We get ready by asking ourselves what unresolved problems, dilemmas, puzzles, decisions or paradoxes we are facing right now in our life or work. We approach the process with intention, and make it personal.
I could have chosen to explore what more I could do to help my daughter. Instead, given how I was feeling, this question seemed more urgent in the moment: “What kind of help do I need to stay well during this difficult time?” This, then, was the topic of “conversation” I wanted to have with my soul.
We read the poem aloud, three times, pausing between each reading in silence. We listen with the ears of the heart, noticing what words or phrases “shimmer” or light up for us.
By the end of the third reading, after marking several phrases that stood out for me, I selected one that had arrested my attention - ”strive melodiously” - although I did not yet know why. This is where we have to trust that our soul has chosen a single word or phrase through which to speak. In Mary Oliver’s poem, a bunch of goldfinches are engaged in a “musical battle,” striving melodiously to be the most expressive of “sheer delight and gratitude” for being alive for one more day, in this broken world.
Next, we begin to inwardly repeat the word or phrase that has attracted us, slowly, along with the breath, like a mantra. We let go of the rest of the poem, listen deeply, and allow the word or phrase to resonate within. Just repeating, and ruminating (the word used for a cow chewing the cud to extract every last bit of nourishment) - not analyzing or straining for any special insights.
I repeated quietly within: “Strive melodiously...strive melodiously...strive melodiously...” for about five minutes, just breathing the words and listening. I became curious and receptive. What was this about?
After a few minutes, we allow ourselves to begin an inner dialogue with our souls, our deeper selves. We ask the soul: "Why did you choose this particular word or phrase, and what has it got to do with the question or issue I wrote down during Preparatio?" We ponder. We journal. We notice what is going on within us, with awareness, kindness and fascination. Perhaps we begin to discern the outlines of an answer, some new direction or guidance, a solution of sorts.
In my case, I realized that my daughter’s crisis had drawn me into an emotional war with grief, sadness, worry, even anger. I had been striving aggressively, anxiously, exhaustingly. My soul—via Mary Oliver’s lovely phrase—was inviting me now to strive (yes, to apply effort, to keep venturing into the tension of it all), but in a completely different way: “melodiously,” whatever the heck that meant. I sat with the paradox, journaled, and began to see what the wiser, more compassionate voice within (the voice of my “inner goldfinch,” as it were) was asking of me: Like the bright little birds, strive to outdo yourself in finding what’s RIGHT, and delightful, and praiseworthy with the world, with your daughter’s life, with your own tumultuous self. Could I apply as much effort to seeing the beauty of what was right as I had been trying to conquer and control what was wrong or broken? Could I be a bit more light-hearted about it all?
After a half hour contemplating in silence, alone, we regather and spend some time sharing our experience and insights and questions with one another in small groups.
Others, of course, heard much different things than I did in this poem. But as we listened to one another—without attempting to help, advise, or intervene—we heard echoes of our own wisdom, as well as bits of new wisdom. We laughed. We felt one another’s pain. I talked about how I realized I had stopped singing like the goldfinches...and how I longed to give voice to a new melody.
As we approach the end of our time together, we spend a few minutes considering whether our souls may be inviting us to do or to change or to embody (to incarnate) some insight we have had during the first five movements Lectio Poetica. We consider what exactly that might be, how much time it might take to do it, and whether to put it on the calendar for the coming week.
I felt my soul was asking me to sit in the mornings and begin an intentional practice of “striving melodiously” to remember and celebrate what’s right. I wrote it down, and started the next morning. I began making music, right in the midst of the ongoing tragedy. After that, I also began breaking into song (literally) at times, playing music that lifted my spirit, even dancing. This is Lectio Poetica at its best.
At the end of our mini-retreat each Sunday morning, we lay down our pens and paper, close our eyes and mouths, let go of words and thoughts and questions and spend a few minutes in silence and stillness together. Resting in the body, in awareness of the present moment with acceptance of what is. We ring the chime to close, and bow to one another in gratitude for time well spent, and go home changed in almost imperceptible ways.
I left our small circle that day grateful not only for the poetry of Mary Oliver, which reconnected me with my deeper sources of strength and healing, but also for those who had come out on a Sunday morning to sit together and listen to their own hearts. It is truly a sacred time of solitude and community.
- Jay E. Valusek