8 Things Poets and Monastics Can Teach Us About Happiness; with 8 Poems to Make Life More Meaningful–Part 1 of a series

What poets and monastics have in common

When people think about what poets and monastics (monks and nuns who live in monasteries) have in common, the list might look like this:

  • They have their heads in the clouds;
  • They’re hermits;.
  • They dress weird;
  • And they’re dying off. 

Like all potent rumors, there’s a smidgeon of truth in each of those statements.

  • Poets and monastics do tend to contemplate the nonmaterial world  —  love, death, memory, dreams, intuition, emotions, and the spiritual life.
  • The work of poets (studying literature and writing poems) and of monastics (praying and reading scripture) frequently causes them to spend significant time alone.
  • Some monastics wear habits and some poets dress artsy.
  • It’s true there are fewer monastics than there were just fifty years ago,  And while the proliferation of MFA programs has given us more professional poets than ever,  they appear to have sequestered themselves into the professional poets’ secret cave (somewhere in Brooklyn?). And when we look at who reads poetry (other poets!), poems appear to have little cultural relevance for average Americans. 

And yet, at the important moments of our lives, we often turn to poetry  And while the number of monks and nuns have recently been declining, there is a world-wide surge in the number of people becoming Benedictine Oblates, (ordinary lay people of all denominations who choose to affiliate with a monastic community, committed to a Benedictine way of life while living away from the monastery).
I have been a life-long reader and writer of poetry. In my recent formation as a Benedictine Oblate, I was struck by many commonalities between the practices and values of poets and those of Benedictines. Although poetry is made of words, it works on our hearts in ways that are akin to music and to prayer. Poetry, music, and prayer take us to levels of insight and understanding deep in our hearts and soul, places even the most rational, cogent, and beautiful words of sermons or instruction cannot reach. So, in this series of articles, I identify:

8 things poets and monastics can teach us about happiness, with 8 poems that can help us live more meaningfully.

The First Thing Poets and Monastics Teach Us: Become who you were made to be.

Both poets and monastics know that everything meaningful begins with desire–that call of the heart that compels us to live an authentic life, true to who we were made to be. In other words, as the poet Alice B. Fogel writes in her book Strange Terrain, “It’s all about love.”
What calls you? What do you love? (Notice that this is an entirely different question from “what do you want?”)  What kind of life does your heart — your truest self — desire to live?
Living the life we are called to live, leads to a fulfilling life. Before making their final monastic profession, monks and nuns go through years of discernment to discover whether they are called to community life. Poets also frequently speak of being called. Joy Harjo, in her introduction to How We Became Human: New And Selected Poems: 1975-2001says that early in her writing life, she felt as if poetry tapped her on the shoulder and said, “You’re coming with me.”
In both the vocation of a monastic and the vocation of a poet, there is a sense that this call comes from outside of us, from something bigger than we are. Sir Andrew Motion is an English poet and novelist who was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1999 to 2009. He says. “You don’t find your subject, it finds you.”
Here is a long poem with a long title, (often shortened to it’s first word, “Lines”) by William Wordsworth, that speaks to me of desire of the heart to seek a life we can love. This was one of the first poems that called me to the reading and writing of poetry, and also, through a circuitous route, to Benedictine spirituality. Even in my early twenties, I wanted a life committed to “kindness and to love.”  This poem speaks of holy love, of stability of place, of harmony, deep joy, and the ability to “see into the life of things.”
Here is the second stanza of the poem:

Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798: by William Wordsworth

 These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

If this fragment of the longer poem engaged any part of you, you might want to spend time with the entire poem. Pour yourself a cup of tea and settle into a cozy sofa. Read “with half-extinguished thought” the way you might listen to music. Don’t try to puzzle out the meaning of the words because what, after all, is the meaning of desire, of love, of romance? Just experience the poem, and see if any words call you to pay attention to them, to live with them, love them, and follow them where they lead you.
You can click here to access the full version of “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.” Try  reading Lines aloud, and see what happens. Allow your understanding to remain dim and faint and somewhat of sad perplexity while you taste the poem’s deliciousness. Then ask yourself–

What kind of life does my truest self, in my heart of hearts, desire to live? 

This is a profound question. The answer requires discernment. Part Two of this series explores a habit cultivated by Benedictines and by poets: to listen. It is only through listening that we can hear what calls.
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