We’re devoting this special week to
spirituality and poetry.
AND NOW, Part 3 of poet Judith Valente’s series:
BUILDING A MONASTERY OF THE HEART:
A Poet Discovers Meaning in Ancient Monastic Wisdom
I recently read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh where he says: When we experience someone as distant or difficult, it’s often because we are sparking
some kind of fear or insecurity in that person.
And just a few weeks
ago, when I was on retreat at a Benedictine monastery, I picked up a
book by the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, which just happened to be
on the nightstand. De Mello says if we have a personal conflict with
another person, it’s usually because we fear something in that
person. So there it was again, that idea of fear. I’ve been trying
to figure out exactly what it is I fear in my stepdaughter. And it’s
causing me to have to confront some things in my self that are not very
nice, or flattering.
I’m beginning to realize is that I have to talk less about
my stepdaughter, and listen more to her. Because listening is
the first step to one of the most difficult building blocks in the spiritual
life, and that is forgiveness. Listen with the ears of the heart, as
St. Benedict says. It’s hard to forgive –- though we hear these
bromides all the time — forgive and forget, give it up, move on.
even an insurance commercial now where two frogs are talking and one
croaks to the other, “Let it go.” But it’s difficult to forgive
whole hog, especially those people who have wounded us deeply.
from a large Sicilian family and Sicilians are great at holding on to
hurts and grudges. A Sicilian word even has arisen from such blood feuds:
omerta. It sounds a lot like another Italian word, la morte,
which means death. Because not to forgive is a little like a death.
I recently interviewed for PBS a Holocaust survivor who made international
news. Her name is Eva Kor. Eva stood in front of Auschwitz, the death
camp where she’d been imprisoned as a child, and granted forgiveness
to the Nazis. She did it after striking a relationship, years after
the war, with a man who had been a doctor at the camp. She told him
her story of being a prisoner. And he listened. And she listened to
his story of guilt and regret. Eva decided to stand by that awful
brick and barbed wire wall at Auschwitz, and grant what she called “amnesty”
to all Nazis for the killing of her parents and older sister, and millions
of others. When she had said those words of forgiveness, she told me
later, she felt “finally free.”
of us can forgive in such a big way as Eva Kor, but we can take that
first step of listening to the other. Eva reminds me of another
significant mentor in my life, the poet Marie Howe. My encounters with
Marie have reinforced one of the other spiritual values the monastics
understand so well: praise. Marie taught me one of the most important
lessons of my life: that the wounded have to become the healers.
I attended a workshop Marie gave a few years ago, and she challenged
us to think of a traumatic or difficult experience we had had, and try
to find the one thing in the whole awful experience that we could praise.
What was it about the experience that was life affirming?
question resonated with me because as a journalist, coincidentally,
I had been sent to report on a spiritual retreat for survivors of clergy
sexual abuse. The first night of the retreat, the counselor who was
leading it, said: “I know you are all here because you feel that something
inside you is broken. And you want someone, or some thing, to fix it.
But I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing to be fixed, because there’s
nothing broken. The experience you went through was broken, but you
are not broken. That experience is now a part of the person you are.
And that experience can make you a more compassionate person if you
writing my poem for Marie’s assignment, I thought of an experience
I had had as a freshman in high school, where I was laughed at by the
other students in the class. But as I was writing the poem, something
odd happened. The poem took a turn. It was as if the poem was taking
me where it wanted me to go. And it became a poem about my mother, who
went to work in a food factory to help pay for my tuition at a Catholic
girls’ academy. My mother had endured an experience that mirrored
mine in which she was laughed — but in a different context.
I didn’t know when I began writing the poem, was that my mother would
die one month later, suddenly of a stroke. And it took me about a year
until I could even look at the poem again. But I finally did finish
writing it, and it marked the beginning of my healing over the grief
I felt at my mother’s death. I regret to this day she never got to
hear the poem. Writing it, I began to understand more deeply than ever
the healing power of poetry. The wounded have to become the healers.
I was the only public
that September at St. Aloysius
third desk from last,
the alphabet outskirts of class
only Barbara Zombrowski
Jane Zaccaro farther asea
My body a stranger
in alien clothes:
pleated skirt, white knee socks
Peter Pan collar buttoned to the neck
In freshman art
Mrs. Cirone asked us
to observe a beechwood
describe what we saw
and some said nature
and others said summer
I said the branches
were the serpent tresses of Medusa
– we had read “Bulfinch’s Mythology”
in Sister Helen Jean’s Latin class —
the bark the terrible wide
stem of her neck
Mary Smith grimaced,
Doris Crawford then Maureen Jennings
snickered, their laughter washed
over the waste baskets,
George Washington’s portrait,
the crucifix above the blackboard in Room 202
I wanted to run from that place
in my stiff new regulation loafers
from the girls who lived in the stone houses
on Bentley and Fairmont Avenues
who summered at Avon-by-the-Sea
knew by heart the Apostles Creed
the Joyful, Sorrowful
and Glorious Mysteries
But I knew my mother
at that moment
stood ankle deep in red rubber boots
in a pool of gray water
hosing down cucumbers
at Wachsberg’s Pickle Works
so she could earn $1.05 an hour
squirrel away a few dollars each week
to pay my $600 tuition
and at three o’clock when
Sam Wachsburg blew his plastic whistle
remove the boots, pack up her lunch sack
take home the Broadway bus
smelling of sweet relish, pickled onions
while the school kids sniffed
her clothes, laughed behind her back.
I learned how to calculate
the square root of a hundred twenty seven
memorized the Holy Sonnets,
the symbols of the elements, mastered
each declension and conjugation:
amo, amas, amat
The beginning of a new year is an especially
good time to reflect on the wisdom of monastic life. It many ways, winter
is a time of waiting. Waiting for snow to melt. Waiting for daylight
to grow longer. Waiting for the first signs of green shoots to break
through in a dry, brown landscape.
I’ve touched here on just a few
monastic values: attentiveness, listening, mystery, praise. In the coming
months, I plan to reflect on these values a little each day. At work,
at home with my family, I’ll be asking everyday: How can I build a
monastery of the heart?
AND SO ENDS this series.
IF you’re just joining us, we’ve been reflecting on spirituality and poetry all week. On Monday, Judith Valente shared her “10 Books That Changed My Life.” On Tuesday, we focused our weekly quiz on these themes. And this three-part series began on Wednesday this week.
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