a poet's journey
An essay describing the author's voyage into the world of poetry
I thought I was going to be a deacon. I was wrong. In retrospect, I can see that the Lord really does have a sense of humor...
I was just finishing my pre-diaconate studies at the Kino Catechetical Institute when the diaconal door suddenly slammed shut in my face. And the door was locked from the inside. I had come across the Association of Mary, Queen of All Hearts (formerly the Confraternity of Mary, Queen of All Hearts), and I felt drawn towards it. It is specifically intended for those who have made the consecration to Jesus through Mary that is recommended by St. Louis de Montfort. The consecration itself is magnificently beautiful, and since my initial consecration on January 1, 2007, it has gradually become the foundational rock of my entire spiritual life, simply living as Our Lady's little candle in the dark night. But the good God had something else in mind for me.
I also have two degrees in English literature, including a Master of Arts degree, with a specialization in the area of fiction. In addition, I taught writing on the college level for ten years and also had the chance to teach some literature. So for a long time, I have loved literature -- and, really, the arts in general. I had seen Joseph Pearce, the great Catholic literary critic, on EWTN, and I appreciated hearing his perspectives on the life of William Shakespeare. So when I found out that he had just released a book entitled Catholic Literary Giants: A Field Guide to the Catholic Literary Landscape, I knew that I wanted to read it.
So I purchased a copy and began to read. When I did so, I had an epiphany moment. Pearce talks about three different kinds of apologetics: the apologetics of reason, the apologetics of love, and the apologetics of beauty (or cultural apologetics).
This was the first time I had ever heard the term “apologetics of beauty,” and I was immediately enthralled with the concept. I devoured the book, hungry to see Pearce apply this idea to many great Catholic works of literature throughout the history of Christendom, from Dante to Tolkien. I was fascinated. I thirsted to be a part of the evangelization of beauty, the evangelization of culture. But how?
It was January of 2015, and my life was very much like a patchwork quilt, so the literary form that I would choose needed to fit the rhythm of my life. It did not take long before I realized that poetry was my best alternative, so I embraced it. I prayed and asked God to help me to compose poetry that could help make the world a better place, to help me and others to grow in holiness.
When I think back through the history of literature in the age of Christendom, I am dazzled by the array of beautiful and inspiring works, from the epic poetry of Dante to the mystical poetry of St. John of the Cross to the provocative plays of William Shakespeare to the historical fiction of Alessandro Manzoni. But, as Pearce so aptly points out, it appears that beauty has all but disappeared in our own times. With the rise of moral relativism, the arts have seemingly become a free-for-all, as more and more artists are trying to redefine beauty. Although there are exceptions, contemporary literature, for the most part, has become like the Dickensian neighborhoods of Fagin and the Artful Dodger: foggy, dreary, drab, and, really, hopeless. Or, to use another image, contemporary art is often like a puzzle that is missing the Messianic centerpiece; consequently, the light of God is missing, the Light that can dispel that darkness. Our world was convulsed by two unimaginably horrifying world wars in the 1900s, and the shadow of fear is still long and dark even in our own times. Our world so needs the light of God’s love to burst through and dissipate the fog of moral relativism, to pierce our hearts and souls with His love.
So I wanted to go back into the rich literary history of Christendom, in order to see and understand it from the perspective of great intellectual thinkers. I wanted to be like the man in Matthew 13:52: “... a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament). My journey took me back to St. Bonaventure, a Doctor of the Church, a devout Franciscan, and truly one of the great minds of the Medieval period. In his work entitled On the Reduction of the Arts to Theology, St. Bonaventure rightly points out that the arts -- and, really, everything we know in life -- should take us back to God. In a sense, St. Bonaventure might perhaps have been the first artistic critic in Christendom.
