Life as a novice and as a poet with the Institute of Charity (Rosminians)


By Brother William Rees

Blessed Antonio Rosmini, our founder, would not, I think, have approved of a novice-poet in his Institute. In one of his letters, he says, “We are priests, not poets. Poetry can be no more than a trifle, something to refresh the tired spirit and fit it once more for its more important duties”. Fortunately, attitudes have moved on in the Institute since 1826, when the letter was written. I have benefitted from a very patient novice master who has, in the teeth of our founder’s suspicion of poets and their trifles, gone as far as to encourage me to write and to present my work. I am by no means the first to be so protected. One of the most respected Italian poets of the 20th Century, Clemente Rebora, was a Rosminian priest.


The experiences of the novice and the poet are similar. Both are fundamentally contemplatives. “The silence”, as RS Thomas puts it, “holds with its gloved hands the wild hawk of the mind”, and we become passive observers of truths we can never fully grasp, recipients of inspiration whose source and significance are never fully revealed to us. Seldom have I ever written anything I have consciously planned, and even less frequently have I consciously planned what I have written. All is a witness to the action of something external on us. Sing, Muse. Likewise as a novice. The good Rosminian is like a bow drawn back, flexed in adoration’s bow. It is the Lord who places the arrow and levels the sight. We wait indifferently and passively for the pull: Come, Holy Spirit.


But, in contemplating God, we are never purely passive. God draws us, poets and novices, into a response to and participation in his creative act. The rhythm and cadence of my daily timetable, intoned in the fat syllables, ora et labora, rise together with scratch of pen and muttered scansion in a paean of God’s glory. Every hedge I trim in our garden becomes an altar of sacrifice, the chainsaw buzz and splintering wood the consecration and acclamation of a faith offering up in humility the little fruit of a menial act. Every crossed out line, trochee-laden, loaded with dactyls, offers itself at the foot of the altar in the joy of youth. And there is a special way, I feel, in which the poet shares in God’s creation. Plato, indeed, describes God as a poet, a poiētēs which in Greek means as much a craftsman or law-giver as one who works with words. In Romans 1:20, St Paul describes creation as a poem, a poēma, that displays God’s power and divinity so clearly that none can deny them. Rosmini argues that God’s act of creation, which descends from idea to reality, is the direct opposite of our act of knowledge, which proceeds from reality to idea via the guiding light of reason, the idea of possible being. For the poet, God’s poēma is the opposite of our act of ‘creation’, which leads us from experience to the ideal, from the particular to the absolute.


It would not be a Catholic participation in creation, however, if it did not involve a certain amount of suffering. Most of my poetry conveys a sense of frustration and exasperation. Not so much at God as at my own inability to let him draw close in the way I should like. I also struggle with the fact that the main currency of modern poetry is irony, that winking Gnosticism of the perennially amused. How much irony is acceptable in matters of faith? Meister Eckhart spoke of the Father and the Son laughing at each other, I suppose, but I certainly haven’t dared to transpose irony into my novitiate life. I think Fr Meredith, my novice master, would not be impressed, to say the least. But the novice-poet can draw satisfaction from at least one thing: the promise which his faith offers him. Unlike the Roman poet, Horace, we need not hope only that we will live on in our poetry, not wholly dying to posterity. (On this point, I cannot help but think that St Jerome had Horace’s swaggering non omnis moriar in mind when he translated Psalm 118:17 as non moriar, sed vivam.) We look forward to a reward where all our imperfect poetastering, on the page and in our actions, will be transfigured in union with ‘the love that propels the sun and other stars’.


The boiler’s bubbling builds

The bliss I bask

Is in Christ’s peace

The early evening azure lines the chapel walls

Like the sea settled

I sit before my Lord permitting myself

A little sadness that God

Has to be barred behind


And straightjacketed in his sacramental cage

Restraint of a mad God


To let his dimwit creation come close to Him

When all he wants to do

He ever wanted to do

Is to reach out

To us the arms

We nailed to death’s tree


Sadness shifts out of focus

Pearl white


Of bread cannot contain

Nor monstrance glass


The glory of God

That swallowed by me swallows me

Down grace’s gullet

In bloodless bloodrush of the Mass’s Passion