April 16, 2018
By Sister Megan Brown
This is the fourth reflection in our Poetry and Mercy series as part of National Poetry Month. Read the whole series here.
In the beginning was the
WORD and the WORD was
with God and the WORD was
God (John 1:1).
I am in love with words, all kinds of words, especially the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jessica Powers, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats and Mary Oliver. John Donne has a place and Shakespeare, of course, as well as Thomas Merton, George Herbert and John O’Donohue. Rilke and Tennyson dwell in this space, as well as the lyricism of the Song of Songs, Rumi, Hafiz, Annie Dillard and Diane Ackerman. Of course Saints Therese and Teresa and Francis and Clare accompany me. It is however, the poetry of the Celts that lives deep within me.
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the beauty of words. My parents read to us each night—fairytales and history and poetry. As a child in elementary school, I delighted in poetry study. As an elementary school teacher, short-lived as that career was, I loved to coax words from my students. When I taught persons incarcerated in one of the Philadelphia city prisons, I published poems written by the men in my creative writing class.
My Love of Words
Words tumble into my mind, sing in my heart and scatter across the computer screen. I am forever indebted to “delete” and “backspace” and all the other miracles performed by computers each day, because sometimes words escape and take on a life of their own. At times, words need to be corralled and lovingly herded into place.
Words are clever. They are slippery. They rise and fall, haunt and elude. Words are patient. They come only at the right time in the right place. They cannot, will not, dare not be coerced. Words will not sacrifice freedom.
As for me, I must write. I must have a pencil in hand. Pens are too hard to erase. I must have well-worn notebooks empty and waiting for the precise word to birth on their pages.
Writing Gives Voice to Prayer and Mercy
For me, writing gives voice to prayer and most especially, writing gives voice to mercy. Hopkins says it so well in his magnificent poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland”: “We are wound with mercy round and round as with air.” Merton echoes Hopkins: “Mercy within mercy within mercy.” Mercy is a poem.
Gustave Flaubert observes that “there is not a particle of life which does not bear poetry within it.” I have often wondered how his observation applied to Auschwitz; Birkenau; North Korea; Guantanamo Bay; Iran; Iraq; Charlottesville, Virginia; and areas devastated by natural disasters. Where is the poetry in these “particle [s] of life?”
Perhaps the poetry is in the question; perhaps the poetry is in the lives of Etty Hillesum and Edith Stein. Perhaps the poetry is in the lives of practitioners of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Perhaps poetry exists whenever one of us dares to hope against impossible odds; whenever one of us joins with other “uses” and says, “No more to hate and violence and revenge.” Perhaps poetry plunges into flood waters to rescue elderly persons in a nursing home. Perhaps poetry resides in the small everyday kindnesses we extend to each other. For we who are Mercy, I believe poetry looks very much like Jesus of Nazareth, whom Jorgè Pagola calls the “poet of God’s compassion.”
Poetry abides in the depths of the human heart. Its expression is in the elegance of mathematics and music and art. Poetry is at the heart of God envisioned through a woman named Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, and enfleshed in each of us. I cannot not be enamored by words (double negative intended). They dance off the page for me and run into sunsets into those thin spaces and thin times where I must patiently wait to receive them.