Poetry of Louie Crew

by Louie Crew

Click on the titles to hear the poems read by Dr. Crew.

Negative, Jesus, Five Times Now

Negative, Jesus, five times now, but still
not sure. I'll test again in six more months
since John has likely been exposed. He'll spill
his fears to none, nor even hint he hunts
beyond our bed. I'm sure he'd never use
a condom--least of all with me, his wife.
he's too afraid the two of us will lose
our golden reputation.
     Secret life?
Why can't he see I guessed it anyway?
I want only him, not what people think;
I've always known that part of him is gay.
So what? Should that alone make him shrink
from me, not share his need?
     Our need's not sin!
From isolation save us, God. AMEN.

Psalm 1B

Miserable is the person who never talks with the ungodly
    who goes out of the way to avoid sinners
    who never can see life critically.
The self-righteous live by the rules of the elite,
    and by these rules are they compulsive day and night.
They are like trees planted in a swamp, moored in every flood of fashion.
They seem to endure, and whatsoever they perform is always noticed.

The humble are not so; but are free,
    like leaves which the wind drives everywhere.
Therefore, the humble shall not sit to be judged.
    nor shall the gentle join the congregation of the proud.
for God knows the ways of them all,
    and only the self-righteous shall perish.

The Trickster Through History

Friends, Romans, countrymen,
    welcome to the Coliseum.
It is a lovely afternoon here in Rome.
    My name is Tiberius Cicero
and I am delighted
    to be able to bring to you live
the fight between the fierce Christians
    from Antioch
and Caesar's choicest lions.

The Emperor and his mistress
    have just entered the regal box,
and the lions are ready behind the gates.
      We pause from this brief message from...BLIP

Uhn, is it dat dis is ready, nicht vahr?
    Scuze, please, hallo, hallo, ah, yah.
Goot evening, ladies and lords,
    Herr Luther has been contained,
we are glad to report,
    and these protestants in Hamburg
just died a most fitting death,
    bleeding slowly for their upstart sins.
The Cardinal is dining tonight
    with his friend from...BLIP

I don give a shee-it
    if it's Jefferson Davis hisself;
I tole you we can't start
    no broadcast until this here slave
has been whupped.
    Tell those women just to natter on
and eat up some of my hickorynut sandwiches.
    That's why we have so many slaves anyways,
so's they can be like Marie Antoinette
    and have lots of silly things to do
that takes lots of time.
    Now, you, boy, bend your butt
while I tell you again that you are not supposed
    to be raising your head
in the presence of a white woman
    ever agin, you hear me?...BLIP

Now if you can take just one more
    lash out of this,
here's the BIGGIE!--
    Revolution is not really a spectator sport.

Louie Crew is an emeritus professor at Rutgers. Editors have published 2,201 of his manuscripts, including four poetry volumes. Crew has edited special issues of College English and Margins. You can follow his work here.
See also Wikipedia. The University of Michigan collects Crew’s papers. Contact Crew at lcrew@andromeda.rutgers.edu

Dwelling in Safety: A poem from the weeks following 9/11/2001, 2001

By Kathy Staudt

In an earlier post, over the weekend of 9/11, I reflected on that challenging assertion from the service of evening prayer: “Only in you, O God, can we live in safety.”

This statement - that our safety rests ultimately with God rather than with anything we can create, was for me the ongoing learning of the days after 9/11, and has continued to be a meditation for me. I find that it was already reflected in a poem I wrote in October of 2011, and which I share here for readers of the Café to recall how we felt then, how the Cathedral and the Cathedral close spoke to us of safety and un-safety -- and how it feels to pray these “Only in thee can we live in safety.”

This came to me with great vividness on October 7, 2001, the day that the war in Afghanistan began. As a chorister parent who lives out of the city, I often hung around at the Cathedral between the morning and evening services, since my chorister had to make a day of it on Sundays when they sang. We were on the close when we began to hear the news that our airplanes were beginning the bombing of Afghanistan and I think at that time few people really knew how to feel. For me the process of walking around the cathedral and the close, in preparation for that day’s choral Evensong, brought home the whole theme of “dwelling in safety” which has seemed to me to be the spiritual word to our country ever since: what are we neglecting in our scrambling for assurance and safety and control? What endures? What are the lingering questions. I think the poem still captures where I am with this, though it takes on fresh irony in light of the recent damage to the Cathedral. I hope it will speak, in this 10th anniversary season, to readers of the Café:

Washington National Cathedral
October 7, 2001

In Afghanistan today,
Our airplanes are dropping
Bombs and food
Too soon to know
Where this news will lead.

