086: Building a Monastery of the Heart, Part 1

Poetry & Spirit Week: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5.

  We’re devoting this special week to
spirituality and poetry. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm is traveling in Asia and our special guest writer this week is Illinois-based poet Judith Valente.
    If you’re just joining us today, you’ll want to click on the link for Monday’s story to learn more about Judith’s “10 Books That Changed My Life.” That story also has links to our other coverage of work by Judith and her husband, poet Charles Reynard. On Tuesday, we published a quiz about poetry and spirituality.

    TODAY through Friday, we are publishing in three parts a wonderful piece about Judith’s own exploration of monastic values — and its interrelationship to her vocation as a poet. Each day, we’ll learn more about her spiritual journey, her reflections on that unfolding journey — and the poetry she has been inspired to write.
    Three of the photographs appearing with this series are from a special exhibition of photography and poetry. Click Here to read more about that exhibition. (The three photographs from that show are the large images that appear with today’s story and Friday’s story. So pay special attention to those three.)

AND NOW, Part 1 of Judith Valente’s series:

A Poet Discovers Meaning in Ancient Monastic Wisdom

upon a time, an ancient monastic tale says, a wise Elder said to a business

the fish perishes on dry land, so you too perish when you get entangled
in the world. The fish must return to the water, and you must return
to the Spirit.”
business owner was aghast. “Are you saying I must give up my business
and go into a monastery?” he asked.
the elder said, “Definitely not. I am telling you to hold on to your
business and go into your heart.”

story nicely sums up a fundamental struggle of the spiritual life. How do we remain rooted in the real world, the world of our career, our family,
our civic duties, and still live a life of the Spirit? How do we build
for ourselves, a monastery of the heart?

are great oases of stability.
    This way of life, after all, has managed
to survive more than 1,500 years. It existed when all communications
had to be handwritten in natural dyes and delivered on foot or horseback.
It continues today when we toss our messages instantaneously across
the world electronically on a computer.  It’s not unusual for people to enter a particular monastery and stay in that place for the
rest of their lives. How quaint that seems in our highly mobile society
where it’s now the norm for family members to live scattered across
the county. Often when you meet a Benedictine sister or a Trappist monk,
they won’t say, “I live at the monastery,” but “I belong”
to the monastery.
    I belong.

    This past year, I had the opportunity to stay at three monasteries across
the county. The first two times, I was giving presentations on my book,
Twenty Poems to Nourish the Soul”
(Loyola Press, 2005). The most recent time I was on a one-week
private retreat with my husband. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking
about what the monks and sisters call “monastic values,” and how
those values, far from being outmoded, are as life-giving today as they
were in the days of the great monastic leader, St. Benedict. I’ve
been focusing on just a few of those values: attentiveness, listening, praise
and mystery. How can I tap into these values in my everyday life?
How can their core of stability lead us to find meaning in change?

quest dovetails nicely with what is, for me, one of the most significant
spiritual pursuits. The way I often make meaning of change in my own
life is by writing poetry. Both the writing of poetry and living the
spiritual life, begin, after all, with the same first step. And that
step is paying attention.

no wonder that St. Benedict began the document we now call the Rule
of St. Benedict, his plan for monastic living, with a simple word: “Listen.”
    Listen, he says with the “ear of the heart.” It doesn’t take a
major change in lifestyle to live more attentively. We can begin at
any moment to more consciously pay closer attention to the world around
us. It might be a case of just peering up from our book once in a while
when we’re riding the Chicago elevated train, and looking, really
looking at the people around us and at what’s happening inside those
apartment windows and backyards the train is whizzing by.

we begin to really pay attention to the world around us, it becomes
easier for us to see wherever we are as holy ground. “Let the cellarer
(the kitchen administrator) treat the eating utensils of the kitchen
as if they were the consecrated vessels of the altar,” St. Benedict
says in his Rule.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the beautiful Vietnamese poet and monk, talks about
eating with mindfulness. If we chew so much as a bit of bread and some
warm milk, slowly and mindfully, he says, then a simple meal of bread
and milk can seem like a sumptuous feast.

poet Mary Oliver says she strives in her writing for “this deeper
level of looking and working and seeing through heavenly visibles to
the heavenly invisibles.”

we accept an attitude of attentiveness, of mindfulness, it becomes easier
for us to embrace another facet of the spiritual life that can lead
us to find meaning in change. That is, living in the mystery, or what
I like to call leaning into the mystery of life.

