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A retreat with poets

Brendan Comerford SJ presented a six-day online retreat entitled To Love the Earth from 1 to 6 June 2020, involving talks and responses to selected questions on poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Patrick Kavanagh and Denise Levertov. Themes included our relationship with God, our own human nature, and the gift of the earth as our sacred sanctuary. The booked-out event was one of a series of online retreats from Manresa Jesuit Centre of Spirituality, Dollymount, Dublin. Due to demand, another poetry retreat will take place from Monday, 13 to 18 July, 2020. Click here for details ».

Fr Comerford reflects that the lives and poems of the six different poets all had something in common. “They are deeply sensitive to the Sacramental presence of God in nature and in the everyday,” he remarks. The retreat’s title, To Love the Earth, comes from a line in Denise Levertov’s poem ‘Beginners’. In it she begins, “We’ve only begun to love the earth.”

Each day, the retreatant was invited to fully participate in the experience through following a structured approach. This involved watching a 30-minute video on a selected poet and reading selected poems and suggested scripture passages in the morning. Then the retreatant was invited to pray and ponder over the material and to submit a response or question to Fr Comerford by early afternoon. Later in the evening, all retreatants met up for an hour-long online meeting where responses and questions were dealt with and where there was time for group interaction.

The following includes quotes from Fr Comerford’s morning videos and some selected poems and suggested scripture passages that were used.

Day 1: George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633), Welsh poet and member of the Anglican Church.

“Almost every aspect of Herbert’s poetry can be traced directly or indirectly to the Bible … Stylistically, most of the poems are addressed to God and therefore take the form of meditation or intimate conversation. The poems teach by moving the reader to an affective response and therefore ultimately to a change of life. Because the poems lay bear Herbert’s own spiritual life for the sake of other people, they also appear to identify with the problems and aspirations of all Christians.”

Selected poem: Love III. Suggested scripture: Psalm 139.

Day 2: Gerard Manley Hopkins (28 July 1844 – 8 June 1889). English poet and Jesuit priest.

“Hopkins belief in transubstantiation and the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist saved him from his theological doubts. He actually said that he had converted to Roman Catholicism [from Anglicanism] because of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Religion without it, he thought, was sombre and illogical. Having recognised the power of words at the consecration of the Eucharist, never again would language prove merely decorative. Hopkins believed that only by eating the Eucharist could he take in or as we would say instress God.”

Selected poem: God’s Grandeur. Suggested scripture: Matthew 6:25–34.

Day 3: Patrick Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967). Irish poet and Catholic.

“Poetry is a piece of earth in which the Holy Ghost is manifest … Kavanagh’s favourite role in his 1930’s poems are those of being the naive fool, the dreamer, the unschooled rustic, poor man, but above all the poet. A recurrent subject is the poet’s lonely pursuit of his vocation and the stance is self-justifying, self-consoling, sometimes self-pitying … When Kavanagh himself died, Katherine [his wife] was heard to say ‘There goes all I ever knew of God.'”

Selected poem: Advent. Suggested scripture: Isaiah 49:8–16.

Day 4: R.S. Thomas (29 March 1913 – 25 September 2000). Welsh poet and Anglican vicar.

“Through his poems there ran a religious vein that became more visible during his last years … God chose to reveal Godself to R.S. through the medium of the world of nature … He became aware of the silence of God. He had no patience with the kind of person who would talk to God as if God were eavesdropping in the doorway. He said himself, ‘From time to time in the pulpit aware of the atheism that is on the increase I have asked the congregation to face the implications of lack of faith in God and eternal life. Its implication is total extinction for us and for our loved ones’. Try living with that idea in your private and family life.”

Selected poem: The Bright Field. Suggested scripture: Deuteronomy 8:1–6.

Day 5: Denise Levertov (24 October 1923 – 20 December 1997). English-American poet and Catholic.

“In 1982 she wrote her poem ‘Beginners’. She writes:

But we have only begun
to love the earth.
We have only begun
to imagine the fullness of life.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

The first of her books to convey an overt religious orientation was ‘Oblique Prayers’ which appeared in 1984. In these poems, she reflects an awe, so quiet I don’t know when it began and a gratitude I had begun to sing in me.”

Selected poem: Annunciation. Suggested scripture: Luke 1:26–38.

Day 6: Elizabeth Jennings (18 July 1926 – 26 October 2001). English poet and Catholic.

“Jennings was clear. She adhered to Christianity because it offered her a God who became human and knew torture, evil and death. As such, it provided the best explanation of suffering, allowing her to apprehend glory and order amid darkness and dread. For Jennings poetry is close to religion. It is like the Eucharist in that a simple element is offered, words are spoken and transformation takes place. When given, poetry like the host becomes yeast in those who partake. Poetry could also be a form of prayer. She allowed that poetry was her way of reaching God.”

Selected poem: Annunciation. Suggested scripture: Psalm 130.

Manresa Jesuit Centre of Spirituality are running a series of online retreats and reflections during this time. Click here for Manresa’s website ».