Poetic Obedience

Last week as I was talking about the Call of the First Four Disciples with my second graders, I told them that the thing to note about the story was how quickly and unquestioningly the disciples responded to Jesus’ call. Just as important, I also told them, was to know that all of us are called, that God speaks to each of us. “But it’s not,” I was quick to point out, “like you hear voices.” (Though in only a few minutes our Saint of the Week was going to be Joan of Arc, whose experience thoroughly belied my contention.)

A girl raised her hand and asked, “But if we don’t actually hear his voice, how do we hear him?” The director of the religious ed program often jokes that I’m turning my seven-year-olds into Benedictines, and I wished he’d been in the room to hear me tell the girl, “We listen to God with the ears of the heart.” I went on to explain that God talks to us through the events of our life and through the people he’s put into it. I might also have said that you know something is the voice of God when it’s nothing you would have thought of on your own.

Case in point: I remember exactly where and when it was that God told me to start writing poetry. It was in the novitiate year of my oblation and I was in the kitchen at the monastery drying dishes with our brother of beloved memory, Brother Justin. He had read some of my essay work and remarked that it had a lyric quality to it. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “You should write verse.” I consciously reminded myself to keep my face neutral so that he wouldn’t see the horror with which I received his suggestion. Although I’d been writing my entire adult life, it had never for a moment occurred to me to write poetry and, while of course I didn’t want to be bad at anything, the thought of being a bad poet was repellent to me. I told him I would think about it, confident that whatever discernment I dedicated to the idea would result in dismissal.

That discernment didn’t quite go as planned. On the contrary, at the time of Brother Justin’s suggestion I happened to have been focusing on Chapter 5 of The Rule, that is, obedience, and more specifically Chapter 71 (“Mutual Obedience”), where St. Benedict indicates quite clearly that “in every instance younger monks are to obey their seniors with all love and concern.” So, thinking that this might be God’s voice guiding my formation as a monastic, I started to write poetry as an act of obedience—and if, per my anxieties, I turned out to be a bad poet, it might also very well be an act of humility. I did, however, give myself (and perhaps God) an out clause: I promised God that I would give myself over wholeheartedly to “the poetry thing” (as I called it), but, not wanting to waste the gift he’d given me as a writer, would stop if I hadn’t been published within two years and return solely to essay work.

I was published within the first year, and have continued to be so since. Then, nearly two years ago, I spent a good portion of Lent asking God to let me know “what else” he wanted me to do. I felt ready for the next task, whatever it was. I also reminded him that, whatever it was, he needed be clear. (In his Infinite Wisdom, God knows that subtlety can be lost on me entirely.) So, on Pentecost Sunday the editor of the Catholic Poetry Room, a site that was a regular publisher of my work, asked if I would assume the editorship of the web page. The intended audience of the page is people who may have very little knowledge of—or even taste for—poetry and, more broadly, to play some small role in the revival of Catholic culture. I gladly—joyfully, even—accepted the offer.

Poetry, as with literature in general, has fallen on hard times. Post-structuralist theory has gutted language of all transcendence and politicized the very structure of grammar, rendering the bulk of contemporary poetry into myopic meanderings and thinly disguised sloganeering. The road back will be a hard one, but week by week I try to remind people of the joys of heightened language, of beauty, and of an Author whose best poem is creation itself. And I think of St. Benedict, who in his own infinite wisdom told the brothers to start copying manuscripts on the off chance that people might someday be able to read again. (It’s one of the reasons he’s the patron saint of Europe.) For my own part, I keep the web page up to date; I support established poets; I encourage new ones. And I write my next poem, and the next, and the next. I’m particularly partial to sonnets. They can be terribly difficult because they have so many rules, but the more you work on them, the more you realize that the life of the poem, the beauty of it, is actually built into and springs from the rules—a lesson to be learned for Benedictines of every stripe, even the seven-year-olds.


4 thoughts on “Poetic Obedience

  1. Thank you for sharing some of your writing life with us Jeffrey. Any creative process dwelling in the spirit is part of holy creation. You inspire us with your gift to also explore our own creative processes. To create this kind of beauty in language elevates us all. Those 2nd graders are also very fortunate to have you. I was a school librarian for 30 years K-5. I think your children would appreciate Tomie dePaola’s beautifully illustrated picture books on various saints- St. Francis, St. Mary, St. Nicolas, St. Patrick and also his collection of Bible Stories. His other work as well: The Holy Twins, Clown of God, and others. Peace be with you.

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  2. Thanks so much for your kind comments, Jane–and especially for the book recommendations. I’m always on the lookout for new resources for my children. These sound wonderful. Peace, Jeffrey

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  3. Jeffrey.   You are teaching me a lot. I had the “poetry thing” 25 years ago and lost it in a fit of writers block. Have tried and want to start again. I was forced to write in forms by a very good teacher but loved free verse. Can I send you something? I have a Christmas poem that maybe works. VictorVfkralisz@sbcglobal netSent from my Galaxy

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  4. Hello Victor: Happy to have provided an encouraging word. Yes, I very much welcome seasonal material (Advent/Christmas 2022 already has a few slots filled) and would be happy to consider your work, seasonal or not. Take a look at the Submission Guidelines on the Catholic Poetry Room web page to see what we’re looking for (pretty much anything, as long as God is in there somewhere). The email I use for the Catholic Poetry Room is Jeffrey.Essmann@gmail.com Hope all is well. Peace, Jeffrey

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