Photo from University of Notre Dame; Sculpture by Ivan
LENT IS A SEASON for slowing down. Many of us like to choose
a Lenten practice that will draw us, for at least a brief
time each day, away from our usual hurried preoccupations
and into a deeper awareness of God's presence in and among
Poetry is a perfect resource for this Lenten practice of
prayerful attentiveness. One of poetry's great gifts is to
slow us down. We're used to racing ahead as we read, whether
it's a newspaper report or an e-mail memo or even a magazine
article: Language in these forms propels us forward, urging
us to grab up its main points. But poetry doesn't press ahead
so much as give us pausein the wonder of words crafted
to open into another dimension.
Poets' art is to invite us into this wondrous openness of
language: to welcome us to let our imaginations and spirits
expand beyond ordinary associations and meanings.
For me, reading a poem meditatively is like taking a Sunday
stroll along a woodland path. The lines of the poem are the
pathway, with all its intriguing byways, unexpected vistas
and mossy banks to rest and reflect on where I've been and
where I am. The poet is my walking companion and guide, inviting
me to join in the refreshment of following images wherever
my experience or imagination might take them.
When the poem I've chosen for meditation is itself a reflection
on a Gospel story, my stroll is all the richer. It's as if
I've joined a friend who is already in conversation with the
Gospel and who welcomes me to saunter along with them both,
sharing in their exchange.
I'm especially appreciative of the opportunity when the Gospel
story is one of those favorites that have become so familiar
that its deep truths have lost their startling effect and
even become a bit stale. Poetry offers me a fresh way to enter
these Gospel readings and pray with them more fully.
This year for the Third Sunday of Lent (March 3), for instance,
we hear the marvelous account from John's Gospel of the Samaritan
woman at the well (4:4-42). Here is how I might use a poem
to enter this beloved Gospel story anew.
First, I recall the story's essentials. This woman of Samaria
has come to the village well to draw water for her daily needs.
There by the well she finds a Jewish stranger resting from
his journey. He is thirsty but doesn't have a bucket to reach
down to the water, which lies deep in the well. "Give me a
drink," he requests of her, breaking Jewish custom not only
by speaking with a woman but also by asking to share utensils
with a non-Jewish person.
The woman, bright and spunky, challenges him on both points.
Thus begins the lively dialogue that is the heart of the Gospel
episode. He offers her a water that quenches one's thirst
forever, the "living water" of "eternal life"; yes, please
give it to me, she replies, so I don't have to keep coming
to the well each day.
Jesus shifts ground, leaping into the core of her soul: You've
had five husbands (had a life, that is, perhaps lacking restraint)
and are now living with a man you're not married to. She sees
that he has seen right into her. But instead of fearing his
insight, she honors him as a prophet; and instead of judging
her sinfulness, he honors her by revealing to her his identity
The Gospel of John is poetry in a sense. It works through
parallel and contrasting images, through wordplay and through
drawing language from a literal to a symbolic meaning.
In this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman,
their mutual requests for a drink are parallel, mirroring
Then, from the literal thirst with which they both begin,
the Gospel writer draws out the symbolic meaning of the "living
water" that only Jesus can offer, which quenches the thirst
not of our bodies but of our souls. Into Gospel writing like
this, any poem enters as into a congenial medium.
Introducing a Poet
Karol Wojtyla, now known as Pope John Paul II, studied literature
in college and was soon writing poems that appeared in Polish
magazines. After his ordination to the priesthood in his 20s,
he continued publishing poetry.
It is a quiet, contemplative poetry, often meditating on
biblical moments. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan
woman at the well particularly attracted him, so much so that
he composed a sequence of eight poems reflecting on the scene.
"Song of the Brightness of Water" is the last in the sequence,
which was published when Wojtyla was 30 years old. So as I
enter the poem, I'm joining not a pope but a young poet-priest.
And almost immediatelyby the end of the first lineI
see that I'm joining him in his persona as the Samaritan woman
of the Gospel. She is evidently musing some time after the
incident; her encounter with Jesus was "so long ago," she
says. Yet she is still living it: The depth she experienced
is "this" depth, very present to her now. And its brightness"this
brightness""still clings to my eyes."
Let's pause and sit with the poem before going further; reread
it more slowly, let it sink in.
Song of the Brightness of Water
Let's enter the scene with the poet.
From the poem's title I can tell that "this brightness" is
the water's. Not until the end of the poem do I know for sure
that the water's brightness is Christ's, his transforming
light mirrored in the well as the woman gazed into the water.
