Milosz and the Monk

Monastic Monday

Have you seen this monk?

Br. Monday is still nowhere to be seen. Until he shows up again, here’s a story from a modern monk, Jeremy Driscoll. He tells about his meeting with the poet, Czeslaw Milosz:

[Milosz] asked me virtually at the outset, “Do you as a monk find anything useful in my poetry?” I answered him that of course I did and that I would tell him why. But first I wanted to know why he was asking with this emphasis, why the phrase “as a monk.” He answered—and this is no secret for those who read him closely—that at the end of his life he doubted the spiritual value of his work. He anguished over this question. Very humbly he thought maybe a monk could tell him if there were any spiritual value in it.

Naturally I was astonished to find myself so suddenly thrust into such a position, but through his writings I knew him well enough to know that he was in deadly earnest. He wanted an evaluation of his poetry from a monk. I thought to myself, well, I am a monk, and I have profited from him as a monk. So, I will tell him. On the table before us was a copy of his collected poems spanning more than seventy years. It was a volume I knew well. I picked it up and began reading his poems back to him, telling him of their importance to me, of their “usefulness,” to use his term. It was a moving exchange for both of us. At one point he said to me, “Everybody has always told me that my poetry is great and important to them, but nobody ever tells me why. You are telling me why.”

There’s two things that I can’t shake from my reading of this passage. First, there’s this line: “through his writings I knew him well enough to know that he was in deadly earnest.” He knew Milosz through his writings. This is something that we instinctively want, something that may even drive us to read more. And here is a respected academic saying that that is how he reads. Second, he picked up a well known volume and read it back to the poet. So often the poet writes and we read, but here the poet becomes the listener waiting for the reader. This is the loving observer. This is the circle of observation between poet and reader where a relationship is formed.

Here’s the full article. It discusses the correspondence between Thomas Merton and Milosz as an image of society and the monastery in dialogue.

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