Monasteries of the Heart

Poem--June 2012

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It’s called “theopoetry.” That’s what I’ve been doing for years and didn’t realize it until I read Dorothee Soelle Essential Writings, selected with an introduction by Dianne L. Oliver (Orbis.) I’ve mentioned before that the late German liberation/mystical theologian Soelle had a significant impact on my spiritual development and reading the book was like visiting a dear old friend.

Soelle explains that for her theology “is much more art than science.” More oriented to poetry—to the fresh, to the surprise, to the aha-- rather than to the abstract, rational and neutral.” Soelle urges us to communicate with God in images, in stories and in narratives that spring from the real, from our everyday experiences. She cites the Jewish tradition as doing this kind of theology—always telling a story rather than arguing a theological thesis to explain the unexplainable. She cites Eastern religions as –think Rumi, Hafiz, Rabia—as developing theology through theopoetry

In the poem that follows, Soelle takes an actual event, something she really experienced and through a poem articulates an expanding theology of prayer. She explains, “I want to learn to take what is here now, to see and hear it, which is to say, to live more attentively….To be attentive also in everyday occurrences and to listen, to inquire, and to interpret attentively in a conversation—that is what makes for a poem.”

And I saw a man on 126th Street
broom in hand
sweeping eight feet of the street
Meticulously he removed garbage and dirt
from a tiny area
in the midst of a huge expanse
of garbage and dirt

And I saw a man on 126th Street
sorrow sat on his back
sweeping eight feet of the street
Wear and tear showed on his arms
in a city
where only crazy folk
find something to hope in

And I saw a man on 126th Street
broom in hand
There are many ways to offer prayer
With a broom in the hand
is one I had hitherto
not seen before.
--Dorothee Soelle

I think my book, Between Two Souls: Conversations with Ryokan is a way of doing theopoetry. I read a poem by the great 19th century Japanese Zen monk, Ryokan, and then responded from my own lived experiences. Here’s an example:

Ryokan wrote:

If someone asks
My abode
I reply:
“The east edge of
The Milky Way.”

Like a drifting cloud,
Bound by nothing:
I just let go
Giving myself up
To the whim of the wind.

Kownacki wrote:

If someone asks
Me where I live
I answer
“Does a monk
own a key?

If I hear
A child cry
There is
My home.”

Recently I gave a poetry reading at a local college and an old friend of mine, Sister Rita Panciera, came up to me and said she had used the book for her retreat—reading Ryokan, myself and then writing her own theopoems. Here was her poem on the Ryokan and Kownacki.

If someone asks
Where do you live?
I answer:
In the city’s heart,
Pulsing with life
With joy, with sorrow,
Giving myself to listening
To its beat of ecstasy
Its cry of pain.

Let’s continue the thread. (Some of you, by the way, are already writing theopoems on this blog.) Read Ryokan, Kownacki and Panciera and then write your own.

Since this poetry feature on this blog is one year old, why don’t we do something different for next year. Once a month I’ll do a starter theopoem and invite you to reply. “It is important that people make their own pains clear to themselves, articulate their own questions in a greater depth, and express more accurately that they are…learing to fly,” writes Soelee. Come on, let’s flap our wings. Try the first one.