I walk the path where on Sundays in Eastertide,
Amid ringing bells,
Treble voices echo from open casement windows.

Today it is colder
Quiet along this path
Through autumn darkened oaks
In the shadow of gray stone.

The tourists near me pause.
Silently we look up
As low-flying helicopters
Roar from the sky.

In the bishop’s garden
Birds in the holly bushes call aloud
Responding to a high flying F-16
Visible above us, through placid autumn sky:

In the woods, leaves begin
Their yearly spiral to the ground
Responding to the first real wind of autumn.

Sunlight dapples on old beech trees
Their thick roots digging deep,
Great fingers
Grasping the soil.
Their silver bark reflecting in its color
The gray stone skin of the cathedral façade,
Young skin,
Stretched over shapes eight hundred years old,
Enclosing a silent space that echoes
With clashing symbols:

House of Prayer for All
Battle hymns
Way of Peace
Patriot’s flag
Suffering Love

Where at Evensong today
The choir will sing,

As for centuries
In scattered churches
Of this civilization
Choirs have sung at evening:

Only in Thee
Can we live in

(by Kathleen Henderson Staudt. Originally published in Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture (2003 Edwin Mellen Poetry Press)

Spirit of invention

By David Cook

What if the boat doesn't float?
Sinks straight to the bottom?
And I end up with just a wet butt
And everything wasted.

The whole town will laugh.

But at least we saw the blue sky
Felt the sun on our arms and faces
My nose peels when we do that
And things only seem wasted.

Never you mind. The next one will float.

What if the flying machine don't fly?
Busts itself up in the field?
Maybe that's how I broke my arm.
Mary Sue fussed over me,
Brought me water.

Nita Lou said "Let's take you to my granddad;
He'll know how to set it."
Cared for me, she did.

"Oh, well, the next one will fly.
I know you'll figure out how.
Maybe that part that goes around needs
To be fastened on stronger."

Yeah! I see that it does.
Well, at least we got to see the day,
And the hills all curving and sweeping
Like a fine lady waiting for her lover
Clothed in summer and all her best.

So you keep on living;
You keep from dying by the next thought
Trying: thinking the next idea up close to the roof

Until the day corruption comes
To thrust between my lips
To bring to naught the labor of all my thoughts,
As I lay busy inventing the next life;
The one that will work where this one failed.

She weeps downstairs
But we tasted the strawberries
We tasted the honey and the coconut
We watched the moon rise

And so became a part of us forever
The thing that never dies.

David Cook, a lifelong Episcopalian living in Piedmont North Carolina, has retired from a career as a medical writer, and is now branching out into creative writing.

The long green season

By Kathy Staudt

Having been on an academic schedule my whole life, I find that when summer comes it has a liturgical feel. For academic professionals, summer is the time when we’re not teaching and meeting -- the time when we are free to do “our own work” of writing and creativity -- for many of us, the work that called us into academe to begin with. Sometimes it’s pressured, but ideally it’s at least in part “fallow time,” with space for contemplation. This year, with Pentecost so late, the feel of the summer season coincides quite well with the church year -- and I am sinking into it happily now, spending the early mornings on my patio, before the heat sets in, finding a little more “butt-in-the-chair” time for writing projects, getting in touch with the places in myself from which the best things come -- perhaps even with what Evelyn Underhill called “that deep place where the soul is at home with God.”

It has been a lush, green summer in Washington so far, and so I find the world around me, on my patio-mornings, in harmony with the green season at church -- the season after Pentecost which used to be called, quite appropriately I think -- “ordinary time” -- the longest season, and perhaps the most instructive, when we’re learning to live more deeply into the faith whose stories we’ve told from Advent through Pentecost.

Here’s a poem that came, one morning on the patio. It reflects how litiurgically “right” this “green season” is for me this year. Hoping these words may help some of you also rejoice in the riches of this season.

