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Posted December 19, 2009

Book: Haiku: The Sacred Art
Author: Margaret D. McGee
Skylight Paths, Woodstock, Vermont. 2009. Pp. 169

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

Shown a flower
a small baby
opens its mouth — Seifu-ni (1731-1844)

I wrote my first haiku when I was forty-five years old, in a beginner’s poetry-writing class. Nowadays, it is common for haiku to be taught in elementary and middle schools, but that was not the case when I was a child. Though I had a brief encounter with haiku in a Japanese literature class during college, I did not know much about the form, and until four other novice poets and I came together for our first class, I had never tried writing haiku myself.

We met at our teacher Caro Lights’s home, a small cabin that already seemed pretty full with her rambunctious young golden retriever. We all found a place to sit, and once Rover had thoroughly expressed his joy at our arrival and settled down, the class got under way.

To start us out, Carol introduced the idea of an image — a picture in the mind’s eye. Then, to tone up our observation and description muscles, she set us down with some exercises. Soon I was happily studying a spray of pink flowers in a vase, jotting down every descriptive word or phrase that came to me. l I noted the clusters of tiny mauve leaves. A single spray of flowers is a remarkable complex object, once you take the time to really look. As the minutes passed, I saw more and more. Finally, my sheet of paper was full. I ran out of things to record. If this spray of flowers had more to tell, I’d have to hear it from other members of the class. Incredibly, one of them was still writing. Carol said she’d give us another minute to finish up. After such concentrated work, I was happy to rest.

As I sat back in my chair, a flicker of light and movement on the surface of the vase caught my eye. I leaned forward, and the flicker moved with me. Suddenly my focus changed, and I found myself gazing deep into the rounded surface of the flower’s container. The vase’s smooth glaze, acting as a curved mirror, reflected back the room and everything in it, with me in its center. The reflection had been right in front of me all the time, without my ever noticing.

A shift in focus —
the whole room reflected
in a flower’s vase — MDM

For a moment, time stood still. Then I grabbed my pencil and managed a few more quick notes before Carol called a halt to this part of the session.

What happened during that moment when time stood still? In the thinking part of my mind, nothing much happened at all. Today my mind easily makes a connection between the flower, the vase, and all of God’s creation. I think about how my attention is usually drawn away by one thing after another — some beautiful, others not so beautiful. Life’s little details consume my thoughts and distract me from this different way of seeing, a way that shows all of creation contained and reflected in each individual part of creation. Including me, I think about how I can look, and look, and see so much and still not see the whole, until a change in focus makes me sit straight, revealing the truth of what’s been right in front of me all along.

But at that particular moment, I wasn’t thinking at all. I was completely taken up in feelings — a mixture of surprise, delight, even awe. For a flash of time, I felt the underlying unity of all things. Then the moment passed, and I started writing again.

An Excerpt from the book:

Taking the conversation out into the world

The practice of lectio divina was an integral part of monastic life for centuries before the four steps were defined and formally written down. When the early mothers and fathers practiced holy or sacred reading, they may not have used a multstep process at all. Because memorization was an important part of their practice, they would carry the verses with them internally throughout the day. In their prayers and ruminations, they would seek to integrate the words of scripture with all parts of their life.

The power of this basic approach has not changed in the passing of a couple of thousand years. When you carry the words of sacred texts out into the world with you, and look with attention, you may see the words reflected back to you in the common events and objects of daily life. If you use those events and objects in your haiku, you can enter into conversation with the Creative Spirit wherever you go. As an example, consider how Annika Wallendahl approached writing haiku for a collection of Lenten reflections for my home parish of St. Paul’s

. . . .I had to come back to the scripture over and over. How could I make it relevant to me?

. . . .The following two haiku from Annika’s Lenten reflection are each set at a local place, familiar to most people who live in my community. They show events that could happen on most any day in early spring. As you will see from her comments after each poem, Annika does not view these haiku as literal interpretations of the Bible verses. They are simply what she waw when she looked around her and paid attention.

But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so the potter squashed the jar into a lump of clay and started again. Jeremiah 18:4

Crooked sand castle
leveled by a little girl.
Shipping boats inch along the Straits. — Annika Wallendahl

Annika: “If you make a mistake, you can start all over again, like building sand castles.

Table of Contents:

1. The heart of a moment

2. A simple prayer

3. A companionable form

4. A sense of time and place

5. Inspired conversations

6. Haiku in community

7. Haiku with pictures or prose

8. The Haiku life