Thoughts about Writing and the Sacred
It is impossible for me to speak about the relationship between writing and the sacred without first saying that I’m a Benedictine nun living monastic life. Monks and nuns understand our vocation in many ways – it is contemplative, scriptural, liturgical, ecclesial, to name a few – but underlying all and giving meaning to all is the motif of searching for God. This experience of searching for God is so vital to our vocation that it cannot be overstated. For the monastic person, the search for God is everything; it is the path of self-giving that leads us to personal fulfilment – more so, for us, even than the great forms of self-dedication usually regarded as being essential to happiness: marriage, family, career, and a certain amount of what’s understood as ‘freedom.’
What this has to do with a conversation about writing and the sacred is this: for me, writing poetry is a mode of searching for God and is positioned exactly in the centre of my Christian identity and my monastic vocation. For, although God is undeniably present in every moment of every day, at the same time, and paradoxically, God’s presence and purposes are stunningly elusive. This changes, however, when I try to ‘look’ through the wide lens of a poem. Then, something about the sacred is disclosed to me as I write – even if the poem does not reference God in an obvious way.
This mysterious disclosure of God that happens in the process of writing a poem presupposes faith, then. But faith alone would not be enough to make a poem engage with the sacred. I must also be in dialogue with my own ‘inner atheist’ as I write. I contend that every person, no matter how faith-filled, has one, lurking in the darkened corner of the soul, just waiting to slink out in moments of profound loss or crisis. This atheistic aspect of the self, ever in need of evangelisation, needs to be acknowledged. I may not allude to it in the poem I’m working on, but I know it’s there. Some poems weaken my ‘inner atheist’; others expose her activity and formidable power – without coming to a clear resolution. They show the raw material upon which grace still needs to work. Every poem I write, then, is somehow a dialogue between belief and unbelief – life and death. It is the dialogue of Easter, the paschal mystery, personalised.
I like to think of a poem, then, as a sort of ‘theo-scope’, a word I’ve invented to describe something that functions in relation to the sacred like a microscope or telescope functions in relation to the natural world. Only, instead of enabling me to look at something really tiny or something very far away, the poem, as ‘theo-scope’, enables me to look into something, to discover not only what is there now, today, but also what is eternally there, what is True about it, and what is sacred in it.
Johanna Caton, O.S.B., is a Benedictine nun. She was born in the United States and lived there until adulthood, when her monastic vocation took her to England, where she now resides. Her poems have appeared in The Christian Century, The Windhover, The Ekphrastic Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Catholic Poetry Room, and other venues, both online and print.