Home ANS Feature Kilian McDonnell: Prime-Time Poet

Kilian McDonnell: Prime-Time Poet

by Brian Nixon

By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service

ALBUQUERUQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – November 4, 2016) — I sort of pride myself on being in the “know” when it comes to clergy and the arts. I’ve been fascinated with the fact that many ministers throughout the ages have artistic interests — be it poetry, painting, writing, music, drama and the like. Maybe my interest arises because I’m one of them, a practitioner.

Fr.KilianMcDonnell 30Yet when I listened to the October 29th, 2016 edition of The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor and heard the poem, The Monks of St. John’s File in For Prayer, I was surprised to learn that there’s a fine poet that flew under my radar [1].

Kilian McDonnell is a monk at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota [1]. Born in 1921 in Great Falls, Montana, McDonnell was known primarily as a theologian until he turned his pen towards poetry at age 75. He’s now 95. This detail alone is amazing. But the fact that McDonnell didn’t start writing until most people think of retirement and death is not only admirable, but astonishing — in that he’s writing fine verse, full of life, wisdom, with a wonderful command of phrases and word pictures.

Take for instance the poem read on The Writer’s Almanac, The Monks of St. John’s File in For Prayer:

In we shuffle, hooded amplitudes,
scapulared brooms, a stray earring, skin-heads
and flowing locks, blind in one eye,
hooked-nosed, handsome as a prince
(and knows it), a five-thumbed organist,
an acolyte who sings in quarter tones,
one slightly swollen keeper of the bees,
the carpenter minus a finger here and there,
our pre-senile writing deathless verse,
a stranded sailor, a Cassian scholar,
the artist suffering the visually
illiterate and indignities unnamed,
two determined liturgists. In a word,
eager purity and weary virtue.
Last of all, the Lord Abbot, early old
(shepherding the saints is like herding cats).
These chariots and steeds of Israel
make a black progress into church.
A rumble of monks bows low and offers praise
to the High God of Gods who is faithful forever. [2]

ShoesIt’s a poem filled with insight — into a monastery, but also into the life and love of the people that make up the ministry, imperfect as they are (notice the words, “weary virtue.”). Yet The Monks of St. John’s File in For Prayer is not just a poem about monks and ministry, but about all Christians seeking “the High God…who is faithful forever.” All Christians are on a journey with Christ — some “determined,” some “senile,” “illiterate” and eager for “purity.” The Body of Christ is a rag-tag motley crew of characters on chase in “chariots” towards the finish line. It’s a marvelous poem.

To date, Kilian McDonnell has completed five volumes of poetry: Swift, Lord, You Are Not (2003), Yahweh s Other Shoe (2006), God Drops and Loses Things (2009), Wrestling with God (2011), and Aggressive Mercy (20014).

Kilian likes to point out that his poems are not “pious verse or inspirational verse” in that they portray squeaky-clean people. Rather, his poems bring out the grit and gruel of humanity. In an interview with Taylor Reaves he said, “I do not write pious verse or inspirational, sentimental poetry. I write about biblical people — Adam, Eve, Moses, Deborah, Bathsheba, Judas, Peter, John the Baptist — who have significant struggles with God and their neighbor just as you and I” [6]. This “significant struggle” attitude can be seen in this poem, Perfection, Perfection, (as read on the February 27th, 2011 edition of The Writer’s Almanac) [3]:

(“I will walk the way of perfection.” Psalm 101:2)

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.
Gone.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you
in.

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green
joy.

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its
birth.

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can’t be won, concedes the
war.

I’ve handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I
quit.

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo’s radiant David
squints,

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is
cracked.

SwiftLordThe “Liberty Bell” of humanity may be “cracked” (yes, we’ve all sinned), but McDonnell writes about our certainty not in a critical way, but in a compassionate way; McDonnell knows humanity’s condition, its curse, but also its cure — Christ. And even if “only eternal life is worthy of the name” as McDonnell writes, I encourage people to pick up his books and read how we “wrestle with God, ‘flesh to flesh,’ sweat to mystery, and limp away.” And as we limp away maybe, just maybe, the name McDonnell will help point to the Way.

1) http://collegevilleinstitute.org/residencies/kilian-mcdonnell-writer-in-residence/kilian-mcdonnell/ 

2) http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20161029/ 

3) “The Monks of St. John’s File in for Prayer” by Kilian McDonnell from Swift, Lord, You Are Not. © St. John’s University Press, 2003.

4) http://writersalmanac.publicradio.org/index.php?date=2011/02/27 

5) “Perfection, Perfection” by Kilian McDonnell, from Swift, Lord, You Are Not. © Saint John’s University Press

6) http://www.saintjohnsabbey.org/old-news-and-events/after-45-years-saint-johns-abbey-father-kilian-mcdonnell-osb-still/ 

Photo captions: 1) McDonnell in his study. 2) Yahweh’s Other Shoe. 3) Swift, Lord, You Are Not. 4) Brian Nixon.

BrianNixonAbout the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA) and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). As a published author, editor, radio host, recording artist, and visual artist, Brian spends his free time with his three children and wife, painting, writing music, reading, and visiting art museums. To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon.

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