“Why is it so hard to write one beautiful sentence? Because it is an act of God.”
Lindsay Sanwald, MDiv ’22, is a creative producer, sober bartender, queer mystic, and psychedelic indie-rocker, stage name Idgy Dean. At HDS, she studied Vedic literature, mysticism, monasticism, creative writing, and music ritual. She will be the Graduate Student Speaker at Harvard University’s 369th Commencement.
In the Q&A below, Sanwald shares a few pieces from her work and speaks to HDS Communications about how her contemplative practices blossomed into a thesis during the solitude of quarantine.
Harvard Divinity School: Can you tell us about the form and content of your thesis, ILLUMINATED/MANUSCRIPT: A CHRONICLE OF LIGHTNING BOLTS?
LS: A CHRONICLE OF LIGHTNING BOLTS is a modern-day Illuminated Manuscript midwifed by the coronavirus. It weaves together journals, essays, sermons, songs, and visions composed during pandemic times. It is both an archive and an art show. A text and a testament. A performance and a prayer. It’s an opportunity for the monk and the reveler to come out and play.
In the MANUSCRIPT, I share roughly 30 days of journal excerpts (taken from my Morning Pages contemplative practice) that chronicle the beginning of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020. The journals grew into long-form essays on grief, God, addiction, homelessness, Black Lives Matter, motherhood, music, love, longing, creating, quests for wisdom, and the revelations of becoming a writer.
The MANUSCRIPT became ILLUMINATED when I was inspired, while working in the monastery of quarantine, to create a whole record of songs, music videos, collaborative projects, and tell-a-vision screenplays, all of which demand to live and breathe freely in open space with others. Thus, the conclusion of this work will be a ritual performance—a one-woman mystical rock opera under a super full blood moon total lunar eclipse—chronicling my saga of surviving the coronavirus crisis via monastic music-making at Harvard University. It will be an hour of live drums, guitar, synthesizers, singing, and large-scale projected visuals, followed by a dance party. The performance will begin at sundown on May 16, 2022, in the Williams Chapel at Harvard Divinity School.
Professor Charles Hallisey likes to say, “Scripture is not a text . . . it’s an event.” This event is the prayer I've been asking for—us in a room together experiencing the miracle of music. At that auspicious time in that sacred space, we’ll shake off our solitude and celebrate. It happens once, here and now, so don’t miss the moment.
HDS: You’ve said that the most inspiring experience you had in relation to your thesis was your Vision Quest. Can you tell us about that experience?
SANWALD: The essay that recounts my experience is called, “Translating the Hermit Thrush.” I’ll share a segment that covers what I did to prepare for the Quest.
“Vision Quest” is a broad English-language term used to describe various rite of passage ceremonies practiced by some Native American cultures. The journey typically consists of three stages: severance, threshold, and incorporation. Myriad variations of this tradition exist, but the common approach is to sit alone and unsheltered in nature without food or distraction for several days. It feels reminiscent of the practices performed by Jesus and the Desert Fathers, or Buddha, or any number of spiritual seekers, ascetics, hermits, yogis, nuns, and monks who wish to worship through deprivation and solitude.
As a devout divinity school student, I wanted to make this long-established spiritual exercise a very intentional part of my summer syllabus. One does not arrive here by accident, but by calling and choice, and under the guidance of experienced elders. They offer invitations, teachings, and techniques of how to mentally, physically, and spiritually prepare at confronting oneself alone in the wild. The preparation period, in many ways, was the real meat of the transformation.
The guided preparations included eliminating the consumption of caffeine, refined sugar, and social media. I am already sober from alcohol and drugs, so that part was easy. Closer to the Quest, I weaned myself off of meat, dairy and gluten. Each week I increased the length of my meditations. In addition to sitting for 20 minutes every day, I practiced an hour-long meditation at Walden Pond. The following week, I stretched my Walden meditations in silent stillness to four hours. In all the hours of silence, I can log one divine flash of feeling the complete freedom of not needing anything. It disappeared as fast as it arrived.
Two weeks out, I observed an eight-hour period of mindful silence, solitude, walking and sitting meditation, without screens, books, or any external support. One week out, I wandered from sunrise to sunset without a plan or preconceived notion or expectation for the day. I ditched my iPhone––the narcotic philosopher’s stone––and followed the advice to keep food and water light as I let myself “be walked.”
This aimless adventure in pure awareness was as psychedelic as a psilocybin trip. I walked my steps and witnessed the weeping willows waving excitedly, as though they were happy to see me. Back in my bedroom, my orchids taught me that it’s okay to be a bare stem for a while. You must rest between the blooms. I am training how to become empty. How to endure the day. Meditation, I realize, is a bit of an extreme sport––an endurance challenge.
