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Writing poetry in the heart of hell

God speaks to me in a multitude of ways – synchronicities, dance (watching it, not doing it), the occasional license plate, the occasional sermon, dreams – but by far the most frequent avenue used by the Divine to get a word to me is books.

A little while ago, a dear FB friend, Reverend Lori Knight Whitehouse, sent me an anthology of poetry of eastern and western saints and sages. Daniel Ladinsky, the foremost translator of the works of Hafiz and Rumi, lent his considerable skills to translating the works of St. Francis of Assisi, Kabir, St. Teresa of Avila, Tukaram, St. Catherine of Siena, Mira, St. Thomas Aquinas, Rabia, Meister Eckhart, St. John of The Cross, as well as the aforementioned Hafiz and Rumi, and compiled them all in one volume, Love Poems from God. I haven’t finished the book, and it’s not just because I’m the slowest reader on the planet. I find I keep rereading the poems of certain luminaries…and marvelling.

For instance, I had no idea the poems of St. Teresa, the great reformer of the Carmelite Order, were so unabashedly erotic.

“No one can near God unless He has
prepared a bed for


“When He touches me I clutch the sky’s sheets
the way other

Well now!

But even more wondrous are the back stories of these saints, two in particular.

Rabia (717 – 801) was an Islamic saint who was kidnapped and sold to a brothel in her youth where she lived until she was nearly fifty. She perceived the work she was forced to do as a path to spiritual transformation that rendered her guiltless, even precious, in the eyes of Allah. And her poetry is full of light and humour. She gently chides God that he’d better be keeping track of all the bliss he owed her, and muses on how God will worship her in the next life.

But how can she say these things? How can she even think them? She admits her “body is covered with wounds this world made,” but there is no bitterness, no fury, no righteous, justifiable outrage. She sings to me of love and pain and deep happiness as if they were all the same thing, and slays me with quotes like this – “Dear sisters, all we do in this world, whatever happens, is bringing us closer to God.”

To which I say, “Not what you endured. Not that.”

To which she replies, “Yes, sister. Even that.”

To which I say, “Shut up! No more! I cannot bear your words.”

St. John of the Cross is the other poet whose life and work mystify me. Like St. Teresa (whom he met and from whom he derived great inspiration) he committed himself to reforming the male side of the Carmelite order. But like Rabia, he was kidnapped by his confreres on his way to begin his work and imprisoned in a monastery in Toledo, Spain. His brother priests confined him to a small closet in which there was not even enough room to stand up. For nine months he endured tortures and unspeakable debasement. Suffice it to say, the closet possessed no bathroom facilities. His brothers beat him regularly, leaving him permanently disabled. And during this hell, what did John ask for? Mercy? The deliverance of death?

No. A pen and some paper. He was having visions, you see, visitations from God and the Virgin Mother, and he wanted to give them expression through poetry. It was during his imprisonment he composed the first part of his famous Spiritual Canticle.

And if he were here with me today, I’d slap his face.

“What is wrong with you?!” I’d say. “How could you just let all that go?”

Neither in the writings of Rabia nor John is there any rancour expressed towards those who harmed them. On the contrary, they were God’s instruments bringing the saints closer to the Divine, one might say, intimately closer. But I don’t want to hear that. For crying out loud, why don’t they rail against what was done to them, forced on them, taken from them? Didn’t the silence of God devastate them? Even Christ screamed from the Cross, “My God, my God, why?!” Months of beatings, decades of turning tricks should have left them embittered, furious. There is a mystery here, something about the workings of grace, and for reasons I cannot name I don’t want anything to do with it. It’s too big, too much. It will ask too great a price of me. So I’ve stopped up the ears of my heart.

There. You can’t get through. I’m not listening.

And every night, I pick up the book, and read the poems again.

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  1. Joannie
    Posted June 25, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    You slay me, Penny-Anne. You’ve always been such an incredible person to me. I have so much admiration for you. Keep reading! :)

    • Penny-Anne
      Posted June 25, 2017 at 12:24 am | Permalink

      Such kind words! Thanks, Joannie. And I will keep reading as I don’t think I have a choice. :-)

  2. Valerie Hess
    Posted June 25, 2017 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Wow! Just wow! My heart is pounding in agreement with your response to these people. Oh, my, goodness!

    • Penny-Anne
      Posted June 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      It’s so profound for me too, Valerie. The attraction-repulsion. Can’t name it. Not sure how to respond to it. But I must acknowledge it.

  3. Karen Rockwell
    Posted July 1, 2017 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    I am in tears and hugging you, sweet sensitive confounded poet. Here is some salve for the ears of your heart and for your hands which must be sore with guarding them. What a marvel these poems – the unimaginable perpetual forgiveness is why they are saints. There are also mere humans who practice such love as well. Rena irk’s parents come to mind. Their daughter at 14 or 15 was tortured to death by a pack of her bullying peers, and at the trial the parents (Mom? Dad? Both I think) spoke their forgiveness and wished the perpetrators in their youth to take the lesson and have a good life. They may have even asked the judge to be lenient (I may be telling stories here now – but that is how I remember it because I was awestruck!) imagine this after hearing accounts of the most horrific things done to your daughter who was now dead as a result?! I’m with you sister! ? Karen

    • Karen Rockwell
      Posted July 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

      Sorry – the name is Rena Virk

    • Penny-Anne
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      Your friendship is a healing balm to me, Karen. And there is a strength to be gained from it. I hope I can do the same for you.

    • Penny-Anne
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, my strong sister, for lending me your strength and wisdom.

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