088: Building a Monastery of the Heart, Part 3

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

We’re devoting this special week to
spirituality and poetry.
AND NOW, Part 3 of poet Judith Valente’s series:

A Poet Discovers Meaning in Ancient Monastic Wisdom

    I recently read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh where he says: When we experience someone as distant or difficult, it’s often because we are sparking
some kind of fear or insecurity in that person.
    And just a few weeks
ago, when I was on retreat at a Benedictine monastery, I picked up a
book by the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello, which just happened to be
on the nightstand. De Mello says if we have a personal conflict with
another person, it’s usually because we fear something in that
person. So there it was again, that idea of fear. I’ve been trying
to figure out exactly what it is I fear in my stepdaughter. And it’s
causing me to have to confront some things in my self that are not very
nice, or flattering.

I’m beginning to realize is that I have to talk less about
my stepdaughter, and listen more to her. Because listening is
the first step to one of the most difficult building blocks in the spiritual
life, and that is forgiveness. Listen with the ears of the heart, as
St. Benedict says. It’s hard to forgive –- though we hear these
bromides all the time — forgive and forget, give it up, move on.
even an insurance commercial now where two frogs are talking and one
croaks to the other, “Let it go.” But it’s difficult to forgive
whole hog, especially those people who have wounded us deeply.
    I come
from a large Sicilian family and Sicilians are great at holding on to
hurts and grudges. A Sicilian word even has arisen from such blood feuds:
It sounds a lot like another Italian word, la morte,
which means death. Because not to forgive is a little like a death.
    I recently interviewed for PBS a Holocaust survivor who made international
news. Her name is Eva Kor. Eva stood in front of Auschwitz, the death
camp where she’d been imprisoned as a child, and granted forgiveness
to the Nazis. She did it after striking a relationship, years after
the war, with a man who had been a doctor at the camp. She told him
her story of being a prisoner. And he listened. And she listened to
his story of guilt and regret. Eva decided to stand by that awful 
brick and barbed wire wall at Auschwitz, and grant what she called “amnesty”
to all Nazis for the killing of her parents and older sister, and millions
of others. When she had said those words of forgiveness, she told me
later, she felt “finally free.”

of us can forgive in such a big way as Eva Kor, but we can take that
first step of listening to the other. Eva reminds me of another
significant mentor in my life, the poet Marie Howe. My encounters with
Marie have reinforced one of the other spiritual values the monastics
understand so well: praise.  Marie taught me one of the most important
lessons of my life: that the wounded have to become the healers.
I attended a workshop Marie gave a few years ago, and she challenged
us to think of a traumatic or difficult experience we had had, and try
to find the one thing in the whole awful experience that we could praise.
What was it about the experience that was life affirming?

question resonated with me because as a journalist, coincidentally,
I had been sent to report on a spiritual retreat for survivors of clergy
sexual abuse. The first night of the retreat, the counselor who was
leading it, said: “I know you are all here because you feel that something
inside you is broken. And you want someone, or some thing, to fix it.
But I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing to be fixed, because there’s
nothing broken. The experience you went through was broken, but you
are not broken. That experience is now a part of the person you are.
And that experience can make you a more compassionate person if you
let it.”

writing my poem for Marie’s assignment, I thought of an experience
I had had as a freshman in high school, where I was laughed at by the
other students in the class. But as I was writing the poem, something
odd happened. The poem took a turn. It was as if the poem was taking
me where it wanted me to go. And it became a poem about my mother, who
went to work in a food factory to help pay for my tuition at a Catholic
girls’ academy. My mother had endured an experience that mirrored
mine in which she was laughed — but in a different context.
I didn’t know when I began writing the poem, was that my mother would
die one month later, suddenly of a stroke. And it took me about a year
until I could even look at the poem again. But I finally did finish
writing it, and it marked the beginning of my healing over the grief
I felt at my mother’s death. I regret to this day she never got to
hear the poem. Writing it, I began to understand more deeply than ever
the healing power of poetry. The wounded have to become the healers.


I was the only public

that September at St. Aloysius

third desk from last,

the alphabet outskirts of class

only Barbara Zombrowski

Jane Zaccaro farther asea

My body a stranger

in alien clothes:

pleated skirt, white knee socks

Peter Pan collar buttoned to the neck

In freshman art

Mrs. Cirone asked us

to observe a beechwood

describe what we saw

and some said nature

and others said summer

I said the branches

were the serpent tresses of Medusa

— we had read “Bulfinch’s Mythology”

in Sister Helen Jean’s Latin class —

the bark the terrible wide

stem of her neck

Mary Smith grimaced,

Doris Crawford then Maureen Jennings

snickered, their laughter washed

over the waste baskets,

George Washington’s  portrait,

the crucifix above the blackboard in Room 202

I wanted to run from that place

in my stiff new regulation loafers

from the girls who lived in the stone houses

on Bentley and Fairmont Avenues

who summered at Avon-by-the-Sea

knew by heart the Apostles Creed

the Joyful, Sorrowful

and Glorious Mysteries

But I knew my mother

at that moment

stood ankle deep in red rubber boots

in a pool of gray water

hosing down cucumbers

at Wachsberg’s Pickle Works

so she could earn $1.05 an hour

squirrel away a few dollars each week

to pay my $600 tuition

and at three o’clock when

Sam Wachsburg blew his plastic whistle

remove the boots, pack up her lunch sack

take home the Broadway bus

smelling of sweet relish, pickled onions

while the school kids sniffed

her clothes, laughed behind her back.

I learned how to calculate

the square root of a hundred twenty seven

memorized the Holy Sonnets,

the symbols of the elements, mastered

each declension and conjugation:

amo, amas, amat

 The beginning of a new year is an especially
good time to reflect on the wisdom of monastic life. It many ways, winter
is a time of waiting. Waiting for snow to melt. Waiting for  daylight
to grow longer. Waiting for the first signs of green shoots to break
through in a dry, brown landscape.
    I’ve touched here on just a few
monastic values: attentiveness, listening, mystery, praise. In the coming
months, I plan to reflect on these values a little each day. At work,
at home with my family, I’ll be asking everyday: How can I build a
monastery of the heart?

AND SO ENDS this series.
IF you’re just joining us, we’ve been reflecting on spirituality and poetry all week. On Monday, Judith Valente shared her “10 Books That Changed My Life.” On Tuesday, we focused our weekly quiz on these themes. And this three-part series began on Wednesday this week.

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