e-mail us


Poetry opens a window to prayer, healing

St. Joseph, Minn.

For Arleen Hynes the essence of the spiritual life lies in making holy the here and now, in her own daily life and that of others.

The 85-year-old Benedictine sister has spent 27 years using poetry as a tool to help others discover and enhance their spiritual life. Although retired, she still works with Benedictine sisters during their annual retreats -- at St. Benedict’s Monastery here -- and occasionally with laypersons who make directed retreats at the monastery.

Hynes’ work emerged during her first full-time job, that of librarian at St. Elizabeth Hospital, a government-run mental health facility in Washington, D.C. Before that, she had been the wife of Emerson Hynes, with whom she had 10 children. Emerson, a professor of ethics for two decades at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., moved his family to Washington in the late 1960s after his friend and St. John’s classmate, Eugene McCarthy, named him press spokesman and later legislative adviser for McCarthy’s presidential campaign.

But Emerson suffered a stroke at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and died in 1970 -- six months after the couple’s son, Michael, 18, drowned in an accident in the Potomac.

With three children still in school, Hynes could have permitted herself to collapse into widowhood. She could have become absorbed in her children’s lives or could have chosen to live out her days on Social Security. But she did not. “God blessed me with the gift of faith. He did not allow me to be paralyzed by the loss of Emerson,” she told NCR in an interview at the monastery here. While making the transition from homemaker to librarian, Hynes began to read to patients who had never been read to before.

“I didn’t do any of that English teacher stuff.” She did not analyze a poem’s structure, language imagery or rhythm. Rather she asked the patients what the work meant to them, making no effort to critique their response.

“I would pose questions that allowed them to strip the poem down to its very core -- questions that would help them to integrate the poem into their vision of themselves.” Often very ill patients would reject the poem. No matter.

Once a man who had not spoken for years began relating to a poem, expressing a point of view. Another, who did not know his name and who had spent years staring at the ceiling, started to make relevant comments. Hynes began to witness the power of words to mend and watched as some of the sickest patients in the back wards got transferred onto “looser” wards.

She saw the beauty of words lift hearts and uncloud minds.

With the support of Dr. Kenneth Gorelick, head of psychiatric training at St. Elizabeth, Hynes pioneered the first comprehensive training course in biblio/poetry therapy in 1974. The course recognizes that literature can be a healing tool and that a person can read or listen to a work of literature for its therapeutic value alone.

Hynes and Gorelick kept their focus on standards and criteria for the practice of biblio/poetry therapy. Hynes became a registered poetry therapist, completing a program that required 1,000 hours of work, study, analysis and supervision. She also trained the first bibliotherapist in the federal system, a job title that had not existed before. Later she and her daughter Mary Hynes-Berry, a teacher and storyteller, wrote the first handbook: Biblio/Poetry Therapy: The Interactive Process.

After a decade at St. Elizabeth, Hynes entered the monastery. A grandmother and near retirement age, she wanted nothing more than to pray the divine office three times a day, attend Mass and participate in the core Benedictine tradition of lectio divina or spiritual reading. When she was a child in Sheldon, Iowa, in the 1920s and ’30s, Hynes’ mother had taught her to spend an hour a day in religious reading. Over the years, the girl had grown to love the practice.

Hynes discovered the value of using poetry in prayer sessions out of her experience with mental patients -- many of them alcoholics, street people, battered women and ex-cons. In poetry sessions at the hospital, she had seen vacant eyes begin to gleam with recognition. She thought that adding frequent prayer to a retreat session at the cloister would deepen self-understanding and spiritual vision. In 18 years of doing poetry as prayer, Hynes has found this to be true.

She carries a folder of poems to each session, some very simple, others highly complex. Robert Frost is good, because he’s concrete, she said. Hynes loves descriptive poetry but seldom uses it in a retreat session, preferring instead poems rich in images and metaphors. She favors poems that “lead to fruitful emotions,” which can in turn lead to prayer. Works by Denise Levertov, Jane Kenyon and Galway Kinnell brim with daily life in which “grace abounds,” said Hynes.

“A poem’s beauty is in its spirit.” The reason it can heal is because “poetry gets there faster.”

She offers as an example W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window
Or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life
And the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s ‘Icarus,’ for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

“Suffering is like that. It’s with us always. Poetry distracts us from our suffering,” she said. “It gives us a greater awareness that could in some ways mitigate our suffering. We learn we’re not alone. All of us suffer.” But suffering can either enrich or embitter us. We can’t be indifferent to it, Hynes said. “We can’t take poetry like Prozac to get rid of suffering. If it doesn’t enrich you, it will leave you cold.”

In poetry sessions it’s the Holy Spirit -- Hynes believes -- who uses the spirit of the poem to lift hearts, gladden countenances and ennoble human existence. In Auden’s poem, it’s the practical tasks -- eating, opening a window, awaiting a birth or just walking dully along -- that contribute to the sanctification of everyday life, making the ordinary extraordinary. It is these small events that render life so spectacular.

Healing can happen when a listener is open to a poem’s spirit. Hynes has seen it work with battered women and prisoners. “Poetry offers them a counterbalance. It helps them see that their story is not set in cement.”

It allows them to find other reactions that are relevant to their lives, she said. In poetry therapy it is essential that each person tell his or her story, that the therapist listens to the pain and affirms it.

Hynes finds that both poetry and prayer are antidotes to suffering and alienation. When the beauty of words impinges on our psyche, we forget our furies -- if only fleetingly. Likewise in prayer, we can get lost in contemplation, unshackling ourselves from the bondage of our self-absorption.

In her sessions on poetry and prayer, Hynes reads a poem and then asks the group -- usually six to 10 persons -- whether the poem’s images and metaphors are relevant to their life. Then the group invokes the Holy Spirit and sits quietly for about 15 minutes. When it’s time to share points of view, they tell what they have gleaned from the poem and what they intend to do with the kernel of truth that has erupted in their presence.

Hynes has observed how poetry as prayer moves its hearers through the emotions and the intellect, integrating both into some personal action that moves their spiritual life forward. Poetry as prayer can frame the ultimate question, she said: “What growth do you intend to make to fulfill God’s purpose in your life?”

After almost three decades as a poetry therapist, Hynes is still asking that question and trying to answer it for herself. She loves nothing better than finding a new poem that can illuminate life’s dailiness. Recently she tucked into her poetry portfolio “Perfection” by Benedictine Fr. Kilian McDonnell (NCR, Aug. 24 ). Its first line declares: “I have had it with perfection.”

“Today’s life is not unlike that in an asylum,” Hynes said. “Most people’s world is full; it doesn’t include others.” Anger is the predominant emotion, she said, and “anything is grist for the mill.” But poetry can help to open the window onto a world in which we either sanctify the stuff of our everyday lives or run it into the ground. That, she said, is the spiritual exercise.

Patricia Lefevere is a special report writer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001