Love poem from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (2002)
It was May 2009 when, in the final stretch of a tumultuous year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), my community was invited into a three-day silent retreat.
I was living in the constant emotional wake of working with people in drug and alcohol recovery, and wrestling heavily with the question of what I would do after JVC. For three days, I followed the prescription of active reflection: journaling furiously, praying the Ignatian examen, participating in spiritual direction, and composing an elaborate art collage. My efforts yielded insight, but also, introspection fatigue.
One star-studded night, wanting nothing more than a small nugget of consolation, I ventured into the retreat center’s library. The room was still, except for the swirl of loosened dust and the old book spines that crackled when opened. I ran my fingertips along the stacks, pausing over the recognized classics, but resting finally upon one curiously titled red book, Love Poems from God. As I fanned through the collection, I noticed some familiar names—Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila, Rumi—and some not so familiar names—Rabia, Kabir, Mira, Meister Eckhart.
The translator, Daniel Ladinsky, clearly had a penchant for an East–West mystical fusion, which intrigued me because I had never before encountered such a diverse company of religious luminaries in one volume. I flipped insouciantly through the book until one poem fixed my attention. It read:
sit there right now.
Don’t do a thing. Just rest.
separation from God
is the hardest work in this world.
Let me bring you trays of food and something
that you like to
You can use my soft words
as a cushion
I wasn’t sure if it was the direct address of the poem, or its immediate relevance to my emotional state, but I swore, as Martin Luther swore on Romans 1:17, and Augustine on Romans 13:13–14, that this poem was speaking directly to me. Although exhausted by my first year in social work, I was ardently mining for truth and trying to engineer a greater spiritual connection. And Hafiz tells me, with unshakable tenderness, to just sit there. To rest. With immediate relief I collapsed to the library floor, where I spent the next few hours engrossed by one poem after another.
Love Poems from God does not fall under the classical canon of holy scriptures insofar as it is one contemporary translator’s creative compilation of twelve mystical voices, writing centuries apart, from within the distinct Catholic, Muslim, and Hindu faiths. But then again, are not most traditional religious texts accumulated over hundreds of years and stitched together from a great plurality of voices? One of the most provocative features of this anthology is that the poems have a mysterious way of veiling formal religious differences, while gesturing toward ultimate, omnipresent reality. It is as though twelve witnesses have each given an astonishingly similar testimony about the sacredness of existence, the intricacies of the human heart, and God’s unrelenting compassion for us.
Collectively, they are also very fond of bestowing God with pet names. Almost all refer to God as “Beloved.” Rumi speaks of “the Friend,” Hafiz prefers “the beautiful one,” Kabir refers to “the physician,” and Teresa of Avila “the divine medic.” Tukaram jokes of “the Old Guy,” while Mira sticks with her “lover.” The informality with which these poets speak of, and to, the divine left me wondering, What glimpse of God, or deep familiarity, must have sparked these nicknames? Rabia, an eighth-century Islamic saint from Mesopotamia (now Iraq), accounts for her renaming of God in this way:
Would you come if someone called you
by the wrong name?
I wept, because for years He did not enter my arms;
then one night I was told a Secret:
Perhaps the name you call God is
not really His, maybe it i
s just an
I thought about this, and came up with a pet name
for my Beloved I never mention
All I can say is—
While I always savored the power of words, it never occurred to me that perhaps I had assigned God an all too generic name, a name that conformed nicely to ecclesial settings, but impeded my own ability to speak candidly in prayer. If language carries a host of associations, most of them subtle or unconscious, should we not harness the power of words, and of naming, to better reflect our deeply relational experiences with the divine?
As Ladinsky explains in the preface, Love Poems from God rests on the commonly held belief that these holy men and women have either experienced union with God, or were “so void of self-interest and so full of love for God and humanity that they became holy lutes,”(3) intoning the divine’s voice through their songs and poetry. It is certainly not the first text to claim divine inspiration, but unlike other sacred texts that treat a variety of important moral and legal concerns, this volume exclusively proclaims the love of God. These authors have been seized by love in a radical way and simply cannot stop gushing about it. While the love of God is, again, central to most faith traditions, this poetry made me wonder if hearing about love, talking about love, pontificating about love, without ever attempting to describe that love in richly human terms, desensitizes us to the word itself. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Catholic saint, enjoins God to “love us in a way our souls can taste and rejoice in.”(4) What follows in her poetic verse are exceedingly sensual articulations of a God who tickles the heavy-hearted and suckles at her breast. Teresa is not alone here. Each of the poets reveal a similar pattern of engaging the divine with no small degree of intimacy, slack-jawed wonder, and some occasional bawdiness. The 16th-century Hindu poet-saint Mira addresses God as one might a high school crush:
You should act more responsible, God,
with all that gorgeousness you
You have made all my friends nuts
and basically unfit to do much else but dream of
plot drawing your mouth
The soup kitchens are complaining
about our wisdom of
on the gossip we
To explain what the playful levity and earthy textures of these verses have done for my own spiritual life would be like attempting to contain the fragrance of a blushing rose. They have suffused my imagination entirely. But what I can say is this: they have persuaded me to believe that love is not one among many divine attributes, but the single most defining feature of God, which will not quit. They have said this in a way my soul can taste and my bones can rejoice in.
Shortly after my discovery of Love Poems on retreat, I was leading a basic life skills workshop for my clients in recovery. At the end of the workshop, I read one of Thomas Aquinas’s poems aloud to the group. One man, who I knew mostly for his angry outbursts, approached me after the reading with uncharacteristic serenity. He told me he liked the poem, asked for a copy, and then with striking solemnity added, “Thank you for bringing poetry into our lives. It helps more than you know.” This encounter got me thinking about poetry’s capacity to work differently upon us than prose. By eliminating the clutter that often accompanies prose, poems allow for pregnant pauses, choice words, and prolonged resonances. They deliberately train the eye to adopt a more contemplative gaze. For those who are wearied— by addiction or everyday anxieties—these soft words can double as a “cushion for your head.”
In addition to becoming my regular vehicle of prayer, Love Poems from God awakened me to poetry’s spiritual potency, that is, its capacity to evoke the sacred from the mundane details of our lives. It is a spiritual exercise for me not only to read and contemplate poetry, but to allow myself to be so aroused by these lyrical hints of God that I write “love poems” from my own experiences with the Tender One. In this way, creative writing has continuously partnered my theological studies and ministry formation. The more that I share the exercise of both reading and writing with others, the more I recognize their joint ability to minister with surgeon-like delicacy to many kinds of people, and their great instrumentality within my own practice of ministry.
MAGGI VAN DORN is a 2008 alum of Santa Clara University, where she studied Religion and English. She served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Francisco at the Friendship House Association of American Indians Inc., and graduated from Harvard Divinity School
with a Masters of Divinity this spring. She is currently working with the Arrupe International Immersion program at Boston College, and in her free time she is editing The Oracle Body Project, a collection of personal essays that explore the connection between the body and spirituality.
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