In memory of Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, among those killed at the Nairobi mall.
Coming out of the first evening of a weekend poetry course featuring Mary Oliver and Thomas Merton last Thursday, heading toward my car, I heard a loud rustling and looked to see a huge owl half-leaping, half-flying from the pavement to the top of a chain link fence that bordered the parking lot and a small wild area beyond. I could see its eyes, but they were not fixed on me, so I turned to the opposite horizon to see what it was staring at and saw a huge full moon rising, whose light shortly silhouetted a slowly ascending jet.
For those familiar with Mary Oliver’s poetry, attending to the owl and the moon could be considered a “Mary Oliver moment.” Her poetry contains a vast zoo of critters and a lifetime subscription to National Geographic images. But the ascending jet made me think of Merton’s poetic concerns about encroaching “civilization” as well as human vulnerability and glory.
The basic message of the course was that poets remind us to look and to listen. Why do we have to be reminded to look? Well, to see, of course! Why do we have to be reminded to listen? Well, to hear, of course! Or savor or smell or feel! Jesus reminded his students to watch and listen, and the Psalmist reminded worshipers to taste and smell and touch.
Poets and preachers, contemplatives and prophets, mystics and artists and scientists—all urge us: Look! Listen! Pay attention! Be mindful! Be aware—be VERY aware!
One might think that with all the communication devices we have that seeing and hearing would be our least unused senses, but in truth we are flooded with images and sounds, overwhelming the mere sprinkling needed to ensure a harvest in reflection. Thus focus is the key, and a few carefully chosen and crafted words, whether of poetry or scripture or (might I daresay) blog, can prove helpful.
A great example of focus can be found along Atlanta’s BeltLine, which exhibits many temporary outdoor works by artists. Look at the photo at the top of this post. What do you see? Metal and glass debris strewn over more than twenty feet? (That’s our dog Hobbes in the foreground for perspective.)
Yet if you walk up to it and look through the empty frame provided, as below, you will see a face, a portrait of local glass artist Matt Janke. A sign beside the frame explains, “Object of Ma(tt)n challenges the notion that materials, ideas, places and people within Life are disconnected. After gathering together discarded items from all areas of Atlanta, artist William Massey shows that our perspective is our portrait—separate or together, clutter or culture, divided or One.”
That’s pretty much the gist of what the spiritual formation poetry class reminded me this past weekend, from the poetry and professor as well as from fellow participants and our morning and evening prayers.
Related upcoming morning retreat in Dallas, TX, Nov. 9:
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