“Once a flower, I have become a root.”

I have got to share with you this remarkable excerpt from Pope Francis’s recent address to members of the Jewish community in Hungary:

I am moved by the thought of all those friends of God who shone his light on the darkness of this world. I think in particular of Miklós Radnóti, a great poet of this country. His brilliant career was cut short by the blind hatred of those who, for no other reason than his Jewish origins, first prevented him from teaching and then separated him from his family.

Imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved chapter of human history, Radnóti continued until his death to write poetry. His Bor Notebook was his only collection of poems to survive the Shoah. It testifies to the power of his belief in the warmth of love amid the icy coldness of the camps, illumining the darkness of hatred with the light of faith. The author, crushed by the chains that constrained his soul, discovered a higher freedom and the courage to write that, “as a prisoner… I have taken the measure of all that I had hoped for” (Bor Notebook, Letter to his Wife). He also posed a question that resonates with us today: “And you, how do you live? Does your voice find an echo in this time?” (Bor Notebook, First Eclogue). Our voices, dear brothers and sisters, must not fail to echo that Word given us from Heaven, echoes of hope and peace. Even if no one listens or we are misunderstood, may our actions never deny the Revelation to which we are witnesses.

Finally, in the solitude and desolation of the concentration camp, as he realized his life was fading away, Radnóti wrote: “I am now myself a root… Once a flower, I have become a root” (Bor Notebook, Root). We too are called to become roots. For our part, we usually look for fruits, results or affirmation. Yet God makes his word fruitful on the earth with a soft rain that makes the fields flower (cf. Is 55:10). He reminds us that our faith journeys are but seeds, seeds that then become deep roots nourishing the memory and enabling the future to blossom. This is what the God of our fathers asks of us, because – as another poet wrote – “God waits in other places; he waits beneath everything. Where the roots are. Down below” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir, the Cloud Painter). We can only reach the heights if we have deep roots. If we are rooted in listening to the Most High and to others, we will help our contemporaries to accept and love one another. Only if we become roots of peace and shoots of unity, will we prove credible in the eyes of the world, which look to us with a yearning that can bring hope to blossom. I thank you and I encourage you to persevere in your journey together, thank you! Please forgive me for speaking while seated, but I am no longer fifteen years old! Thank you.

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Treasure Trove of Memories

And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – Rainer Maria Rilke

This quotation of Rilke’s came to my mind while I was reading Dr. Bradley Birzer’s beautiful tribute to his grandmother titled, “A Brilliant Death: My Grandmother, 2003.”

Here’s an excerpt:

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Hope is death’s counterweight

This evening I was reading some of the poetry of Karol Wojtyła and came across a poem called “Hope Reaching Beyond the Limit.”

Take a look at these excerpted lines:

Hope rises in time
from all places subject to death—
hope is its counterweight.
The dying world unveils its life again
in hope.

[…]

But death is the experience of the limit,
it has something of annihilation,
I use hope to detach my own self,
I must tear myself away
to stand above annihilation.
And then from all sides they call and will call out:
“You are mad, Paul, you are mad.” [Acts 26:24]
I wrestle with myself,
with so many others I wrestle for my hope.

We need to exercise our disposition to hope.

Looking forward to the future.
Seeing the possibility of new generations.
Delighting in the glorious unpredictability of human affairs.

Otherwise, the limits of this life can “annihilate” our spirit.

What do you do to stand beyond the limits?

What do you do to wrestle for your hope?

Nationality and Death

A couple years ago, two of my friends who I greatly respect both recommended within a short time span of one another that I read Michael Brendan Dougherty’s book, My Father Left me Ireland.

I happened to read it during the 2019 federal election campaign.

These paragraphs, in particular, really struck me:

We are used to conceiving of the nation almost exclusively as an administrative unit. A nation is measured by its GDP, its merit is discovered in how it lands on international rankings for this or that policy deliverable. A nation may have a language, but the priority is to learn the lingua franca of global business. Our idea of doing something for the nation is reduced to something almost exclusively technical. Policy wonks are the acknowledged legislators of the world.

But there is nothing technical about the Rising. I see in the Rising that a nation cannot live its life as a mere administrative district or as a shopping mall; nations have souls. It’s a virtue when poetry colonizes our politics, even if today the situation is reversed. The life of a nation is never reducible to mere technocracy, just as the home cannot be, no matter how much we try to make it so. I see that nationality is something you do, even with your body, even with your death.

To some, the description of the nation as “an administrative unit” and “technocracy” might sound just right.

But, as is often the case, juxtaposition brings clarity and there is something attractive in the poetry of the irreducible and soulful idea of the nation about which Dougherty speaks.

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Responding to Death with Poetry

My grandmother died on September 22, 2009 between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. A few days after her death, when I was 18, I wrote this poem in memory of her, which I just found again today:

A Tribute to My Grandmother

I first met my grandmother
When I was very young
She held me in her arms
Before I had turned one

My family ventured to Toronto
And she and grandpa came to Calgary
Those times were special then
Always remembered they will be

When I was only four
My grandma called me near
I didn’t like her nickname for me
She used to call me ‘dear’

So we agreed upon ‘Mandy’
This name for only her to call me
Her precocious little granddaughter 
And I would call her ‘Bubbie’

I remember the trips to Toys ‘R’ Us
With my brother to choose toys
We could pick almost anything
As long as it would bring us joy

My grandma loved education
And she always called me clever
She knew my commitment to my education
Would surely last forever

In her final years
Bubbie grew old and frail
But my grandpa visited her
Every day without fail

I learned unconditional love
Through the witness that they gave
To a love that knows no bounds
And to a love that is very brave

Sometimes it was hard to see my grandma
Lost and confused in her mind
Then I’d remember though
How much her heart was refined

My grandma’s life was a gift
From the God who I do praise
The Lord is compassionate and loving
In all His mighty ways

Ever since I was a child, writing has been my favourite creative outlet. Whenever someone would die or whenever I would grapple with the mystery of suffering and death, I would scribble words of poetry and reflection to contend and find meaning.

In addition to being a helpful outlet at the time, I find it interesting to look back on what I wrote in the past and to discover how sealing those memories through creative acts magnifies the memories I hold.

You-Are-There-Reading At A Grave

In Anne Fadiman’s book Ex Libris, she has a chapter in which she explores the delights of what she calls You-Are-There-Reading experiences.

I’ve never equaled the sensory verisimilitude of my friend Adam, who once read the ninth book of the Odyssey, in Greek, in what is believed to be the Cyclops’s cave, a Sicilian grotto Homerically redolent of sheep turds. But I have read Yeats in Sligo, Isak Dinesen in Kenya, and John Muir in the Sierras. By far my finest You Are There hour, however, was spent reading the journals of John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the first expedition down the Colorado River, while I was camped at Granite Rapids in the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Ever since reading this, I have sought out my own You-Are-There-Reading experiences around the world. Naturally, some of these experiences have been at gravesites. There is nothing quite like reading poetry or correspondence aloud at a grave.

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What We Gain From Loss

The remarkable poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote more than fourteen thousand letters over the course of his life. A few years ago, an editor published a compilation of selected letters entitled, The Dark Interval: Letters on Loss, Grief, and Transformation.

Here is an excerpt from one of the letters that particularly struck me:

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