I once met a man who memorized all 150 chapters of the book of Psalms. It was hard not to be impressed, but I tried. As a child of the Korean church Sunday school, I have ambivalent memories of Bible verse memorization contests that likened to an intensive spelling bee tournament. Trophies, medals, proud parents. Nervous kids.
Putting aside my childhood bias, I thought again about the actual process of committing all of the psalms to one’s memory. Reciting a verse morning by morning, practicing a phrase while eating lunch, whispering the entirety of Psalm 91 in those 3 am moments awake. How the words must have fallen onto this dear man’s heart, if not drilled right into it! Mostly, I thought about the reservoir of faith’s poetry hidden in this man’s heart. Its breadth, its depth. Like the deep ocean’s rich ecosystem creating and restoring life. Okay, I was impressed. And, I was inspired. I decided to begin memorizing poetry myself. I would carry within me gracious words, for ease of reach.
I received more than usual emails responding to a recent post on spiritual practice. I sense a general desire for more on this. What are your spiritual practices? was a common question. The first one is practicing poiesis. Basically, I read poetry, memorize it, recite it; feel it, steward it, teach through it. Sometimes the poetry comes from biblical texts, although I don’t have any plans on memorizing entire books of the Bible (of course, those of you who don't have Korean Sunday School memories keeping you, can certainly make such plans!).
Poiesis is thoughtful creating. Practicing poiesis is a spiritual practice for me because it creates in my heart worlds and insights, places and feelings, hopes and despairs beyond my own. It creates a connection to the web of human community. It connects me to land, deep ocean, vast sky. Living close to poetry rushes compassion to the reservoir from which my vocation draws. It is a part of my intentional living—spiritual practice, a disciplined expression of my desire.
From my practice, I share with you the first poem I memorized after meeting the 150-psalms fellow. Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, has shaped my beliefs about human nature and the divine. My profession of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ shapes also my reading of Nye’s offering. I return to this poem often; it has been a quiet backdrop for the previous number of posts. And, it is poignant that many are turning to this poem during these troubling days.
May Kindness bless your journey.
May your journey be marked by poiesis of all kinds.
A brief foreword:
I heard the poet tell the story of being robbed on an overnight bus during her travel in South America many years go. One of the passengers was killed in this terrorizing event. She and her newly married husband lost everything in their possession. They sat on the side of the road, deplete and paralyzed. A local older man stopped on his way and asked if they were okay. He sat down to listen to their story, then said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” She wrote this poem.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.