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Original Essays

Poetry and the Spiritually Centered Life

by Robert McDowell
  1. Poetry as Spiritual Practice: Reading, Writing, and Using Poetry in Your Daily Rituals, Aspirations, and Intentions
    $8.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Reading this lovely guide awakens in you a deeper appreciation for poetry and messages of the Spirit. It communicates a poet's soul — and helps you articulate that deep place of truth for yourself." Caroline Myss, author of Entering the Castle and Anatomy of the Spirit
Long ago, when naturalist John Muir, the father of our national parks, was a hungry, active boy in Scotland, his aunt was given a parcel in the family garden. Rather than planting potatoes or turnips, she filled her allotted segment with lilies. One can imagine her fellow family elders regarding her work with astonishment, and her with the indulgence one reserves for the challenged and abnormal.

But young Muir adored his aunt's lily garden. Destined to become the first chronicler of the gorgeous wild lilies of the Sierras in California, he had never seen anything as beautiful as those dazzling lilies in the family garden. He spent hours gazing at them, studying each plant until he knew them as well as one might know a dear friend.

Sustenance comes in at the mouth, but also through the other spiritual portals of the senses. All we need to do is slow down, listen, and observe. Here is a poem by George Hitchcock that says it better:


has returned
in orbit.

Today I sat
while a
folded its
and rested
on my knee.

A life is made up of countless moments just like this one, yet how many we miss! Flesh-bots of simmering anxiety and fear, we miss them by scurrying to and fro, whipped by deadlines, pursuing money, prestige, and phantoms created by our compulsive conjuring. We miss them by straying far from the fountainhead as we're swept away on a tide of frenzied, unfocused energy. We miss them by becoming deaf to the Word. We fall away so pointedly that we no longer hear the voices of elders — the mentors — whose responsibility is to keep alive and pass along the words we need to hear in order to be whole.

In one story I'm fond of, the mentor's essential words come from a surprising source. A family is trapped when a portion of the roof of the cave they're exploring collapses. The family members despair at ever digging their way out, worry about having enough air, and worry about dying of thirst. As they chip away at the wall of rock that confines them, they suffer many irrational, bleak moments. Taking a break, one of them discovers that they are not alone in the cave. A large tortoise has been keeping them company. The family continues to dig, but as the hours pile up their thirst becomes maddening. Then the daughter witnesses something amazing. A single drop of water falls from the ceiling above the tortoise, but before it can hit the ground, the tortoise's tongue darts out and catches it just so. The tortoise's tongue retracts, and its wise eyes seem to say to the girl, "That is how you may survive. Slow down, be patient, learn everything you can about your surroundings. Observe. Work steadily. Be ready."

The tortoise mentors the family in slowing down, in being observant, and eventually they dig their way to freedom. At the same time, the wisdom of the tortoise spiritually reconnects the human beings in this story with the grace of the natural world. I can do this myself, every moment of every day, by reading and reciting poetry, by contemplating poetry, and by writing my own poetry. By opening myself to the words I inherit, the words I reshape and breathe into the world, I'm acknowledging the star stuff, the solar power, and mysterious lunar energy that was packaged inside me at birth. Even before that, as I floated and swam in my mother's womb, her iambic heartbeat synonymous with the beating of my own embryonic heart, I breathed and lived through the energy of poetry. That energy chanted, and still does: Slow down, be open, witness and reach out! Through poetry I reconnect with trees and rocks, with every being, person, and thing on this earth. Through poetry I mix my own star stuff with the limitless heavens. I am transfigured in time. Through poetry I build new communities, I humble myself in service to others, and I connect to mentor-voices before me, to Saint Francis and Teresa of Avila, to Milarepa, to Chaucer, Rumi, Hafiz, and Emily Dickinson, and to countless others who embraced their divinity, and ours, by reciting, sharing, and writing glorious, magical poetry.

Temple Grandin, author of Thinking in Pictures, wrote to me that "poetry exposes me to a different way of experiencing the world. I instantly translate poems into pictures. I can see fields of grain or rain in Autumn. It is fascinating to see all the patterns and rhymes that can be woven into language. I always enjoy learning about the different ways that other people think of and experience the world."

Because we're innately questing creatures, don't we all desire discovering different ways to think of and experience the world? Early in Saint Francis's ministry, he was plagued by doubts and deep shame because he was repulsed by lepers. How, he wondered, could he continue on in his religious life while running from and shunning his fellow beings who suffered so terribly? Francis's personal crisis became so acute that he had almost made up his mind to renounce his vows. Then one day, walking down a country lane on his way to the village, a leper unexpectedly staggered out of the hedgerow and stood directly in Francis's path. The man's misshapen body curled around his crude staff, his face a grim mask of oozing sores. Francis felt the familiar wave of nausea rumble through him. He wanted to turn and run! But he stood his ground, begging God to fill his heart with compassion. Then, in an instant, Francis rushed up to the leper and threw his arms around him. Staring deeply into the man's sad, bewildered eyes, Francis kissed him on the mouth. In an instant, Francis of Assisi became Saint Francis. In his eyes, the leper's hideous appearance had been transfigured into the radiant beauty of the Almighty. From that moment on, Saint Francis celebrated moments like this one and offered the promise of reborn community to others through ecstatic prayers and poems, such as his Canticle to the Sun. Poetry became his most direct and inspired form of communication and proved indispensable to the nurturing of his own self-awareness.

Slow down, be peaceful, and open to the magic of each moment. Variations of these suggestions are found in the works and examples of spiritual mentors throughout time. Yes, we forget. Daily! But if poetry resides at the center of our spiritual lives, through it we can rapidly remember.


I remember running into his house on Ocean View,
Full of myself as usual, chattering on and on
About all of the important things I'd done that day.

George sat in a red wingback chair and listened,
Never interrupting, like a man serenely waiting out a storm.
When I ran out of things to brag about he said,

"Today I planted a single row of beans."
I felt so warm and foolish as he smiled.
I felt calmer, centered, good!

May poetry bless your spiritual path!

÷ ÷ ÷

Robert McDowell's poems, stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of magazines and anthologies here and abroad, including Best American Poetry, Poetry, The New Criterion, Sewanee Review, and The Hudson Review. He has taught at Bennington College, the University of Southern Indiana, and UC Santa Cruz; and at the Taos Writers' Conference, among many writers' conferences; and he was founding publisher/editor of Story Line Press. In addition, he coaches businesses in improving spiritual awareness, communication, writing, and presentation skills. His Web site is www.robertmcdowell.net. spacer

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