Spirituality for Today – Summer 2017 – Volume 21, Issue 5

May I introduce You to Benedict's Daughter?

Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

St. Benedict.
The Rule.
Ora et Labora.
Benedictine spirituality.
Letico Divinia.

Since the fifth century (He lived from 480–547.) Benedict's influence would help give a sense of stability and order to a Europe that would experience great periods of violence and chaos. And during those fifteen centuries, abbeys, monasteries and convents rose housing learning and holiness. His legacy has been one that is ancient but ever new–a spirituality that continues to nourish both modern consecrated lives of Benedictines as well as the laity known as Oblates.

One expression of Benedictine spirituality was lived out in a diminutive woman nick–named Midge. Philip Kolin chose to honor that life with his new book of poems entitled Benedict's Daughter. Kolin is the Distinguished Professor of English (Emeritus) at the University of Southern Mississippi. While he has authored some 40 books on such various topics as Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee along with seven collections of poetry, this volume is distinctly a labor of love which shines throughout the collection.

Even though Midge was Kolin's spiritual director for many years, he maintains a gentle, poetic distance with his subject. Thus, his keen sense of phrasing creates lines such as (and one of my favorites) "where memory finally lets go of pain" in the poem "A Nurse Called Joseph." Some of my other favorite lines can be found in the poem "In this Place of Stability" with the conclusion that would be good advice for every Benedictine.

Grow in holiness in this place
until one day, one night,
your roots become wings.

In other words, let your wanderlust be the journey inward.

Kolin began Midge's own spiritual journey with "this place of stability"; that soil out of which Benedictine life flourished and grew like "a harvest of grain and grapes/transformed into Christ's body and blood." Stability–a journey which must begin and end in the same place; then, if that journey is real— there comes a point of seeing that place as if for the first time.

In a way, the poems are disguised stories or snapshots of a life. The Prologue recounts the daily prayer routine of any Benedictine monastery or convent, in other words, its cycle of prayer or spiritual life. However, Kolin takes the Liturgy of the Hours and finds in them another level of meaning. For example, the Hour of Terce which is the third hour, Kolin gives voice to St. Peter as he reflects back on the meaning of three in his life:

Coming down, we wiped the dazzle from our eyes and for three years it spread like lilies across the fields.

St. Peter on the Eternity of Three

Vespers is the prayer of evening. Kolin takes the reader on a journey in "The Delta Between Sunset and Dark" one step at a time beginning with nature, to a convent, to the mystery of the Visitation then to the nightfall of death. It is a spiritual landscape where one encounters the inscrutability of letting go. Mary, like all mothers who have lost sons to a violent death, knows well their "keening, the melody of grief."

While the book focuses on Midge and Benedictine life, Mr. Al, her husband, does not go unnoticed. He appears in so less than six poems, "Lenten Wooing," "Marriage Vows," "Mr. Al's Jubilee", "In the Month of Blue Moons," "Mr. Al Goes Fishing," and "Parade Ready." For me, the two I resonated with were "Marriage Vows" and "In the Month of Blue Moons." "Marriage Vows" is a poem I wish I had written. Compressed to the simplicity of five lines yet Kolin has created the whole scene of a wedding ceremony. The last line "like a candle" evokes not only the unity candle which symbolizes the couple's becoming one flesh in Christ but it also echoes the candle many Benedictine women novices are given at their clothing day or during their profession vows. "In the Month of the Blue Moons" presents both a portrait of Mr. Al living in a nursing home as well as his absence. This "absence" was what was not said but suggested by the two wedding rings that Midge wears.

Kolin completes the Benedictine family with his poem "Oblates." For those who are unfamiliar with them, these members carry the wisdom of St. Benedict to their daily lives and Christ "to homes, offices, hospitals/prisons, malls, schools, factories, banks…". I am so glad that Kolin included malls in this list as I worked there for four years. (in religious retail) While the stores there may be upscale, the people who work there are exactly that–people. They, too, are worthy of "God's words… a treasury, a pardon, a breath."

As mentioned earlier, Midge was a spiritual director and the hallmark of a genuine director is hospitality. Thus, she embodied hospitality as a director in itself but also as one whose spiritual heritage was and still famous for greeting the guest as another Christ. (RB 53.1) Kolin zeroes in on this point with the poems "The Prayer Lady's Coffee", "Baking for the Carmelites", "The Backdoor to Prophecy", "The Spiritual Son" and "Benedict's Cellerar." Of these, "Coffee" is my favorite. As a spiritual director myself, I felt I was sitting just a feet away watching the entire scene. I have seen my directees struggle "with convenient prayers" because they were hungry for more than mere convenience and they didn't know what to do. Simple black coffee. And a listening heart. Hospitality really isn't complicated when Christ is your guest.

You might be thinking, "Well, all of this beautiful and all but I'm not much of a poetry reader. Poetry is so hard to understand." Rather than answer your question, may I make a suggestion? Gift yourself some Benedictine hospitality time with a cup of tea or coffee. And if needed, add some sugar and cream. Read the poems slowly. Savor the words and phrases. Let them be themselves with their own inner music. When you do, they may surprise you with insight during a time well spent.

Benedict's Daughter is available for purchase on Amazon.com and wipfandstock.com.