Here on my patio
This July morning
After drenching, cleansing
Storms in the night,
I rest amid birdsong,
Surrounded in green

Green of the long growing season
After-Pentecost at church

The season to put out more leaves
Take in sunlight and nourishment
Put down deep roots
Bear maturing fruit
Grow, receive, give back

The long green growing season
Of ordinary time.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Stumbling Credo

By Kathleen Staudt

Verna Dozier is known for saying that every Christian should be able to tell the story of the faith in 10 minutes or less. Sometimes people call that out of us. Recently more than one friend has asked me some version of the question “What does the Crucifixion mean? The question was asked in an email (I can’t actually remember from whom, now – and I never answered it.) Stumbling in prose, but haunted by the question, thought I’d lean imaginatively into the question, see what would come out in verse – with line-breaks providing space to ponder. I’m not really sure about the quality of what follows as “great poetry,” but it does offer a crack at the that question, one which perhaps other Café readers have been asked at one time or another. Here’s my try at a response.

Stumbling Credo
(lines written in response to a friend who asked me, as if she thought I would know, “What does the Crucifixion mean, anyway?”)

The world is broken: there’s no doubt
About that part. People are cruel and violent
And the ones who are in power
Religious or imperial – they know
Their power rests on privilege, and fear

And yet there is, beneath it all, a love that is for all
That calls us home to ancient faithfulness
And gives the dispossessed a voice, a place, a grounded life.
It seems such love cannot prevail, when those in power
Who profit from the broken world, create a reign of fear.

But when that love, which has a human face
Cannot endure to see how people harm each other
He comes to be among us, shares the fate
Of those the most oppressed and says –
You are all God’s people: rich and poor, in and out
You are all so greatly beloved.

So stop this now. Repent, he says to all
Change your way of life. Love one another, and resist
The rule of those who lord it over others. Refuse to fear.

Such love, it seems, cannot survive
In this broken world
Where love incarnate comes to live among us
So his own leaders work together with
The rulers of the age. Call him a traitor
Kill and torture him,
And crucify: the punishment of traitors.

They can crucify the man, but they cannot kill
The love he bears and is, nor can anything
Blot out this love,
The Love that has has suffered
The worst that power and rage could then inflict.
The suffering is real. The love persists, And so
He rises from the dead, to say
Look: you canot kill it.

He comes back to his closest friends, and says again
I am the way – follow me, and I will set you free
In this world, love is bound to suffer
But bear it, and love will teach you to live
Together, be my people – my friends, and I
Will do great things for you.

Do not be afraid: Sin will not stand. The victory
Has already been won.
It is possible to live another way: follow me.
Do not be afraid
The work I brought is already begun
There is a way, it is still real
The promise that this broken world can be made whole
Available to love.
There is still a Way.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Refreshing the parts that prose can't reach

By Martin L. Smith

Sitting on my balcony the other day with a glass of beer, I found myself breaking into a smile at the memory of the slogan Heineken ran for several decades: “Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.” I have always felt this catchphrase cries out to be adapted to help us realize the power of poetry in developing a vital and imaginative inner life. Poetry is able to refresh the parts of our heart and soul that prose cannot reach! Poetry can penetrate and rouse the richest and deepest dimensions of our humanity. And maybe poetry is more important to us now than ever before as we are bombarded with information through the media, most of it utterly banal—clogging our heads, but not reaching the inner springs of feeling and action deep within.

Many of us have had the experience of responding to poems so viscerally that we are physically and emotionally shaken as they speak to us. We have a heightened sense that somehow the opposites of life – birth and death, connectedness and brokenness, love and fear – are being held together. We hold our breath on the brink of being suffused with meaning. Words glow on the page and like magnets seem to pull us out of our usual harried state into a place where we recognize our own right to be passionate, to be human beings on a divine quest.

Researchers have made some intriguing discoveries. The typical length of the line in poetry in cultures the world over is virtually identical, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds to pronounce. There is a convincing theory that when words convey meaning to us in this short package, followed by a tiny pause before the next line, it allows the input to pass from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and so our receptivity is fully opened and our consciousness unified. No wonder human culture and religion has placed such value on metred poetry and song in the sharing of meaning, and in ritual. No wonder that pages and pages of text or hours of speech seldom have a fraction of the effect that a short poem committed to memory can have as it lodges in our consciousness and continues to illuminate and challenge us from within.

