A few weeks ago we received a book of original poems Pride of Place, from a Benedictine monk named Father Gerard (who shared a poem with us in the last print issue of Dappled Things). I took a quick spin through, taking in some of the poems and photographs at a glance, and as I flipped I noticed that all the places he loved are places that I love, too.
Father Gerard has scouted out the editorial board, it seems, and knows that more than a few of us have a connection with the city of St. Louis, the particular place in which he has pride. His monastic enclosure, the St. Louis Abbey, lies in the western suburbs but he himself grew up in north city, a place haunted by the ghosts of Irish immigrants and etched with a long history that crumbles along with the brick facades of neighborhoods that have fallen on hard times. Much of the book’s focus on north city, but the book has pictures of all my favorite places around town – The ancient water towers disguised as monuments in various traffic circles, the statue of King Louis IX (a crusader king who has somehow escaped vandalism thus far, remarkable considering he perches at the top of Art Hill overlooking the Grand Basin in Forest Park), and the random diners where you can eat eggs and brains (don’t ask). He also writes about the places I love – The ragged bike track in Penrose where intensely aggressive scratch races still take place every Thursday night and the Monastery of the Pink Sisters who famously pray for baseball success for the St. Louis Cardinal baseball squad.
If that was all there was to it, this would be a standard book review, but readers of Dappled Things whose memories are particularly sharp may remember that we have in the past published a poem from Father Augustine, who is also a Benedictine monk and happens to live at the St. Louis Abbey. Even more, there’s a beloved Scripture teacher at the seminary, Father Kriegshauser, who happens to be a Benedictine monk of the same Abbey and who has a great fondness for great literature and is easily tempted into in-depth discussions on the topic of the greatness of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I want to know – Why are all these monks so into poetry? So I get in touch with Father Gerard and made plans to meet him at the Abbey. A few days later we’re standing on the property just outside the daringly modernist parish Church, St. Anselm’s, that the monks run for the Archdiocese. He greets me in his worn habit, glasses askew, and quickly ushers me into the monastic enclosure, walking at an energetic pace that I actually find a bit brisk even though I tend to outpace the vast majority of other people. We sit down at a table for a chat and I find myself in the presence of a natural story-teller (For example: “Do you know the poet Howard Nemerov? Well he was in residence at Wash U and said of this hideous modernist sculpture down by the post office that not only was it a good thing that it wasn’t lit up at night by any lights, but that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ‘turn the sun off as well.’”).
I ask him about the photographs in his book, did he take them all? No, and there are no captions but each one has a fascinating backstory. He flips through and his finger lingers on a few as he tells me about long lost friends, waiting for the bus in north city as a child, and how he rides his bicycle around town. He tells me about distant warrior-monks and tales of Ampleforth Abbey. I almost don’t even get to my second question.
We do get there, though, and I ask what exactly is in the water at the Abbey that the monks seem to be so into poetry. Father Gerard responds eloquently that it’s, “Not unusual for a monastery” to have poets. After all, their whole lives are dedicated to the hard work of true leisure, they have lots of silence to think and contemplate. They have time to observe, time to look at a tree. “Monks should be good poets,” he says, “In a way, we’re cheating.” He isn’t kidding, because then he names another monk, Fr Dominic, who also lives at the Abbey and also writes poetry. Then, with a gleam in his eye, he mentions his sometime novice master, Father Ralph (pronounced in the English manner). He says that Father Ralph was friends with Graham Greene and begins a story, “I was with Father Ralph that day he visited Graham Greene at his home at Antibes. I was minding recent graduates of our school on the beach at Antibes. I was not invited to join Father Ralph when he had lunch with Graham Greene. I would love to have met the great writer.”
Father Ralph is a gifted poet (“So much better than what you read in the New Yorker”) and has a letter from Graham Greene. The great writer wrote to him that he particularly likes thirteen of Father Ralph’s poems and he put marks next to the ones he likes. In the editor’s note of a collection of Greene’s correspondence, Richard Greene states:
Even when the author was someone as close to him as Ralph Wright, Graham Greene was incapable of praising thirteen poems he did not like. This ‘good score’ is a remarkable endorsement of Wright’s little-known collection, Seamless (1988).
To this day, the monks wonder which of the thirteen have the marks next to them.
So, why are these Benedictines so in love with poetry? In part, it seems to me because the vow of stability, which Father Gerard calls “A hedge against willfulness,” causes each monk to look anew at his surroundings each and every day. Why would God place a person in such a place? Where is the hidden beauty? How can it be made more beautiful? Naturally, one who seeks the Word hidden in even the most mundane aspects of creation will be driven to give voice to what is discovered, even if it’s a book of poems about an abandoned neighborhood in a struggling Mid-Western city where the roads are full of pot-holes and the echo of abandoned streetcars pierces the unsettled atmosphere of devastated commercial districts. “With Graham Greene grace is present in improbably situations,” says Father Gerard. God is unrelentingly present to those who seek him. It is only those who are meek and quiet, those who observe and struggle to comprehend what they see who will truly find him. These are the poets and the artists, those who encounter and attempt to name the beauty that overwhelms them as it unfolds in response to their gentle persistence. It isn’t only monks who can be poets, but as I gaze through the window into the tangible, almost visible peace that permeates the open courtyard of the cloister, I can understand why they seem compelled to write.