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Saving Poems

The Rev. Patrick Ward
August 16, 2018

Saving Poems


Martha Foreman died this week. The mother of two sons (themselves deceased and memorialized by kneelers in our church) and for about thirty years a department administrator at MIT, Martha had an easy, warm ratchet-rasp of a laugh and I loved to visit her in her apartment in Charles River Park. I saw her last on an oppressively sticky Thursday afternoon at the end of last month. By then she well knew she was going to die of the cancer she’d been managing for some years (“January 2 would be great; I’d hate to complicate anyone’s holiday season!”) and she wanted to offer me some guidance on her funeral. She offered iced tea and promptly pulled out a manila folder.


On top of the pile? A copy of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; The Arrow and the Song.” I didn’t know it but it seemed like the sort of poem that – in a different time – schoolchildren were compelled to memorize. “I shot an arrow into the air / It fell to earth, I knew not where.”  We took a long look together at the poem and then we talked about how random events and disjointed efforts in one’s life can somehow form a mysteriously integrated whole.


Poems come up – regularly, perhaps not often enough – in pastoral conversation. Earlier that very same day, in a suburban assisted living facility, a parishioner had asked me to read aloud a few lines from Tennyson’s miraculous “Ulysses”, perhaps the best poem ever written about ageing and renewed purpose:  “Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' / We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…”  Some years ago a parishioner offered me “A Week Later” by the New York poet Sharon Olds – a post - 9/11, post-divorce meditation on healing, renewed generosity and rediscovered gratitude.  “Lobster” by Anne Sexton – given to me when I was a seminarian by a member of a church bible study group – is still one of the most vivid reflections I know on the question of eternity and the life to come.


When I was ordained about ten years ago now, I and my fellow ordinands declared that that the Holy Scriptures contain “all things necessary to salvation.” That profession does not of course stop me from stockpiling other “saving texts.” I wonder what some of yours might be?  Perhaps, in the comments section below, you’ll be moved to share with me and others a favorite “saving” poem of your own.


See you in church!











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