THIS I BELIEVE
I’m an 86 year old monk and I believe creativity belongs also to the aged. Here’s my story. In 1940 I came to St. John’s Abbey and University as a freshman in college and entered the monastery in 1945. After my monastic and preliminary theological formation I was sent to German Universities for an advanced theological degree. On returning I taught in the graduate school of theology and wrote academic books and articles.
When a young man of 75 years I read a poem in a quality magazine and said to myself “I think I can do that” and began to write poetry. Some early poems I stand by, but most were undistinguished, some dreadful, good examples of misdirected creativity: laying on the rhetoric, refusing to descend from the pulpit, striving for immortality (move over T.S.Eliot).
The wordy, abstract, logical theological books I read as a theologian ill-prepared me for poetry. Unlearning was on my agenda. My poetic self was hidden under layers of abstruse theology with footnotes in Latin and German. I had to be more creative, intuitive, take more risks. So I read the great poets and kept on writing mediocre poems. Clearly, I needed help which I received from Professor Michael Dennis Browne and Dr. Martha Meek, both masters of poetic creativity. And August Kleinzahler’s marvelous fresh poetry greatly influenced me.
My monastic life is the source of inspiration: the daily Mass (with bible readings), privately reading the scriptures with the heart (called lectio divina),, listening to my abbot’s conferences, talking to confreres, walking in our woods. A special source of inspiration are the 26 times a week we monks gather for prayer, which consists mostly of psalms and scripture. So biblical images fill my life, however, I definitely do not write pious poetry. Like Jacob, I confront God, wrestle with Yahweh and walk away limping. However, I do write mostly on biblical personages (Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Peter, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus) who were not bloodless, sexless, sinless sticks.
My desk has two drawers, one shallow, one deep. In the shallow one I place letters of acceptance; in the deep, all of my many rejections slips. You know, the first twenty rejection slips don’t count. I want my poetry to be judged as other poetry and I ask no special favors for religious poetry.
As my ninth decade progresses, the rate of decay increases and pieces of my body keep falling off. Still, I spend five hours a day on poetry. My modest talent has modest success as quality magazines now accept some poems and my two books of poetry sold well. Yahweh’s Other Shoe (a woman’s high heeled sandal on the cover) was a finalist in the 2007 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. My third poetry book nears completion. So you see, creative juices still flow at 86.
I told Abbot John that if the monastery is short of cash to renovate the chapel I can just write another poem.
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