There are crappy situations and crappy feelings and doubts and fears and we are all going to die. Yet, there is more. We are not alone, weird, the only or first person to feel this way. No matter the context, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 64, as you say, the scene, the day, universal, we are going though it too. Shakespeare couldn’t have written Sonnet 64 unless he himself felt that way. We remember him because he is like us and he told us so in everything he wrote. Human beings hold a range of emotions. We see ourselves and our friends and enemies in his characters. I like how William Blake does this too. Read his “The Poison Tree” and how he illustrate’s the odious schadenfreude, just by feeling ‘glad.’

    We see things in ourselves that we don’t like and torture ourselves for it. Yet, if we are lucky, we remember and remind ourselves, as the Bible assures us, “And this too shall pass.” . And it does and we keep going.

    Thank you for your writing.

  7. C.M. O'Slatara on October 11, 2023 at 4:52 am

    I think the comfort of it stems from the fact that all of these works normalize destruction. Sonnet 64 talks of towers falling, the ocean winning against the shore, the soil withstanding the ocean. Achilles, saved by Aphrodite, still dies, and King David must face his sin of lust with Bathsheba. We seek to know that great people have endured what we have gone through.
    This is the same reason I find comfort in Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’. I am not an emperor of Rome, but I have my battles. If someone held in such esteem has the same feelings of despair or worthlessness that I do, then maybe there is hope that I am not so wretched. Maybe it isn’t so far from normal. Maybe it is just the natural order of things. Sonnet 64, in particular, speaks to this.
    I did not want works filed with hope at this time, happy endings, and people who apologize for their wrong doings because, in my experiences, that is not true. Those things make me bitter. Those characters have it too easy. In essence, ‘Meditations’ became my support group. How many times have I had to bite my tongue and thought to myself “Happy lives can be led at court” or made a mistake and shrugged my shoulders whispering “momento mori”? We seek to know we are not alone at the bottom, that great heroes know the what it is to sleep in the miserable pit in which we find ourselves. Why? Because we remember them, and we remember them well. Despite everything, they are still considered heroes. They are still remembered for their great deeds. And maybe, we aren’t so bad after all. Maybe suffering isn’t worthless. Maybe suffering is a mark of greatness.

  8. Justin on October 11, 2023 at 10:22 am

    I used to wonder why, like a misfit, I took solace in the medieval mystics and others who felt tortured because they had been touched by grace but then spent years, sometimes decades, doubting they were worthy of the illumination. I think it’s partly because they address the contingencies of human existence so directly and viscerally. We live in a culture of distraction and monetization. There’s a drug to treat every human condition. The ability to bring such eloquence to suffering somehow redeems it. I feel connected across the ages. I am not alone in my aloneness but communing with my spirit-kin. Then, I feel dignified by what I usually judge and have a little more forgiveness for my wretched states. And in so being, somehow they are lifted. I see beyond the unforgiving mind. I feel this way, too, when I read people’s comments. The digital noise and perpetual busyness seems to obscure my ability to believe you all exist, let alone connect. Montaigne once wrote of the art of pilgrimage that it offers the chance to “shake we off these violent holdfasts which else-where engage us, and estrange us from our selves.” and I think it’s that, too: These writings help us shake off those violent holdfasts.

  9. Kim Roberts on October 11, 2023 at 10:56 am

    Thank you for inviting us into the depths, where it is calm and silent.

  10. Kristen Bessette on October 11, 2023 at 1:33 pm

    Definitely where I am at in each part of my journey will always decide what is feeding my soul.
    Your email each Wednesday does bless my soul. Thank you.

  11. Tolis on October 11, 2023 at 1:41 pm

    Thank you so much dear Steve.

    Ah! Mix the “I just ran out of bullshit” idea with what we said before about bullshit-radar, that radar that good writers have that alerts them when their work is sh*t, put that into action and let it flow through time. My guess is, there is the truth that’s truer than our truth. There may be other things there of course, aspects of the infinite dynamics of the world, but the truth must be there too.

    What a beautiful poem! I wish my english were good enough to be able to get it at once. But I recognise it’s beauty almost as I would recognize the beauty of a great song without knowing it’s exact lyrics. In fact, all the great songs that resonated with my soul and my ultimate purpose, I never knew what their lyrics were saying … and if I did, I always believed that they wouldn’t resonate so much. This might be another clue.

  12. Milan on October 11, 2023 at 10:02 pm

    Well, I’m Serbian so I hardly understood anything of Shakespeare, so it must have something to do with culture& language &place of birth,
    but there’s definitely something in the verses.

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    This post beautifully explores the deep connection between literature, art and our emotional states making us reflect on our own experiences and how certain works resonate with us during difficult times.
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  15. Paullette MacDougal on October 16, 2023 at 3:35 pm

    Please, Steve, let’s have more posts like this one. It’s so refreshing, uplifting, inspiring, when you share your own stories.

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  18. Toby Reynolds on October 19, 2023 at 1:21 pm

    I believe the reason such works are so timeless, or that we can go back to them time and time again, has something to do with truth and spirit.

    It seems to me that, when we read a work that lays bare a certain truth that resonates in us, that there’s a spirit to it. A spirit that reaches down from that unseen space (is it heaven?), and speaks to our spirit and says, “This. This is truth. Do you feel it, now? Do you understand?”

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    Your description of writing as a form of prayer and the parallels you drew between creative work and spiritual practice struck a chord. It’s like you’re revealing the sacred space that exists within the act of creation. Your authenticity in sharing your personal connection to the muse adds a layer of intimacy to the creative experience.

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