Then, about three hundred years later, during the English Renaissance, Sir Philip Sydney came along and refined this thought further. In his Apology for Poetry he said, “Poesy therefore is an art of imitation… to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture; with this end, to teach and delight.” So, along these lines, I knew that I strongly agreed with both Bonaventure and Sydney. I always wanted my poetry to lead back to God. But, more specifically, I wanted it to teach and delight.
However, I also wanted to get contemporary perspectives on artistic criticism, so I looked to two of the great spiritual and intellectual giants of our time: St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In his “Letter to Artists” (1999), John Paul the Great made some profound statements. Let us begin with his view of art in modern times: "It is true nevertheless that, in the modern era, alongside this Christian humanism which has continued to produce important works of culture and art, another kind of humanism, marked by the absence of God and often by opposition to God, has gradually asserted itself. Such an atmosphere has sometimes led to a separation of the world of art and the world of faith, at least in the sense that many artists have a diminished interest in religious themes."
But then he went on to point out our role as artists in the contemporary world: "In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God." Even now, when I read this sentence, it stirs the flames of love in my own heart. This is the kind of literature and art that I wish to read and to experience. This is the kind of poetry that I wish to produce. I want to compose poetry that, as he said, makes a relationship with God attractive. We might best describe John Paul the Great as the “saint of light,” which indeed he was, shining the light of God’s love in the midst of the dark night of Nazism and of Communism, in his native Poland. He successfully battled and, by God’s grace, defeated the latter during his pontificate, as the documentary Nine Days that Changed the World so beautifully and accurately illustrates.
Therefore, in a similar manner, with St. John Paul II as one of my guides, I wish to produce poetry that illustrates “Divine Mercy in the Dark Night.” This reminds me of the magnificent paintings of Charles Pabst and Thomas Kinkade, whose works touch my heart, and fill me with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Their beautiful artistic works are filled with light and are radically different from most other contemporary paintings.
In addition, Pope Benedict XVI followed the same path as his famous predecessor. He said the following in his “Meeting with Artists” (2009): “Authentic beauty, however, unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond.” Here he takes us right back to St. Bonaventure, a man that he studied in great depth as a theologian. All literature, all art, must lead us back to God.
Then, in “Art and Prayer” Benedict XVI used an interesting image to describe the role of artists in their creation of beauty: "However some artistic expressions are real highways to God, the supreme Beauty; indeed, they help us to grow in our relationship with him, in prayer. These are the works that were born from faith and express faith. We can see an example of this when we visit a Gothic cathedral: we are enraptured by the vertical lines that soar skywards and uplift our gaze and our spirit, while at the same time we feel small yet long for fullness...."
His image of the highway is so appropriate. When I experience contemporary art -- poetry, short stories, dramas, novels, operas, ballets, classical concerts, paintings, architecture, etc. -- I usually don’t feel like I am on a highway to Heaven, a highway basking in the truth and clarity of the Light of the World. Oftentimes, quite honestly, it feels more like a highway to hell. But so many Catholic and Christian artists seem content to drive on neither of these. Instead, they all too often seem happy enough to drive on the road that is between them, straddling the border between the worlds of light and darkness, living in the twilight.
So, in short, my goal and purpose is to drive down the poetic highway to Heaven, leading towards God, showing the beauty and harmony of God, as well as the ugliness and emptiness of life without Him.
Once I knew my goal, my destination, I had to determine what my poetry would actually look like from a stylistic perspective. So I broke it down into five categories: content, description, organization, poetic verse, and tone. Let’s begin with the first one, content. I would describe my poetry as being essentially Marian because my goal is, very simply, to point to Jesus. No one was better than “La Madonnina” (as St. Padre Pio would affectionately call her) in humbly loving through her quiet example and, when necessary, through her words. Her life was like a signpost pointing towards the Divine Mercy. That’s all Our Lady ever really did in her life. At the wedding feast in Cana, her last words recorded in Scripture say it all: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5). In a similar way, every poem on this website, either directly or indirectly, points to Jesus, The Divine Mercy.