I am sure I could write an entire spiritual biography by stringing together the poems that came to me unsought as visiting angels at the right time year after year. About 15 poems of Rilke that I learned 40 years ago shaped my whole way of feeling about God: “we feel round rage and desolation the finally enfolding tenderness.” I look through the pages, worn round the edges from use, where I have copied out the poems. Here’s the Tao Te Ching and Li Po. Here are the poems of David Whyte: “always this fire smolders inside. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke.” e.e. cummings: “all which isn’t singing is mere talking.” Rumi. Mirabai. Machado. W.H. Auden. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peguy. None of them deliberately researched. We just come upon the poems when we are ready.

In a beautiful poem, Seamus Heaney remembers the counsel given in confession by a Spanish priest: simply, “Read poems as prayers.” Wise man. It sounds simple, but it is actually challenging. We often complain to ourselves that our prayer is dry, we aren’t motivated, we feel distracted. We rationalize our avoidance by telling ourselves that we are in a state of doubt, religion doesn’t feel very real to us at the moment etc. etc. But in fact we are simply refusing to take responsibility for nourishing and stimulating our imaginations, without which prayer is bound to shrivel up. We need to open ourselves to the kind of language that “refreshes the parts” that the prose of everyday working life and entertainment doesn’t reach, the poetry of holy scripture and the ecumenical scriptures given us by poets in the larger human family.

Poetry as source for prayer is not only a solitary practice. It cries out to be shared.
What a marvelous thing it would be if we opened the space in our lives to read and share poetry with one another, and made gifts to one another of the vibrant meaningfulness of the poems that have spoken to us personally. A rather subversive practice, actually, because it would probably have the effect of rendering us even more impatient with the church’s institutional addiction to cliché-ridden “church-speak” and the mind-numbing verbiage generated by its obsessive controversies.

Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.

Love came down at Christmas

by Kay Flores

A few weeks before Christmas, my friend Andrew asked what time our Christmas Day service was scheduled. I hated to say we didn’t have one scheduled – but it was true, we didn’t have one scheduled. Our small congregation had decided to focus our efforts on two special services: the Banging-of-the-pans-to-drive-away-the-dragons-of-darkness service (followed by Compline) held on December 21, and our Christmas Eve service, and there wasn’t much energy around another service on Christmas Day.

Andy then had a great idea: Let’s take Eucharist to our new rehabilitation hospital, where our friend Kay Rohde is hospitalized.

Kay, an Episcopal priest, and until recently the Wind and Wings youth coordinator in the Diocese of Wyoming, was told in late November that the numbness in her leg was caused by a tumor on her spinal cord. By early December she had the surgery to remove it. A few days later she was moved to Elkhorn Valley Rehabilitation Hospital in Casper, and has been hard at work ever since as her body relearns the physical skills she needs.

I was excited about Andy’s idea, and immediately took it to Kay. She consulted with the administration at Elkhorn Valley. They enthusiastically agreed to host a 10:00 a.m. service, as long as we made it an ecumenical service. As part of her occupational therapy, Kay made and delivered flyers to the other patients. We agreed on a service from the Iona Community, and my friend, Temple, and I prepared the bulletins. Our altar guild packed a to-go box containing a chalice, paten, and wine. A neighboring church shared gluten free wafers.

Kay Rodhe tells the rest of the story.

Folks began to gather in the cafeteria. The altar was a bed side table, set with chalice and paten. St. Stephen’s had prepared the worship leaflets, and the two young people from St. Stephen’s, Elizabeth and Catherine Kerr, handed them to the patients as they began to arrive. The room was full of the Spirit as the 20 patients and 9 members of St. Stephen’s sang O Come All Ye Faithful. We read the Christmas story from Luke and reflected a bit on the wonder of Love coming down at Christmas, and that no matter what is going on in the world, Love always will risk to be present - based on a poem by Madeline L'Engle. I looked out at the congregation, most in wheelchairs, some not able to speak out loud, but God was there - in their eyes, in their smiles, in the Spirit of Love that connected all of us. We blessed the bread and the wine and as communion was distributed, we sang more Christmas carols. We thanked God for the meal and for sending Love down to dwell among us and closed with a rousing verse and chorus of Angels we Have Heard on High. For those of us there, Christmas had come once more - and the feeling spread down the halls as they returned to their rooms to get ready for Christmas Dinner -(served to us by the hospital staff).

