If you are like me, perhaps you have been having trouble sleeping at night with so much tragedy swirling in the world. Perhaps you too can’t let go of the images of Gaza’s wounded children, desperate parents, exhausted medical workers, and dead bodies piling up amid the rubble.
The mass shooting in the normally tranquil community of Lewiston, ME — targeting even deaf citizens - drove home once again our national sickness. On Halloween weekend, mass shootings occurred across 10 states, bringing the total for this year to a mind-boggling 583. What have we become?
In times like these, we have to do more to nourish our souls than pray — important as prayer is. We need to be intentional about seeking what sustains our spirit. Something I’ve been doing to get through these despairing times is to read at least one poem a day.
The power of poetry to accompany us in tumultuous times is as old as language itself. The Psalms — poems of the Old Testament — show how the ancient people of Israel lamented their way through exile, persecution, hunger and pestilence, often arguing with God in the process. The Psalms also remind us how Israel has faced seemingly insurmountable struggles for thousands of years. Still, the people survived. May it be so for today’s Israelis and Palestinians.
Not long after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, The New Yorker published on its back page — without any commentary — Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s Try To Praise The Mutilated World. Zagajewsi wrote the poem before the terrorist attacks ever occurred. Still, its message poured a spiritual balm over our shocked and saddened hearts. It told us what we needed to hear.
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
And wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine …
I recently attended an excellent conference co-sponsored by the Hank Center at Chicago’s Loyola University and Presence: A Journal of Catholic Poetry. Poet Angela Alaimo O’Donnell called poetry both a witness and a companion.
Poetry might not be able to stop the death and destruction, Alaimo O’Donnell said, “but it might inspire a revolution of the heart.”
Alaimo O’Donnell, who teaches at Fordham University, bears witness to the possibility of such a revolution of the heart in a series of short poems called Border Songs, found in her collection Holy Land. In the poems, Alaimo O’Donnell chronicles the lives of immigrants to our southern border. Among them: a young father and his small daughter, drowned in the Rio Grande; seventy-six women locked in a single cell; children separated from parents.
The heart-wrenching poems force us to reflect on our common humanity. They underscore what the Book of Exodus teaches, “The place on which you are standing is holy ground.” How would our government’s actions be different if we all thought of our southern border, not as a line of demarcation, but as “holy ground?” A revolution of the heart, yes.
I am grateful too for poets like James Crews, whose “Weekly Pause” column includes poetry that illuminates what is kind, what is good about the world. Here’s an excerpt from one of James’ recent offerings, a poem called How To Listen:
…This is holiness:
two people seated together
on the pew of a park bench,
at the altar of a kitchen table.
Even if no one says a word
for a while, receive the silence
until it’s like a new language
only the two of you can speak.
Such poems bear witness to what the folks in my weekly Benedictine prayer group often say: that God is everywhere and in everything.
This week, may we be aware of where God is moving in our “mutilated world.” May we nourish our souls with the rich sustenance of poetry.
Here is the link to subscribe to James Crews’s “Weekly Pause.” www.jamescrews.net
To learn more about Presence magazine, please visit www.catholicpoetryjournal.com
Visit Grolier Bookshop at www.grolierpoetrybookshop.org
To learn more about The Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University/Chicago, please visit https://www.luc.edu/ccih/