In terms of description, I would say this collection of poetry is essentially Johannine because, like the Gospel of John, it is filled with light juxtaposed against darkness. In fact, in this respect it is not unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. In like manner, it is also quite reminiscent of Dante's masterpiece The Divine Comedy. But light and darkness only reveal one aspect of the description. While the content is decidedly Marian, the descriptive element is quite Franciscan. St. Francis of Assisi wholeheartedly loved beauty, exactly the same kind of beauty that Pope Benedict XVI discusses in his “Meeting with Artists.” In addition, St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” specifically mentions St. Francis’ insightful realization that true beauty is a reflection of God. Therefore, my poetry often strives to illustrate not just caritas in veritate, but truth in beauty. I must also add that I am a great lover of sights and sounds -- in other words, the senses -- so my poems are often brimming with figurative language and alliteration, occasionally even delving into the mystical, once again not unlike both St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi.
From an organizational perspective, there are several different types of poems in this collection: holy histories, holy romances, poems of mystical mercy, mystical adventures, dark comedies, and dark tragedies. The histories and romances bring to life, in a very unique manner, the lives of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints. The poems on mystical mercy focus on Divine Mercy, while the adventures narrate various journeys. The comedies and tragedies are essentially dark poems that are missing the messianic centerpiece.
Speaking of the saints, I chose to write about them because I’ve noticed that surprisingly few poets throughout literary history have dealt with this subject. During my spiritual journey, I had hardly ever thought about our “extended family” in Heaven. Then, at my old parish, my pastor did something at Saturday morning masses that I had never seen done before, and I found it to be quite delightful and refreshing. Instead of giving the standard two-minute weekday homily, based in the Scriptures of the day, he simply read a brief summary of the saint of the day. Oh, how I began to look forward to those Saturday morning masses! A whole new world had opened up for me as I got to know my long-lost spiritual relatives. So the mystical histories are intended to familiarize readers with these great personages, in a literary fashion.
With that we come to the subject of poetic verse. Now although this entire collection of poetry is in some way about the spiritual journey and our lofty goal of “theosis” or spiritual union with God, the reality is that we’re still sinners saved by grace. Therefore, I wish the meter to be a reflection of this, and I have chosen to use what I call “crooked verse.” In other words, regardless of whether or not a particular poem has a rhyme scheme, I am employing verse that does not have a predictable meter, in order to highlight our erring human nature (the only exception to this would be some of the dark comedies).
Lastly, in terms of tone, the poems that I have composed are centered in hope. St. John Paul II, who was a “witness to hope,” a beacon of light shining in the darkness, is an inspiration for me. I never want to lose sight of the truth, that no matter where fear and evil ultimately lead our world, Jesus — The Light of the World — will always be shining in dazzling brilliance.
As an addendum, I have a link entitled "Artistic Perspectives" which includes magnificent insights into the arts by St. Bonaventure, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It also includes "The Holy Rosary in Art," masterpieces of art depicting the joyful mysteries, luminous mysteries, sorrowful mysteries, and glorious mysteries. Finally, it includes "Spiritual Masterpieces," which is very much like a Hall of Fame for the saints (naturally, this is a selective list or it would be far too lengthy).
In writing these poems, I share the sentiments of St. Teresa of Avila. When she concluded her masterful book The Interior Castle, she made the following comments: "If you find anything in the plan of this treatise which helps you to know Him better, be certain that it is sent by His Majesty to encourage you, and that whatever you find amiss in it is my own.... If these writings contain any error, it is through my ignorance; I submit in all things to the teachings of the holy Catholic Roman Church.... May our Lord God be forever praised and blessed! Amen, Amen." I feel very much the same way. It is my hope that you will enjoy the collection of poetry on this website, but I am all too aware of its defects. It is my sincerest hope that the good God will write straight through the crooked verse of my poetry, and it is my deepest desire that He will use these poems to bless you, even if only in a little way.