The thing about ministry is that when you minister to someone else, you are being ministered to, also. That was certainly true for me today. With the help of St. Stephen’s, we were able to give those here in the hospital a gift - to be able to worship on Christmas, to hear the Gospel, to sing the carols, and for those who wished it, to receive Communion. But I received gifts also. I had been feeling a bit down last night - about the time that midnight services would be starting. I badly wanted to be there, to hear the O Come let us Adore Him, to hear the music and smell the pine boughs and feel that incredible sense of awe at being a part of the Christmas story. Today, celebrating in a rehab hospital cafeteria, no candles, no booming organ, no pine boughs or choirs, just a small group from a little church in Casper who were willing to share their worship with people they didn't even know and a hospital full of people in pain, just recovering from traumatic surgeries, people who are trying to relearn how to walk, people who may never walk again - that same awe was there. Love came down at Christmas and wrapped arms around each one of us - and you could feel it! And for me another gift: One of my rehab goals was to be able to continue to function as a priest - and I am!

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a nova lighting the sky to war.
That time runs out and sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,
in a land in the crushing grip of Rome:
Honour and truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth
And by greed and pride the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

~~Madeleine L’Engle

Photos by Elizabeth Kerr, click to enlarge, more photos here

Kay Flores, St. Stephen's, Casper WY, is soon to be ordained transitional deacon in the church she serves. She is a mentor and trainer for EfM both face to face and online and is an unemployment judge for the State of Wyoming.

Surprised, again, by joy

By Greg Jones

Joy can come as a surprise. In fact, I think it usually does. Joy can come upon you, just as the wind blows when and where it will.

Wordsworth wrote a poem once, perhaps you know it:

Surprised by joy — impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport — Oh! with whom
But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind —
But how could I forget thee? Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss? — That thought's return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart's best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

The poem is about bittersweet joy and its frequent companion: A Flustering Confusion. Wordsworth composed the piece in the context of having lost a child. He experienced a happy moment, then of a sudden realized that he had forgotten his loss and grief, and felt regret about it.

Yes, joy can come as quite a surprise, especially in the midst of grief, and sorrow and sadness.

Now, I am not by nature morose. But I have my glum moments. Don't you? And why wouldn't we? For by now we have lost people. We have lost children. We have lost parents. We have lost friends.

Yes, we are likely all walking around with some grief. We are all likely observing some kind of living mourning. No? But.... sometimes we are tickled by life ...... and sometimes joy gets through, and we can still be surprised, and flustered — with that impatiently blown confusion of regret and rejoicing.

I believe this in some way explains how they felt, when though in mourning, and still very confused by reports of empty tombs, angels and resurrection appearance, Jesus suddenly and impatiently appears to the eleven, raised by the power of God. As the story goes, they were surprised, flustered, and wondering what this was all about.

Now, I have believed in Jesus for many years. I believe in the Resurrection, and I believe it has been shown to me — in a lifetime of Easter glimpses: a sip of communion wine, an answered prayer, a mystic sensation. These many small moments of surprise have built up my faith. But, friends, if I were to see Jesus the way the disciples did in the eating of fish that time: I would be very, very, very surprised. Yet, I would welcome it — and indeed, I am expecting it. I am expecting to see the raised Lord in His fullness.

If you have ever been surprised by joy — and confused and flustered by it — then you can relate to how the disciples felt when Jesus came to them in fullness. If you have not yet experienced something of Christ's resurrection, expect it to come like an impatient wind — to surprise you, and stir you up.

Expect him to come my friends. Jesus, He our God of love, will pierce all our sorrows and mourning, and peace will finally be with us.

The Rev. Samuel Gregory Jones ('Greg') is rector of St. Michael's in Raleigh, N.C. and the bass player in indie-rock band The Balsa Gliders — whose fourth studio release is available on iTunes. He blogs at Anglican Centrist.