We’re all living out our own personal mystery story. Our lives begin
in mystery and end in mystery. We as Christians often pay a great deal
of attention to where the soul goes after we die. But where was the
soul before we were born? It was somewhere. And so we can look at our
lives as being on a continuum -– a continuum that includes all who
came before us and all who will come after us. I think when you look
at your life as a continuous unraveling, then it’s easier not to get
stuck on the disappointments, the wounds, that come before us at any
given time.

used to work as a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal in its Chicago
    When I was there, I wrote a story for the front page of the
paper about a religiously conservative Midwest father caring for his
son dying of AIDS. It was a very unusual story for the Journal and received
a great deal of attention. It was named a finalist for The Pulitzer
Prize. To reward me for my good work, the Journal transferred me to
its London bureau.
    Eighteen months later, something unprecedented happened.
The Journal had a layoff, and I was one of the reporters laid off. It was a stunning blow. Because the Journal held the lease on my apartment
in London, I found myself not only suddenly jobless, but homeless as
well. I remember thinking at the time, it took me 15 years to build
my career and 15 seconds for it to come crashing down around me. It
was a very dark and angry time.
    One day it came to me, after a great
deal of prayer and spiritual reading that I had to learn to lean
into the mystery
of my own life. And God would not abandon me. After
leaving the Journal, I decided not to take another job in daily newspaper
journalism, but to freelance. I returned to school to earn a Masters
In Fine Arts in creative writing and turned my attention back to my first
love, writing poetry. Two poetry books later, and with a thriving freelance
career in broadcast journalism, I can honestly say, I never look back.

into the mystery also reminds us that our lives are somehow part of
something larger than ourselves. In Ka’anapali is a poem I
wrote about a place in Hawaii, on the island of Maui –- a place as
far away from Chicago in atmosphere as you can probably get. In the
poem, I try to explore the feeling of being part of this larger mystery
of life and the universe.

In Ka’anapali

Hurtling through night at 497 miles per hour,
   the sea a black berth, clouds crumpled top sheets,
         I, who hate to fly. Window seat
near the starboard engine, each engine
    blasts out 37,000 pounds of thrust,
         rotates 12,000 times a minute,
so at night in bed in the dark mouth of Maui,
     motion still snakes through me, a strange blood.
         We sleep a punctured sleep,
awaken to paradise:
    to the sound of a waterfall, the distant
       What now, what now of a rainbowed Macaw,
to banyan, litchi, koi in a pond
    and eight bald-headed, pot-bellied
       Luhan disciples of Buddha
kneeling beside a hau tree: all I imagined
    you storing up to show me
         in a language in love with vowels:

Alaloa — long trail;
     heiau — stone temple;
          kilo hoku — to observe the stars.

The sea too has a voice, but does it have
     a language? The sea as it was our first morning,
           a child playing tag with the shore,
a shore that is never “ it.” The signs
     on Ka’anapali warn of dangerous shore breaks,
           jelly fish, sea urchins, man of war.
This is where the silversword
      grows for fifty years,
            blooms a single day, then dies.
Late afternoon on the lanai, we watch
      the sky flame from mango
            to smoke to berry-blue, you say
a hundred million galaxies is proof
      of the existence of God. I choose
            memory, the night we lie side by side
on a hammock, talking of everything
      and nothing: gibbous moon,
            unbroken sky, Venus dropping,
and Mars ascending, conscious
       Of the red stars, the dying,
            grateful for white stars, still being born.

AND SO ENDS Part 1 of this series.

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