Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some Thoughts on Poetry

I wouldn't call myself a great poetry lover. That is to say, I enjoy poetry, but not as much as some people do, and not as much I enjoy novels or essays. Poetry is just a little lofty, sometimes, and I can't sit and read it for hours straight like you can with prose. You have to take it in these little bites. 

But my sense of poetry has been shifting since a presentation at the monastery last week. Bonnie Thurston, a scholar and writer, offered an examination on the importance of poetry: why it matters now, when children are imprisoned at our border and the planet is being abused; how it can be used as a powerful tool of protest; and what we gain from reading and writing it. Essentially, she said that poetry, even more than other kinds of writing, can make us more sensitive, more attuned to our humanity. And just as crucially, poems can point us beyond what we can see, toward the great, incomprehensible mystery of love.

This was a lot to think about. And if I had any doubts about poetry's importance at the end of her presentation, our table conversation the following evening put them to rest: sisters went around the table reminiscing about the poems that touched them in grade school and high school, poems about the futility of war, and about the need for the women's liberation movement. The first poem I ever memorized came rushing back to me, all at once, and I could see the water-color illustrations from the anthology where I first read it as vividly as I had seen them on the long winter afternoons in elementary school. It's a poem about immigration, about the separation of families, and about a longing for connection to your ancestors. (You can read it here.) Maybe I would have felt just as strongly about immigration reform if I'd never read that poem––after all, my family's move to the United States is very recent––but I'm not sure. I know that that committing that poem to memory when I was a little girl helped me understand immigration as something that existed as a phenomenon beyond my own family, and showed me, in a gentle way, the way that hope and loss could co-exist. 

I realized that poetry is still doing that kind of teaching for me, especially now, when I'm more steeped in it now than I ever was before. My lectio divina partner, a Sister who's been assigned to meet with me weekly for shared reflection, often gives me a poem to read, like this one. Val and Mary Lou are always sending me the poems they love. I spent much of our community retreat lying in the sun in my hammock, trying to commit this poem to memory. And then, of course, there are the Psalms.

Every morning, every evening, we Benedictines gather just like people have for thousands of years, and read and sing a few psalms, steeping ourselves in these ancient poems. And I try to take some time each day to read a verse or two carefully in the original Hebrew, just trying to let the words and the feelings seep into me. Because they're very intense, the psalms, and they run the full gamut of human experience. Is the community rejoicing? We have psalms for that. Are we mourning? We have psalms for that. Are you yourself feeling confused, lost, lonely, thankful, awed, hopeful? There are psalms for every moment of life, every feeling, every prayer you might have, and no matter what your day has been like, no matter how you might personally feel like addressing God at that moment, when you pray the Liturgy of the Hours, you're immersed in the wide-ranging emotions of the psalmist's poetry. And this challenges me often. Psalm 119 makes me wonder if I really do love God's law, if I really yearn and long for God's precepts. It's uncomfortable to recognize my own anger and violence in Psalm 55's plea, "May death fall suddenly on the wicked!" And when I pray with Psalm 104, "I will sing your praises all my days/make music to you while I live./May my thoughts be pleasing to you/in whom I find my joy," I wish and hope that those words are true of my life. And while there would be a lot of value in reading theological texts or spiritual essays or biographies of the saints each day, it wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be as personal, as intimate, and they wouldn't hold the same sense of being communal, of connecting us with each other and with our ancestors. 

Yes, it's true what Bonnie said: poems do make us more human, more sensitive, even as they call us to go beyond ourselves. And I'm growing to love reading poetry more and more. Maybe this is starting to have an effect on me, letting me see the beauty and melancholy and mystery that lies all around me a little bit more clearly. I'm starting to see a kind of poetry in experiences like taking a sip of coffee that's reached the exact perfect temperature, and in hugging a friend who's been away or is about to leave. If these things are not their own kind of poetry, I think, at least they do what Bonnie says poems do. 

I'll leave you with the best living poem I've encountered this past week.

I had gone up to the infirmary on a sunny late-June afternoon, to visit a Sister who is in the midst of saying a long goodbye to life. The last few days when I had been to see her, she had been sleeping or very foggy, but that day she was perfectly alert. She started asking me about how the postulancy is going, saying, "Be honest, tell me the bad parts, too."

I told her how happy I am. How much I love it here. How lucky I feel. But, I also said, there's a real loss of independence. I have to ask for help with things that don't seem like they should be difficult––when do we do the dishes? How do I sign out a car?––and let people know when I'm leaving the building, and eat when it's meal time, pray when it's prayer time, stay in on Saturday nights while my friends go out dancing... just little things, little marks of an independent life that I'm now letting go of.

"Oh, yes," she said, smiling. "That's what I'm going through, too. Letting go... losing my independence... asking for help for things I used to do myself... it's totally up to someone else to see that I eat and go to bed and have help to get around the room. It's very hard."

This didn't seem to me like a really comparable situation, but it was clear she wasn't ranking our experiences, just noting the overlaps.

"We're in the same situation," she said. "But... that's this life. You spend years and years trying to learn humility so that in the end it's not so hard to just let go of everything."

Just then, as I trying to hide how my jaw was dropped, there was a little thunk at her window. A woodpecker had landed there, perched on the edge of a birdfeeder, and started to eat. "Look at that," she said.

And then another even littler thunk: a baby woodpecker had landed next to the first bird. And the mama bird began to feed the little bird, right out of her own mouth. Sister could see it from her seat and just whispered, "Oh, wow, oh, wow," a few times as we watched. And watched. We watched that baby bird get fed for probably five full minutes together.

I know that moment led me to see beyond myself, beyond the world of what is. And I hope that it, and the others like it that lie ahead, will make me a little more human, a little more sensitive, too.

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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.