Benedictine Life, Poetry

What monks, nuns and poets know about life balance

Some might think it a bit odd, even kooky, to live as a monk or nun devoted to daily prayer with a monastic community, or to be a poet spending unpaid hours creating odd little bits of writing known as poems. There’s no doubt the way monastics and poets spend much of their time is countercultural. But in a society characterized by extreme inequalities that produce poverty, violence, and diminished life expectancies, I’m convinced a movement in the opposite direction can only good.

Countercultural people and their practices are a counterweight to dominant powers and values. A counterculture can help straighten a skewed perspective. It might even help us achieve a more balanced rhythm of life. How we spend our days, is, as Annie Dillard wrote, “of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

How is balance achieved?

Balance can be achieved by bringing together opposites to make a complete picture, a whole:

  • light and dark;
  • working and relaxing;
  • company and solitude;
  • feasting and fasting;
  • thinking and feeling;
  • laughing and weeping;
  • giving and receiving.

Balance can also be achieved through equal distribution of weight, emphasis, time, or value. Paddleboarders distribute their weight to keep from falling in. Proper distribution of weight in a vehicle ensures the balance required for safety in handling and braking.

A social scientist and an artist have imagined the possible innovations that might happen in scholarly thinking within a cross-disciplinary, balanced interface they call art-science, which places equal emphasis on the methods and contributions of both artists and scientists. “The art-science interface can provide a level playing field for stakeholders, encouraging participants to work more independently of the expectations and restrictions of their respective disciplines.”

The FCC’s Equal Time Rule was intended to balance the  (possibly minority) opinion of those in control of media, specifically radio and television broadcasters. It regulated against restricting air time for their favored political candidate’s opponents, to prevent them from swaying an election.

In international politics, the theory of “the balance of power”  which emerged during the Renaissance, may be based on a metaphor (balance) that can never work to accomplish lasting peace. In the late 1940’s, the poet Muriel Rukeyser argued peace isn’t possible when thought remains centered on power terms like force and surrender. These concepts create a reality in which the preparation for, the threat of, or the engagement in war is the focus of those in power. People at war inevitably commit atrocities that are should repel and outrage any thinking/feeling human. So why does any citizenry tolerate war? Dr. Bosmajian of the University of Washington in Seattle wrote in a 1984 paper for Christian Century, “To remove the moral obstacles to war, leaders, both political and religious, euphemize killing and the weapons of destruction and dehumanize the potential victims in order to justify their extermination.” Poetry can be a countercultural balance, working to straighten the twisted notion that force is the only viable resolution to conflict.

Poetry, T.S. Eliot wrote, effects a kind of fusion between what we feel and what we know to be true, so that “the feelings become elevated, intensified and dignified,” in a way that makes “truth more fully real to us.” The tools of poetry, then, might awaken our natural reverence for life and ignite repulsion against killing. Poetry might dignify the people we are tempted to classify as enemies, making us empathize with them enough that we would be as outraged by the senseless deaths of their children as we would be by the killing of our own. In this 1986 song, Sting imagines what could happen in war and peace “if the Russians love their children too.” Perhaps this lyric (poetry) influenced public sentiment in the last years of the 20th-century cold war:

The Benedictine motto “ora et labora” (prayer and work) is about balance.

Benedictine spirituality is rooted in a balance. Each day is to be lived with awareness of the fragility of life, making evening single day precious. Therefore, the hours of each day are allocated so that everything needful for living may happen. There is time for prayer, study, work, meals, and healthy leisure or rest.

Benedictine monastics make time each day for prayer and work. They value each as necessary for fulfillment. In a Benedictine community, everyone participates in some kind of manual work–cooking, cleaning, gardening, painting, crafting, building, repairing, nursing–everyone is responsible for doing what they can to support the needs of the community for food, clothing, shelter, and care. Members whose primary work is scholarship will be assigned a turn at washing the dishes, and those whose daily work is housekeeping or maintenance will be granted time and solitude for Lectio Divina, or “spiritual reading.”

There is poetry in the phrase “ora et labora” in the rhyming of sound (ora) and in the word within a word. There is also a surprise. Ora is not exactly the same as the English prayer, (beseech, entreat, beg) but means mouth, to voice. Chant. Recite.

Benedict wanted monastics to train their tongues and voices, to use the power of words consciously and properly. To participate in the oral/aural chanting and communal recitation of psalms is to use the gift of words to worship like and with the angels.

In giving us the gift of language, the gift of words, God made us in the image of God. God said “Let there be Light,” and there was light. Therefore we, too, have the power to call things into being through our utterance — hatred or love, cruelty or kindness, despair or hope, war or peace.

Silence trains a monastic to refrain from the destructive misuse of words. Communal oral prayer trains the tongue to speak the truth of God. Imagine if all the children of God disciplined themselves to use the power of words with discernment and wisdom!

The skillful making of a poem requires an eye and an ear for balance

Writing poetry is work. The word itself comes from the Greek poietos, which means “made.” Making a poem is not unlike making a table or bowl, or even a cabin. It requires vision, tools, and skills. It requires an eye and an ear for balance.

A poem is crafted through a balance of inspiration and revision. Poets work for balance in their process and in their poems. A poem is experienced as more complete when it wholly stirs us, at emotional and intellectual levels, in heart and mind.

In my reading of poems, the most stirring of all are those that ground me in the mundane and open me to the transcendent. This kind of poem acts, as Al Zolynas poem says, “like the sheer curtain / on the window to another world.” Please click on this link to that poem, which has been one of my favorites since I first read it in the early 1990’s. Here is “Zen of Housework,” as published with permission in The San Diego Reader:

The Zen of Housework by Al Zolynas

Zen of Housework

What monks, nuns, and poets know about balance

The countercultural lives and practices of monastics and poets can help us gain balance, leading us into a more meaningful, purposeful, and peaceful daily way of life. Joan Chittister explains that by connecting the mundane to the sacred, by giving equal value to both the matter-of-fact and the transcendent experiences of life we begin to understand “It is all–manual labor and mystical meditation–one straight beam of light on the road to fullness of humanity. One activity without the other, prayer without  the creative and compassionate potential of work or work without the transcending quality of prayer, lists heavily to the empty side of life.”

May we all be blessed with a balanced life and thereby experience the fullness of our humanity.

This is part 5 of the series 8 Things Poets and Monastics can teach us about Happiness with 8 poems to Make Life More Meaningful. 

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