Sister Thérèse-Marie Dupagne, OSB
Prioress of the Monastery of Hurtebise (Belgium)

Poetry and monastic Life[1]

(liturgy, lectio, fraternal life)



LiturgieSrFor my part, when someone speaks of poetry I envisage something of the order of evocation rather than definition. A word which veils as much as it reveals, a word which gives a sign, which beckons to something beyond itself, something which it refuses to grasp, something beyond, which it touches and which touches it. A word which opens communication without imposing itself. A word which suggests a relationship woven from liberty, desire, thirst, a word which treads a land unknown, which explores, a word which envisages a fourth dimension.

I meet that poetic word in the LITURGY.

The liturgy is clock of the monk, his rhythm, the air he breathes. The liturgy is the work of God, the action of God, an invitation. It is also the response of the human community, chant and silence, listening and desire. From its constitution the liturgy is a tissue of poetic words, words given to us. If we are granted to compose a hymn, a bidding prayer, any prayer, then a good part of the poetry of the liturgy has been granted to us. It has been granted to us to welcome it, to allow it to reach us, whether it enchants us or not, whether it speaks to us or not, whether it moves us or not. In a welcome to the liturgy there is a call to consent, which is not necessarily without a struggle.

Entry into liturgical poetry supposes entry into words which are not our own, without wishing that they should be entirely our own, something beyond ourselves. Liturgical poetry opens us up, tears us apart, opens us to a relationship which cannot be obliterated. Thus liturgy points to communion.

Poetry such as the psalms, these ancient prayers, sung and chanted: praise, lamentation, exultation, memory of the past, the murmuring of a law. The psalms are given to us, they resist us, they come to us from another world, the ancient murmur of an intimate friend of God, as Chouraqui[2] calls him.

You can’t put your hand on a psalm. The psalm is entrusted to us, much as a piece of music is entrusted to a flute-player; they wait for our breath to pass before us, struggle with us and sometimes enchant us. They detach us from ourselves, draw us into another world of a people, a community, beyond time and space. We send the psalm backwards and forwards, one choir to the other, inexhaustibly. We speak it, sing it, listen to it, always old and always new.

The liturgy is a HYMN. The hymn throws itself towards the Other, the Other who is at our side, whom we know only at a distance, feeling our way. By the hymn we are asking to meet him on a road we do not know. The hymn rises up or digs deep. It thrills, traces a path. Like a psalm, it is a sculpture of the poet’s life; it goes beyond this life, makes it deeper or hollows it out, hollows out the singer of the psalm.

The psalm, the hymn grazes, broaches, opens up. It touches the heart and knows the heart, but who can grasp it fully? The hymn touches and provokes, unless it withers before losing its voice and fleeing away. The hymn creates the magic of silence which follows it.

By its long LITANIES liturgy is poetry. It asks, it asks again, always asks. It is the call of a heart unsatisfied, or of a heart so satisfied that it asks for more. It wakens the young heart as it plays the words.

The experience of the liturgy is the experience of this poetry which evokes, invokes and is never grasped. Poetry teaches a dancing step which comes close only to separate. If you try to unpack poetry it slips between your fingers, like snow in the hand of a child who wants to hold it captive.

Liturgical poetry is a DIALOGUE between two subjects, it puts us… face to face? At the heart? Who knows? It speaks to us of the Other – and otherwise. In making me an intimate of God it teaches me to stay at the apex of my humanity, facing the irreducible ‘Thou’; it calls me to say ‘I’. Poetry finds its source: I think, in the Spirit of this dance between Father and Son, this Breath which makes them one while keeping them irresistibly two. So two are they that they are three. Poetry is like the SPACE I feel between them, like an opening, definitive, a hollow which allows my heart to discover our God, not God but a space, a hollow, an emptiness which opens to the other, to others. The poetry which sings in silence of the Three which takes me to the heart of God, not God but the space of the chant, calling beyond. At the heart of God there is this space of infinite silence which can be touched, openness to the other. Like the hymn of Brother Pierre-Yves Emery which sings of ‘The intimacy with God, endlessly open – what wonder – to human beings, his creatures.’

The poetry in the liturgy is DOXOLOGY, glory to Father, Son and Holy Spirit… and in this doxology Benedict invites us to get up. Rise up and bow profoundly. Stand up, array yourself in your humanity, you have a price, you have a meaning. Breathe, inspire, aspire. Bow… to him who meets your eye, your life, your love, bow to the imperceptible, the unspoken, of whom you have never yet spoken as you were laid low in silence.[3] Bow low, sigh, smile at being finally freed from yourself.

The poetry of the liturgy invites me to a respectful contemplation of the Other, the Source, without touching, it writes a word which is a full chalice, a look which is all welcome. This liturgical poetry is poetry for a people, it is not mine, it is ours, it goes beyond us.

There follows in the liturgy, grafted on, the opening of the READING. This prayerful reading of the Bible to which we are invited from day to day. A time to read the Scripture, study it, meditate it, chew it, and at the moment when you think you have made it your own a new universe opens up beyond and escapes. Read, study, meditate, contemplate. Receive the Holy Scripture not as a theorem, a demonstration, a definition, but as poetry, an evocation.

You may say, Yes, but in the Scripture is written the Law, and what poetry can there be in Law? The Law of Israel begins with a call, a voice, ‘Listen’. Then an invitation, ‘Choose’. Finally a conclusion, ‘You will live.’ It is a path not a prison. The Law, two banks of a river which give life in a flood rather than stagnating in a marsh.

The Law, banks of a stream which flows beyond. The Law turns beyond itself. There is the prophecy in the Scripture, a cry, which tears up daily life to allow the Other to break in.

There is Wisdom, a space, a share in the experience of the past, which offers a path, weaves a new road. Lectio is a time of welcome, and opening, completed in hushed silence. This silence is surely the most beautiful expression of the dialogue.

This experience opens the way to FRATERNAL LIFE. How to live with the other, my brother, my sister, here and elsewhere?

Fraternal life day by day is not at first easy to see in poetry. But it is a share in the space of life, a space of singing, the construction of a web of relationships. What helps it along? What is its basis? At first it is not the experience of the liturgy: the discovery of this void at the heart of God, of this space offered to the heart of our God, is offered to me as a way for fraternal life. Respect for difference, respect and more than respect, encouragement, that the other should become himself, herself, and always more different – this is what makes a community an image and likeness. To welcome the other and wish the other to be other, to welcome a different faith, a different path, and choose to walk together.

In our relationships when words are hard and cutting the relationship dies. When the exchange is a welcome, an invitation, a space opens before us to raise a shared song which encourages, fosters and enchants life.

Poetry opens a space between us which expands us, opens us. It calls for communion between us and well beyond.

I yearn to throw down the walls of violence
No more exclusion, rejection
Launch a poem of hope
Open a space for communion
Pronounce a word which is all invitation
Away with all imprisonment.

Poetry is an opportunity offered to humanity to share life, respectful of each individual, glad of each individual.



[1] Written for the weekend of monastic poets, October 2014.

[2] Nathan André Chouraqui (1917-2007) was a lawyer, writer, thinker and Israeli politician, known for his translation of the Bible. Among other things he was co-founder of the association ‘Brotherhood of Abraham’ which promotes interreligious dialogue, permanent delegate of the Universal Israeli Alliance.

[3] Compare Number 24.4, the oracle of Balaam, which speaks of a glance which opens when he bows low.