Approaching God through poetry

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Some years ago Bill Countryman wrote a book whose very title brings together two things I've been thinking about over the past few weeks. The book is The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition. In it he writes, memorably:

"The continuing power of the Anglican poetic tradition depends on the fact that it does not seek power. It gives no prescriptions; it does not compel. It springs out of the gospel of Jesus, but remains blessedly free of theology's a priori concern to nail everything down and make sure that others toe the line. It is able to listen to people of other religion and of none and to hear the voice of God there, too. It is able to speak in terms that connect with our human experience, and it invites a sharing of things that lie, as Wordsworth wrote, "too deep for tears." It connects with the human world and the world beyond humanity. It invites us, with Vaughan, to rise up, weeping and singing, into the great circle of light where our life-experience at last begins to have full meaning. That also means, of course, that it invites us to see our own poverty and sin and to experience, in the absence of God, how truly empty life can be. But it invites us to this experience of loss precisely so that we can delight fully in the unpredictable but certain experience of God's presence and the fullness of connection and life that it makes possible.

I thought of this vision of the Anglican poetic tradition again this past week when I was co-leading, with Esther de Waal and Bonnie Thurston, a residential conference at the Cathedral College entitled "Approaching God through Poetry." At that conference, looking at a variety of poets, from early Welsh poetry praising the creation, to Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and others, we returned repeatedly to the ability of poetry to create "both-and" experiences, and especially to help us discern the holy in the ordinary, and to embrace an incarnational and sacramental vision in which the divine and the human come together in the particularities of our experience. Repeatedly we returned to poetry as a kind of experiential, relational theology, a different kind of language than the categorical statements of systematic theology, but no less powerful in its ability to open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the experience was the communal part of it -- gathering of a group of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds, in a space that was both beautiful and prayed-in, and sharing a common life that was punctuated by communal meals and regular liturgy. Some of us gathered daily for early morning Communion in the crypt of the Cathedral, all came to choral Evensong in the Great Choir, with poetry included in our worship each evening, and we all attended the night prayers of compline led by members of the group at the end of our days together. In between we were immersing ourselves in words, and engaging in a practice of listening -- both to the various poets we were hearing about, and to life as they saw it.

We talked about how poetry can help us slow down and look more attentively at the world around us, how the words of a poem can offer us new ways of imagining the relationship between God and the world. (Consider, for example, the many levels of meaning carried by the word "charged" in Hopkins's famous line "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" - with its evocation of electrical current, a responsibility or "charge," a burden to be borne.) We considered how the voices of poets invite us in a lively way into the communion of saints, the blessed company of faithful people exclaiming over both the gifts that life brings and the darkness that we also encounter in human life. In that conversation, I was inspired to hear participants finding their own voices in new ways, some writing poems for the first time, others responding from the heart to one another and to what they were seeing in new ways through the eyes and words of the poets.

It was a refreshing time, not least because all of us were doing more or less "one thing" in our gathered time that week, instead of the usual multitasking that tends to determine our frenetic lives. Gathered as a community, we were drinking from many streams that have fed our tradition -- the rootedness in Creation and the resistance to darkness that we find in Celtic spirituality; the balanced rhythms of "practicing the presence of God" from Benedictine spirituality; and the delight in words and "noticing" that poetic language brings; and the coming together of all kinds of beauty in the practice of liturgy. These are all things I treasure about our Anglican heritage, and it was delightful to see how people were fed by this gathering. The feeling I came away with was a sense of grace, gratitude and rootedness, an awareness of the rightness of what Mary Oliver observes in Thirst, when she suggests in one of her poems that the practices of prayer and poetry open a "doorway into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak."

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

A Lenten discipline for word people

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

For the next 6 weeks or so I’ll be teaching a seminary course I call “Contemplative Writing.” This year’s run coincides almost exactly with the season of Lent. It teaches a discipline that can help us “word-people” – teachers, preachers, bloggers -- to let our words take us beyond words, and center our lives more fully in God.

