PHOTO CREDIT: A local man helps a Syrian refugee swimming exhaustedly from a dinghy to a Lesbos beach, Sept. 17, 2015. Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
From the Center
Writing from the Center is a new feature in the Benedictine Center's regular eBulletin. For nearly ten years we have been convening writers to explore how our words help name what moves deeply within us. Not everyone can find time to come to the Monastery for an event, so in each issue I will reflect on something I have written or on a piece of writing that has caught my attention. The purpose is simple: to encourage other writers to reflect and, of course, to move from reflection to writing.
We also want to use the eBulletin to invite readers to share their own written work. Four times a year, we will announce a theme based on the values found in the Rule of St. Benedict and invite submissions from readers. Submissions can be in any form of writing – poems, essays, short stories, or personal reflections. In this way we can use technology to distribute the creative work of writers that might otherwise lie in a drawer or be stored on a laptop. While not everything any one of us writes is golden, what we write and how our writing offers a perspective on the world around us can impact a greater sense of our common efforts to live good lives.
of A Poem
I have been writing poems seriously for 30+ years. Especially in the past ten years, as I have had the privilege and opportunity to convene writers, I have been alert to how I go about my own writing. Poems that eventually see the light of day (i.e. are available to be read by others) have a long, arduous journey. The first draft comes from any number of sources and generally seems to flow easily. Reading a draft later, I may recognize that it will go nowhere or is simply a private reflection. Other drafts show promise and enter one of my favorite parts of writing – revision.
Revision is often painful because my first judgment suddenly comes up short. Metaphors prove to be contradictory, some lines are trite, and if there was an original point, it has been lost in needless blather. But I have learned to resist my egoistic despair and pursue why this particular draft of a poem has shown promise. Revision might take months. Even poems completed several years ago suddenly reveal their true voice – lines need to be dropped or changed, stanzas rearranged, new images created. First drafts of any writing are important. We must do them without letting loose our internal editor who reminds us frequently how inadequate we are and devoid of talent. Revision, however, is equally important because it invites us, in fact, to re-visit something we have written, to see it with a bit more objectivity and with some distance from its originating inspiration. We still love our words, but now we listen more intently to where they are leading us.
My example of this journey of a poem is “Love Ye the Stranger.” It began as a poem about the fractured relationship with my oldest brother. The rupture came about because one of us was deadly wrong about politics and religion. How could anyone think like that and still be my brother? Outrageous. So we cut all ties, set our jaws, and went on with life. But through a miracle of grace and eventually good sense, we found our way back to each other. We still believed each other was wrong in his opinions, but our fundamental bond as siblings trumped ideology. The first versions of the poem focused on the nature of the different paths we follow and the different ways we come to see the world, but those differences did not obscure the fact that my brother’s face mirrored my mother’s. Nice thought.
My writing group heard the poem and offered very helpful ideas for sharpening it. But someone suggested that perhaps the poem had a larger purpose than my relationship with my brother. Maybe it offered a way of thinking about relationships in general and how we allow natural differences to blind us to our common bonds. In the weeks that followed, I revised the poem again and again. Each time, the poem got better until it reached a breakthrough point. During that timeframe, the violent reaction to immigrants was beginning to accelerate. Daily accounts of the deep loathing for “the other” fomented by politicians disturbed. Who we are – who I thought we were as Americans – was under assault. More significantly, the compassion that is core to my understanding of being Christian was being dismissed as irrelevant.
This eventually led to a re-visioning of the poem as you see it here. The sense of hospitality that is deeply embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures and continues in the New Testament as well as the admonition of St. Benedict to welcome all as Christ diverted the poem to its new purpose. While my brother would not have agreed with my position on immigration (he died in November 2016), he would agree that we were raised to believe that our neighbor, nearby or far off, had a claim on us we could not deny. The subtext of the originating idea remains; its instruction points to something greater.
Love Ye Therefore the Stranger
When we look at them,
faces formed like our own,
the notion of difference shifts.
Recognizing ourselves in them
changes the story we tell,
for we hold parts in common
though told from different angles,
of birth, culture, circumstance.
We followed different stars,
turned at different crossroads,
suffered different perils.
These variegated perspectives
expand our sense of the whole
and caution us not to turn away
as though their lives were incidental,
and so differently composed,
we’ve nothing to learn