This is an exploration into the treasures of Carmelite Spirituality through the eyes of the Sisters
By Sr. Carol Sachse, OCD
That is quite a heavy title. I hope I can do this justice as I have wanted to share my thoughts on poetry, prayer and transformation for a long time. These three, I believe, are be interconnected. I will touch briefly on each one sharing on poetry last before I will go further.
Prayer: There are so many ways to pray and I am sure you know them too and they are all good. Yet let me describe prayer as St. Teresa sees it. She states that prayer is simply talking or being with Someone whom we know loves us. I like to think of prayer also as gifting God with our quiet presence. That may sound a little arrogant yet I use gift deliberately because God’s desire for a relationship with us is so intense. We can will or not will to respond to this love. God waits for us very patiently and when we do respond and this is true it is an absolute joy for God. Scripture says: ”God will dance for joy over you” and again “God’s delight is to be with the children of people”. It is like returning God’s gift of love back to God, to Jesus, back to the Trinity.
Transformation: Transformation is of course a gradual purifying of our self by God throughout our life. We are always falling down and getting up and that keeps us humble. If I must say so it keeps God busy. There is a longing in our hearts to be closer to God, to have a deep relationship with him. That desire is in us from our very beginning we just have not always tapped into it. To live from the center of our being, from the center of our heart in a relationship with God is what transformation is all about.
Now about Poetry: Good poetry is like a beautiful piece of music or a stunning painting that takes you out of yourself into something beyond you. In the movie Dead Poets Society, the teacher, Roger Williams, tells his class “We don’t read or write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for” and I would add creativity. Parker Palmer, a Quaker and a wonderful spiritual writer wrote “Poetry has redemptive power” “poets have a way of sneaking up on me to deliver messages I might have tried to dodge if I’d seen them coming”. I truly believe that, poetry helps us to pray and live from our center and keeps us on track to transformation. It does have that power if we are open. Parker Palmer also wrote, “POEMS are maps to keep me from getting lost in the wilderness.” They can also open us to an understanding about ourselves in ways that you may surprise you.
Now I want to share how poetry saved my life in a sense. I read a book from an author who titled her book, A Poem Saved My Life and I can identify with that in certain periods of my life. When I was in high school I read the “Hound of Heaven” which many of you might have read. This poem had a deep impact on me. I was astonished that God could be like a hound dog pursuing me relentlessly.
Did God have that much love for me? It was like one of the 7 wonders of the world but more so. At that time I didn’t realize how poetry would be such a source of prayer for me later on. When I graduated from High School I went into the Order of Carmelites, the Carmelites where they centered their whole day in prayer. What did I know about prayer at 18! So I began to have trouble in the area of private prayer. This went on for some time and one day I went to see my novice mistress as I was in a dark tunnel and was lost as far as prayer went. She responded to my misery by quoting Thomas Merton “You learn to pray by praying” well I left and thought, “That was helpful!” Soon I was due in chapel for another hour of prayer. Then I remembered a small cabinet down the hall in the novitiate that held some books that I never looked at. So I pulled out two small books of poetry by Jessica Powers, The Place of Splendor and the Lantern Burns. As I paged through themI was converted to poetry then and there.
There was so much Carmelite spirituality in those two books. One of the poems I read was The Garments of God. Clinging to God’s garments in the dark, powerful! When I went to prayer I simply repeated that last line of the poem and came to a peace, a quiet resting in the dark. One doesn’t always feel there has been a change yet there is. YEARS LATER ( I had more poetry books by then) I was again in a wretched state. I really am a very happy person yet sometimes one can feel like what is life all about, is my God really here, WHAT IS THE MEANING OF MY LIFE? Anyhow it was an awful time for me. So I grabbed one of my poem books (River Flow by David Whyte) and came across a poem called; Easter Morning in Wales “Longing!!” There it was deep down I still had longing, never really lost it. I spent my prayer time holding the last words in the poem “where the stone was rolled back from the tomb of longing.” Longing, isn’t that what we all have? The quote by Roger Williams when I first began this sharing he said, “This is what we stay alive for… passion, fire.
Recently a friend gave me a book by Carlos Eire, in his book Waiting for Snow in Havana spoke of this longing, thisdesire within us. Carlos in the midst of writing a very humorous and also tragic story of his childhood in Havana was looking for reasons for the existence of God. He said St. John of the Cross had it right, desire, (longing) is the proof for the existence of God. He quotes part of a poem that John of the Cross wrote, “Show yourself to me, and let your gaze and your Beauty kill me; for the wound of your love, it can’t be healed except by your being here.” This is a delightful translation: by your being there. To Carlos this “desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God and God is desire. It doesn’t take a mystic or poet to know this.” Yet sometimes we need to reflect on how true this is.
One of my favorite poets David Whyte wrote, “It seems to me that human beings are always desperate to belong to something larger than themselves.” In prayer we are thrown into this reality. We cannot touch God in prayer no matter how silent God seems or how delightful the experience is without becoming aware of how we are living our daily life from our center. If prayer is becoming a real part of our life we become even more aware of God’s presence not only in our lives but how God is present is the lives of others and in our world. It is a natural outcome of prayer, of living from our center.
One of Roger Housden’s poetry books called, For Lovers of God Everywhere, I have found poems that have brought me to a deep sense of God sometimes felt and sometimes not yet always in peace. Using just one word or one phrase from a poem as a mantra or just reading the poem over and over until one becomes quiet within is one way to start your prayer. For instance one of his poems starts out with “What is this wondrous mystery unfolding within me”, another one is a poem of St. Francis of Assisi standing in the fields of the Umbrian countryside in Italy, Wring out my clothes. It goes like this: “Such love does the sky now pour that I have to wring out the light when I get home”.
In poetry you can find almost every emotion, and experience that life holds, from loss, hope, fear, love, you name it. Poets have a way about speaking the truth that is hidden deep within us. That is why we need to take time to sit in silence even if we only touch an absence. This absence in reality is a hidden Presence. Why does this happen when we know God wants our love and attention? Perhaps it is because God is mystery and God wants us at times to enter into that mystery by our silent waiting. HOWEVER to want a relationship with God we need to use what resources we can to help us, it isn’t always easy, but you are worth it, and of course our God is more than worth it. Poetry is one gate to help us enter this precious time we spend alone with God. Now I want to end this sharing by reading a poem by David Whyte The True Love. * Amen
*This poem can be found in his book River Flow