Sunday, April 24, 2016

"An axe to cut open a window" to the soul: reflections on a Quaker poetry study

During prayer I am accustomed to turn to God like this 
that’s the meaning of the words of the Tradition,
‘the delight felt in the ritual prayer.’
The window of my soul opens,
and from the purity of the Unseen World,
the Book of God comes to me straight.
The Book, the rain of Divine Grace, and the Light
are falling into my house through a window
from my real and original source.
The house without a window is Hell:
to make a window is the foundation of true religion.
Don’t thrust your axe upon every thicket:
come, use your axe to cut open a window. -- Rumi

When it was announced there would be an adult study devoted to poetry at my Quaker meeting, I was excited about attending since poetry has been my passion since junior high school. For me, poetry is a way of connecting with the soul, through language that speaks to the heart. When I am in the presence of real poetry, or real art, or real religion, I feel fully alive.

Our facilitator is a woman who sees herself as a mystic and used a "worship sharing mode" for this poetry session. This meant that we were supposed to read a poem, then allow for silence in which people could respond, if Spirit led them. We began with the marvelous poem by the Sufi poet Rumi (the one quoted above), and then settled into silence. 

The first woman to speak read a poem she wrote in high school, a "sonnet" about wanting to ban nuclear weapons.  She told us her teacher liked it a lot and told her to publish it in the school magazine. Another woman spoke feelingly about how Rumi's poem reminded her how much she liked having a window in her office where she worked in a hospital. This led me to share a poem about the death of my wife, which I wrote in Paul Lacey's poetry workshop. 

I told the group that it's been seven years since my wife of twenty years passed away of a cancer. This poem about her death began with an image of a window, the window through which my wife had her last glimpse of the world.

From your window in ICU

(for kathleen)

From your window in ICU
you could see only the dry river bed
but you joyfully imagined
where it led towards the blue mountains
and the rocky paths where you loved to walk
qmidst the pale green chapparal
What a celebration it was
when those who were reborn
as stem cell survivors gathered
joyously at the City of Hope
Thousands of them, with their loved ones
caregivers, doctors, nurses--some of them dancing
some simply standing up or sitting down
miraculously, self-consciously alive
with buttons proclaiming their age:
one year, five years, twenty years old.
My button said, “One day….”

On the day you had your transplant
I brought you a balloon
to celebrate our re-birthday
our new life about to begin

And now in my mind I release that balloon
once again
and let it float away
dancing in the air with a kind of wild joy
towards those blue mountains
where you yearned to go

As I read this poem, I broke down and cried. When I finished, there was a dead silence. I say "dead" because no one spoke and gave any kind of reaction.  It was painful and it seemed inhuman for no one to speak to a man breaking down in tears remembering the death of his wife. Yet no one spoke. No one breathed even a sigh of sympathy. It was as if I was in an empty room, or a room filled with corpses. 

After a few moments of this painful silence, the same woman read another poem she wrote in high school, this time about giving her life to Christ and God. 

We moved on, and people read poems by George Herbert and e.e. cummings and Michael Donaghue and Jose Marti.   There was no emotional sharing, no reflection about what these poems meant, Poems were simply read. Then there was silence. Then another poem was read. 

At one point, our facilitator made an effort to lump all the poems into one.

"They are all about new beginnings," she said in barely audible voice. Then she spoke cheerfully about going to Pendle Hill and hoping to connect with Sufis in that area. "That would be blissful," she said.

 I felt a twinge in my gut. My poem had nothing to do with beginnings. It was about an ending, a tragic, painful ending. The death of my wife. It felt as if the facilitator had not heard a word I had said. She certainly didn't demonstrate any empathy.

As different people read poems, I wondered: why had they chosen these poems? What did they mean to them? How did they feel about them? But there was little or no sharing of deep feelings or insights. I was intrigued when my Mexican Friend read a poem by Jose Marti in Spanish and English:


Cultivo una rosa blanca,
En julio como en enero,
Para el amigo sincero
Que me da su mano franca.
Y para el cruel que me arranca
El corazón con que vivo,
Cardo ni oruga cultivo:
Cultivo la rosa blanca.

