To Live with the Benedictines

After the incomprehensible insensitivity of this past week, I have been thinking with deep gratitude about Guy Martin, the remarkable man I worked for at Colgate University. Guy was a theologian, philosopher, man of depth carried gently. His presence was one of inexhaustible thoughtfulness.

Guy was infinitely patient with this anxiety ridden kid trying to come through on his first work after college.  One day I asked Guy what he as a kid told people when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. He thought for a bit — he always thought for a bit before responding to any question or comment — then said, “I remember now that I always said that I wanted to be kind.”

To Live with the Benedictines

I would love to live within the Benedictine
vow of hospitality, letting it fill the day–
from matins bringing the sun out of

the night until I kneel by the straw
pillow waiting for my happy head.
To never have to try to feel at home,

to wander into prayer, the words turning
into leaves, salt air, nothing at all, the world
being what a cello says it can be. Anything

on the tongue would be the host—chunk
of dark chocolate, an apple, breadstick,
sprig of mint. The days, never enough,

would simply be light and dark moving in
and out of one another, a redeemed yin to
yang, an endless alchemy of hours, cowls

over the shaved heads of the monks.
To love without distinctions: Why this?
Why that? There is a window. And there

is a crocus blooming in the snow. There is
a book open to page 73. And there, asleep,
an old dog, snoring his own Gregorian chant.

–Jack Ridl

First published in Poetry East, 2006

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28 thoughts on “To Live with the Benedictines

  1. Oh Jack…”a man of depth carried gently…” “He always thought for a bit before responding to any questions…” (And shouldn’t both of these be pre-requisites for running for public office…particularly the presidency.)

    And then – the poem. Remind me again which collection this is in? I have them all. I hope. I may need to learn this one by heart. And today – anything will be host “chunk of chocolate, an apple, breadstick, spring of mint…”

    You are simply – brilliant. But to give that nondescript word of praise some flesh – you think of metaphors and ways of saying things that are so right, yet so new and strange and hope-full.

    Thank you…we all need these poems. We all need you. (without clinging! promise!)


    • Thank ye for discovering what’s within a poem, this poem. It brings joy
      to this scribbler, that’s for sure. Nothing like trying to be a heretic
      for something good, eh?
      And I am really delighted that you said “strange.” Soooooo happy about that!

      This isn’t in a collection. New one for the next. Tis all yours! : )


  2. Good morning, Jack. I’d love for you to meet—and for me to witness this meeting–a pair of retired respecters of St. Benedict who live here in Zeeland, Dave and Clara Brower. You would thrill to the lavish garden David throws up every year. I’ve contended—devilishly–before with them about the Benedictine rulebook: Reminds me of the strong-sauce, Theravadan Buddhism that was translated, seemingly as whole-cloth, to SE Asia (cf. Dhammapada—no less-mean shirker as a practical rulebook for living). In your poem you name the crocus: I’m reminded of “The Name of the Rose” (Umberto Eco). I’ve been meaning to reach out to Dave & Clara. This poem lends emphasis to that goodly impulse. Enjoy the day—but remember the rules are ultimately merely a guide. 😉 Best, C >

    • Always tried to help students shift their perceptions from rules to effects,
      especially in their writing. Then they can apply when appropriate.
      The monks at the abbey in Minnesota invited me to spend a year with
      them long ago. But I ended up in another “abbey” as Jonathan Winters
      might call it.

  3. Oh Jack, I look forward to Thursdays. This. This poem. Its power. It moves the anger, confusion, frustration of the week out of my head, if only for a moment. I hope it has been good to revisit your friends and select one each week that we may make acquaintance.

    • Meg, Even a moment assures us that we are still who we are.
      Yes, it’s been a remarkable and unexpected joy to connect in
      this way with those who are in my heart always.

  4. Thank you for this poem today, Jack. Reading it carried me back to a winter retreat I attended as an 8th grader at a cloistered convent in Conway, Michigan–the poem, combined with the memory, a brief, tranquil oasis. Much needed.

    • Diane,
      Please know how much this matters to me, what you wrote. I have always
      tried to follow E.M. Forster’s dictum of “Only connect.”
      Thank ye!

    • Please know how much this assures me, Chris. Thank ye.
      Not sure any God would send me anywhere but Antarctica, but
      I shall cherish the hope!
      And oh, did I ever appreciate your piece about the “gay friend” !!!!!!

    • Dear one,
      Thank ye. To know I can help in this way is an assurance that
      lifts this hurting heart.
      You bring healing.
      PS. Loved that you were in News from Hope! Did you notice that
      every page is of people smiling! Hmmmmm

  5. Jack,

    Grand poem. I have brought the Vienna students to the ancient Benedictine monastery of Melk for the last 42 years. Your poem embodies the spirit of the monks at this still active Abbey. Stephen

  6. well… i’m doing it again, stockpiling e/m’s & f-bk posts ‘cuz it’s getting too much \ staying up late (& later) to clear ‘things’ off enough so i won’t feel overwhelmed \ astounded by the discipline displayed in the ongoingness of others, why can’t i put myself to bed? should i feel i need to? \

    & then, this turns up ‘cuz i ain’t read back far enough to notice it & i realize i hadn’t felt this compelled for nearly 2yrs (while in éire) & i shouldn’t stress over any stuff but i am ‘cuz it feels so “disturbed” \ & this… ain’t & thanx jack \ L8R____jke____||

    • Well, I’m always glad you are out there, John Eeeeeeee!
      It’s all too much,
      and such.
      But we just what? Keep thinking music.

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