My working definition of contemplative writing is “writing that is for no audience but yourself and God.” That is the hardest part for word-people, since so much of what we think about is how to make our ideas available to a particular audience of readers or listeners. But how do we write when no one else will read what we’re writing? What happens when we say to God: “these words are for me and You only.” They may be “me talking to myself in the presence of God” or they may be words to God. But there is no other audience. The title poem of Mary Oliver’s wonderful recent volume Thirst gives us a glimpse of the contemplative writing experience as we overhear the poet speaking to God: “Love for you and love for the earth are having such a long conversation in my heart,” she writes. Contemplative writing uses words to ground those “long conversations” that go on in our hearts, in the listening presence of God.

I like to distinguish contemplative writing from other kinds of writing that we do in “not for publication” mode especially journaling, creative writing, and now, blogging.

Most of us writers probably practice journaling/freewriting/prewriting in some form. Journaling is “reflective" writing: the audience for it is myself -- I write so as to see myself more clearly, reflected back. This can be an important tool in the spiritual life, but ultimately, self-understanding is not the goal of contemplation, however important it may be as a step toward honesty with God (what the spiritual tradition calls “purgation"). Contemplation in the spiritual life is ultimately contemplation of God, not of oneself. Journaling melds into contemplative writing when we move away from talking to ourselves and find ourselves saying “You” to our God.

Contemplative writing is also not “creative writing.” Again, it’s about audience. Creative writing encourages people to release and explore their intuitive, imaginative side, to see things in a new way, to approach life creatively -- and to shape these experiences into literary form, for a particular audience. The best creative writing shows real respect for the disciplines of poetic form, the properties of language itself as a material, and the best creative writers submit themselves to the disciplines and challenges posed by their materials, uncovering new richness in words that embody and show imaginative insights. Contemplative writing can become “creative writing”—occasionally something will emerge that calls out to be shared. But the disciplines are different.

Some people now use blogging as another way of engaging the spiritual life with words: An online blog, of course, has an implicit audience, but I’ve known of people who blog on a website offline just to have a place to put their private thoughts, and the fluidity of the keyboard-to-screen medium can be freeing. I find, however, that there is a kind of “body prayer” involved in the exercise of putting pen to paper – a groundedness that we lose at the computer keyboard. The very clunkiness and messiness of pen and paper slows us down and forces pause, as the speed of electronic media does not.

The discipline I commend to my students is one that I also intend to take on, this Lenten season: Spend some time every day writing in a journal. Begin by placing yourself intentionally in the presence of God, and attending to what you see, hear, perceive around you – or to whatever conversation is going on in your heart. Let whatever comes, come: fill 3 pages, or spend 20 minutes – whichever frame fits your life better –but write in the presence of God, where whatever you write is acceptable, and spelling doesn’t count. Most important, leave some time after your writing time simply to rest in that loving Presence. On good days you may find that this practice of writing has become a preparatio for prayer: a doorway into the presence of the One who loves us, and always calls us deeper into that loving presence, in every moment of our lives.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

Accepting God's daily gift

By Heidi Shott

Last August my sons and I made our way downeast to Mount Desert Island for our annual camping trip to Acadia National Park. Our stated goal – my stated goal – is to hike every named peak by the time the boys graduate from high school in 2012. Each year we update a master map of the park by circling the peaks we’ve knocked off. Last year we hiked Sargent and Dorr Mountains and were joined by my non-camping husband on the final morning for a hike up Pemetic.

By real mountain standards the peaks of Acadia are only biggish hills, but on clear days the views of the glacial lakes and the outline of the piney islands off the Atlantic coast still take my breath away. This annual trip at the end of summer is a touchstone for our family, a final time together before the new school year to pick the last wild blueberries along the trail, to walk around Bar Harbor with ice cream, and to savor the hot popovers with butter and strawberry jam at the park’s venerable Jordan Pond House.

Another touchstone has been reading aloud. From the time they were four or five until last summer when we finished the last Harry Potter book after a six hour marathon ending at 2:30 a.m., we’ve always had a read-aloud going. However, last summer the boys announced that after Harry Potter, we should call it quits. “It’s been fun, Mom, but we prefer to read alone from now on. No offence, okay?”

With a hard swallow, I accepted this rare example of twin solidarity. Their tastes are, after all, diverging: Colin reads history and historical novels; Martin prefers contemporary fiction and poetry. And already, at 13, they are commending many hard and wonderful books that I’ve never gotten around to reading.