I have a white rose to tend
In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And for the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.

I was fascinated by this simple, but beautiful poem about forgiveness (the poet gives the same white rose both to the one he loves, and the one who wounds him) and wondered why my friend had chosen it.

When the facilitator heard this poem, her face brightened, but her comment was not about its content. She didn't ask why our friend had chosen it. Instead, she said:

"I really like that poem, I'd like to use it in my ESL class."

Her responses, and the awkward silences of the group, were very disconcerting to me.  

I told this to my wife, and her response was, "Well, that's the way Quaker are." Meaning emotionally disconnected.

"You're right. That's the way some Quakers are, in my meeting," I replied. "But remember I wrote this and other poems in a workshop at Pendle Hill by another Quaker. Paul Lacey is an amazing teacher who loves poetry and knows how to connect with people. He was open to feelings and he created a safe and friendly space where we could freely write poems from the heart. I wrote some of my best poems during that workshop. So not all Quakers are emotionally stifling."

In fact, several Friends in this adult study came to me afterwards and expressed sympathy and appreciation. So I know that those present did feel something when I broke down in tears. They weren't dead. They simply did not feel free to share their hearts. That is very sad. Unless we feel free to share our hearts with each other, it's hard to be authentic and our spiritual life will suffer. 

One of the best parts of this session was the poem by Rumi that the facilitator had us read a the beginning. I love the line "to make a window is the purpose of real religion" and "use an axe to cut open a window." A window into the soul.....

That's what I try to do with my poetry and my ministry, to open up a window into the soul. That's what I am trying to do by writing this reflection. 

My "trial by fire" as a poet was in the poetry workshops I took with Anne Sexton while I was a student at Boston University. She was a poet who bared her soul, and it cost her her life. But at least she lived, and lived fully. So I'd like to conclude with a letter by Franz Kafka that Anne liked to quote. Rumi's line about the axe reminded me of this passage about why we need literature to help us break out of our emotional prisons. A friend of Kafka wrote him that he ought to read more uplifting books, books that would make him less unhappy. Kafka replied with these powerful words:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we're reading doesn't wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
I resonate with Kafka's mistrust of easy reading. We don't need books--and I would add, we don't need religion--simply to make us happy. Our culture provides us with all kinds of happiness-inducing entertainment. What we need are books (and religion)  to help us to connect authentically with our feelings, including the sometimes unbearable suffering that we must endure in this life. Middle class people spend far too much of their lives trying to escape or alleviate this pain, sometimes using "spirituality" as a way to avoid feelings, and they end up never being fully alive. That's why we need the ax of authentic literature and religion, to open our hearts to the light of truth, the light that reveals and heals the soul.


  1. Amice care,
    sorry that the people there did not have axes to free themselves to be with you. Maybe they were with you and did not have any reserves of compassion to offer you. Maybe their witnessing was enough? To be present with the Truth and not flee is also a gift. Sorry you did not have a way in that formalized atmosphere to ask for what you needed. Many Friends have been taught to let each person in worship/sharing experience their feelings fully. I myself don't want someone intervening when i'm in deep emotion; i don't want "comforting", which is different for other people than for me. I'm just glad your poetry is still a gift and expresses you so well.
    paz, ~ dpablo

  2. Thanks for your kind and wise words. I know that many of those present felt compassion and later were willing to express it, but the structure blocked them from expressing it in a healthy way at at time when it was needed and approrpriate. That's what saddens me. We have created a ritual that cuts people off from each other and I think from the living God, who is Love. Perhaps that's why we have so many Friends who are non-theist and afraid to even use the word "God." They are out of touch with the source of life and of love and so they remain silent and still and emotionally unapproachable. When I went to my Men's group last night, I shared the same poem and their response was totally different. Spontaneous, loving, and Spirit-filled. It was like being among the living rather than among the dead. Yes, I am grateful for poetry and for the feelings it expresses. God created us to feel as well as to think. Our feelings are sacred. How can we help Friends to recognize this spiritual and psychological truth? How can we create safe, liberating spaces where Friends can be real with each other? This is the question I am struggling with.