HDS: Can you share with us a few other pieces from your thesis as well as the inspiration for them?
LS: Reading Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle inspired the song and music video, “Wet, Not Dry,” which is a four-minute-long sonic meditation on the four waters of prayer. This song is intentionally drenched in reverb. There is something inherently theological about this sound effect––the way our voices endlessly reflect into the ether of eternity. The engineer’s honest caution is that too much reverb will drown out the words. But I am convinced that this drowning is the sound of a saturated soul.
Reading Virginia Woolf inspired my first-prize Billing's sermon, “A Chronicle of Lightning Bolts,” which is a reflection on “Virginia’s vision to carry one another across to the other shore, to the light, to the living, gathered again around a table, back in a classroom, back in the dance hall, for as she writes, “. . . we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
HDS: Your Quest, your preparation for it, and creating your thesis were extraordinary contemplative endeavors. How else do your contemplative practices impact your life and work?
LS: I wholeheartedly call myself a believer and think of myself as a broad mystic, taking bits from everything I like, but I wasn't raised with any faith tradition. It can feel lonely and alienating because the half of me that's attracted to a monastic life has no community to hold and support the sacrifices I would make in a monastic life like Teresa did. When I read someone like Virginia Woolf, though, I feel a disembodied monastery of literature and art. I have my communion by immersing myself in great works of art, particularly narrative film and music.
When you think about the various realms of art offhand, you don't necessarily think of them as spiritual. But they absolutely are. When you break down what reading is, for example, it’s so mystical. You are literally staring at a dead piece of wood and hallucinating worlds. Anything, even my surfing and new moon listening parties on Zoom, can be contemplative. Breaking the monotonous pattern and being present with something creates a shift in us.
For me, contemplative practice is watching and listening, which, when aligned, creates a divine experience. For my own existence, contemplative practice is sustenance as well as maintenance of my presence and attention. Tending to my own attention allows me to show up for others.
Two important contemplative practices to me are making music and Morning Pages.
Making music is deeply meditative. You are repeating words, tunes, in endless rounds as you articulate sonically, emotionally. It is a monastic practice turned exterior offering. I need privacy to create, but the reason I’m in that protected, personal space is to prepare to go out on a stage—totally vulnerable, totally prone to error, mistakes, gaffes, and disaster—to create community and experience something in real time together that we haven’t experienced before. Making and performing music is an experience of personal and collective gratitude.
Morning Pages is writing whatever comes to mind first thing in the morning until you’ve filled three pages. You also refrain from reading what you wrote for a time. I credit Julia Cameron’s The Artist's Way for the practice. Morning Pages is a lot like meditation. You sit and have what may feel like an unsensational experience, not realizing the significance of what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But, like any contemplative practice endeavor, good work must be done every day. No one hikes Mount Everest in a day let alone every day. You just do a little each day. By doing it consistently over time, it becomes meaningful. It’s an incredible experience to go back and read what you’ve written the first time. For me, it was like reading a novel of my life.
The stacks of notebooks that I have from Morning Pages became the material for my thesis. My aim was to pinpoint the moment in my Morning Pages when the world stopped. What was happening right before? Where did it take us? And where are we going? Every word we write and recover can become a revelation. Our writing is an uncovering of clues, and each sentence revisited sheds new light on the story begging to be told.
I have a deep faith that when music and writing is shared, something happens. I am comforted by writers I adore because, though they have no idea, their work matters to me and countless others like me. I, too, can trust and just do my work, knowing that it matters to others. We desperately need to be reminded how to sit with a book, watch the leaves, listen to a record. Because we’re harassed on all fronts for the precious commodity of our attention, the work of inspiring attention is a challenge. But I like that. There is a space where what I do matters. Everything I do, whether it’s throwing a dance party or working at the shelter or going into the woods, is an effort to rehabilitate us into shared presence—to help us drop back into the moment together.
HDS: Having created much of your thesis during the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you hope people coming to your public performance take away from the experience?
LS: During the COVID-19 quarantine, we were forced into monasticism. For me, it was like a chrysalis, giving the time, privacy, and even the loneliness and anguish to make art. It invited us into what the yoga tradition calls svadhyaya, or self-study.
Monastic exploration is deeply adventurous. It’s an interior pilgrimage that draws us into richer relationship to ourselves and to those around us. You don’t hike up the highest mountain and lock yourself in a cave forever. You hike up with the intention to bring back what you gain and help people gather and remember in a joyous rave of reunion.
What I found was that for me, the figures of the monk and the reveler are linked. We've all been in these cells. It’s time to break out of the monastery and heal through our shared presence.
—Interview conducted and edited by Natalie Cherie Campbell