So in August, shoehorned into our tent at the remotest, raccoon-infested corner of Southwest Harbor’s Smugglers Den Campground, the three of us were each to our own book. Martin was sailing around the tent alone with the poetry of Billy Collins, I was halfway through Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel Middlesex, and Colin was reading an anthology of P.G. Wodehouse. (He dressed up as Bertie Wooster for Halloween and was disappointed when our neighbors mistook him for a croquet player). For me, it was sweet – each boy kept interrupting to read lines thereby annoying his brother – but not the same as reading together, immersed in the same book. I missed the plaintive cries of “One more chapter, please, or at least read to an asterisk!” After much phony reluctance, I always gave in.

In late November when it came time for Martin’s eighth grade conference, he shared with us the following poem he wrote early in the school year.

“Daily Gift”
“Each one is a gift, no doubt,
mysteriously placed in your walking hand
or set upon your forehead
moments before you open your eyes.”

- Billy Collins, “Days”

The first thing I hear
are the birds.

I am lying in a snug sleeping bag,
eyes closed,
absorbing the whistles
and tweets.

The second sound is the tap
of raindrops on a nylon tent
as they trickle from soggy trees.

The final noise
in my semi-asleep state
is the kettle reaching its boiling point.

Now I am awake.

I rise,
a zombie of the campground,
hair untamed,
and glare through trash-bag eyes:

a nocturnal adolescent
sore from hiking.

I clamber out of my cave
and utter the first word
of a fresh day:


Who knows what this day,
this gift,
will bring.

I only know one way
to find out.

- Martin Shott

How I wish I had Martin’s trash-bag eyes to see each new day as it is delivered to my bedside. In this new year, how I wish that we Episcopalians could focus on the gifts so freely and lavishly given to each of us by God: our capacity to love and our freedom to commit ourselves to whomever we choose; the thousands of opportunities available to serve those without a voice in our society and in the wider world. These gifts are already ours, no matter where General Convention stands on the matter at any given time or whether some among us have chosen to leave the Church altogether.

Years ago, my college’s chapter of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship invited a Presbyterian minister from Charlottesville to preside at an evening called, “Hard Questions.” It was meant to be a particularly intriguing and evangelical night, drawing students who wouldn’t ordinarily attend one of our weekly meetings. We were hopeful this Presbyterian dude would be good on the stump. (Our local Episcopal priest who faithfully attended our meetings was a genial, laid back guy and glad to escape the hot seat.) While I recall we drew a good crowd including a couple of lively agnostics, I can only remember two sure things about the evening: one is that the Presbyterian guy had a beard and the other is his response to question, “How can you explain terrible things that happen in the world?”

I had just read the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamozov and was interested to see where he would go with the answer. I was also interested because my comfort level with my friends’ confidence in a fairly rigid Evangelical view of faith was beginning to shift. At the same time I was terrified of being left as a castaway to grapple alone with an increasing number of questions and an emerging vision of what it could mean to be a Christian. So I listened to the Presbyterian intently.

He said something close to this: A countless number of horrible things happen to people that we can’t explain, no one disputes that. But the Bible gives us a clue by fully explaining that God the Creator loved humankind deeply enough to redeem us by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God. All the details are there, all the explanation is there. It’s the most complex and most horrifying deal in all of history, but God has seen fit to reveal it to us fully. A god who will explain an event of such magnitude…one that demonstrates such abounding love for creation… is a god who can be trusted with millions of things – the tragedies and the mysteries – we can’t explain in the world.

While I was disappointed with the answer at the time, I’ve found that I’ve remembered it for almost 25 years. The gifts are there. The child is born, and we know the how and why. While I miss the gift of reading to my sons, the closeness and the sweetness of it, their sharing of the books they read alone takes us new places and bestows its own gifts. I need to learn to let old gifts go and new gifts emerge, but it’s not easy.

Hark, friends, and listen closely in this New Year. Each day as you wake remember what you know is true; remember you are well-loved. Remember it is worth the struggle to climb out of your cozy tent and into the new day to accept whatever’s out there.

Just ask Martin, he’ll tell you.

Heidi Shott has served as press officer to Bishop Chilton Knudsen of Maine since 1998. Her essays about trying to live a life of faith may be found at Heidoville.

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