In a condensed, meditative poem like this one, my stroll
through the poem can't follow a single straight path. It's
more like the passage of my eye through a painting: All the
images are before me at once, and I let my eye meander through
their interrelations as the artist suggests them.
What the poet suggests here is that the woman had met Jesus
not only at the well but also in the well: that throughout
their dialogue, both were looking not directly at one another
but into the well, meeting by means of their reflections mirrored
in the water. His reflected depth had penetrated her being
to become "the perception I found" as he revealed himself
to her, and revealed her to herself in him.
The poet has deeply absorbed every word of the Gospel account,
and assumes that we have, too, so that we'll know what this
double revelation of Jesus consists in: Jesus revealing himself
to the Samaritan woman as the Messiah who offers the water
of eternal life, and revealing her to herself as a sinner
who nevertheless is worthy of eternal life in him.
Jesus sees into her soul and forgives what he sees, washing
away her sin with his living water. For the poet, all of this
astounding interchange of self-revelation and salvation is
happening in the well itself. The well becomes the
very image of the depths of self-perception that Jesus has
drawn the woman into. This is "the perception" gratefully
found by the poem's woman at the well.
Along with this perception, she says she also found her own
"empty space" reflected in the well. I might think that finding
empty space in myself could be a joyful relief, if I'm emptied
of whatever clogs God's life in me.
But the woman is evidently seeing the opposite sort of inner
emptiness: a space that is empty now of Jesus, as she comes
to realize that "I can never take all of you/into me."
Their lives had truly merged at that moment in the well,
mirroring one another as he absorbed her sinful being and
suffused it with his own saving light; but human life can't
contain Christ's fullness. We can meet Christ in the
well, but then our human life in time inevitably moves on.
The woman accepts this loss, this "sorrow" (accepts that
"yet it is good"), because she knows that he will remain always
available: "Stay then as a mirror in the well." There in the
well, in life's depths, he will always be reflected when she
comes to gaze on him. The light of Christ's dazzling brightness
will always, now that she has once perceived it, transfix
her eyes and transform her soul when she comes "to draw water."
Now I Wonder
I wonder about the "leaves and flowers" that remain above
the poem's well, brought down in the water's reflection by
"each astonished gaze." Are they symbols of my new growth
in Christ that is possible whenever I bring myself to gaze
into his depths?
I wonder about the very word "reflection," such a common
word, reverberating through the poem. I've been reflecting
on the Samaritan woman's reflections on her meeting Jesus'
reflection in the well.
A reflection is literally rays of light bending back from
an object. When referring to the mind, a reflection is my
thoughts bending back over an object, over a subject. Poetry
tends to be reflective: to bend language back over its subject,
taking my thoughts along and then loosing them to bend and
turn again as they will, over the subject, over themselves.
I wonder about the image of Jesus as "mirror." For St. Clare
of Assisi, "this image of the mirror is central," writes Murray
Bodo, O.F.M. He says, "As Francis was the mirror of Christ
and Christ of the Father, so the life of the contemplative
is to look into the mirror that is Christ and see there oneself,
thereby learning who you are.
"By looking into the mirror who is Christ and recognizing
yourself, you become a mirror of him whom you contemplate,
and you in turn mirror, through Christ to the Father, all
of creation. You see yourself both in a mirror and as a mirror.
St. Clare writes to her sisters: 'For the Lord Himself has
not only placed us as example and mirror for others, but also
for our own sisters whom the Lord has called to our way of
life, so that they in their turn will be mirror and example
to those living in the world'" (The
Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality
for Everyone, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1995).
The Samaritan woman of the Gospel, model contemplative in
the poem, does become an example to those living in the world:
"Many Samaritans...believed in [Jesus] because of the woman's
testimony," the Gospel (4:39) says.
I wonder about poets as contemplatives. The American poet
Sophie M. Starnes has said in "Writing a Poem": "The poet
lives in the contemplation of the individual moment. Such
a contemplation requires...[that] the poet must become incarnate
in one experience, distinct from all others. Through the isolation
of one moment, the poet apprehends its heart and its edges,
its thudding core and the fading wake of its sound. Only thus
can the poet transfigure the experience, transient as it is,
into a living thinginto a poem that tremors out of a
page into the heart of the reader" (Christianity and the
Arts, Winter 2000).
Merging and Memorizing
In "Song of the Brightness of Water," the poetin the
persona of the Samaritan womanbecomes incarnate in the
experience of merging, for a moment, with God.
Returning to read the poem one more time, do I find a line
that I want to memorize, to make my own?
This article is adapted from Praying
the Gospels Through Poetry: Lent to Easter (St. Anthony
Messenger Press, 2002).