Helping us in the chaos of our inner journey

By  Patria Rivera, Catholic Register Special
  • October 24, 2008
{mosimage}Song of the Sparrow: New Poems and Meditations by Murray Bodo, O.F.M. (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 136 pages, softcover $10.50).

I started reading Franciscan Friar Murray Bodo’s book, Song of the Sparrow: New Poems and Meditations, early this summer and ended reading the last pages as autumn came. As it turns out, the book begins in autumn and ends in summer.

These are serendipitous reversals that call attention to each individual section in this book of meditations and poems. Seasons signify personal states of mind and our sense of quest, as do the heightened awareness and insight that each changing time and period evoke on Bodo as he contemplates his life’s passages.
It’s been more than 30 years since the first, slimmer version of Bodo’s book was published in 1977, when he was a young teacher and spiritual director at the Franciscan high school seminary in Cincinnati. He spent nights working on his book. That same year, he was transferred to Duns Scotus College in Detroit to work as an English professor and director of young friars. When that school closed two years later, he was transferred back to Cincinnati’s inner city, where he has lived ever since. Journal entries from 1979 to 2007 make up the section “Summer” in this new, expanded edition of Song of the Sparrow.

{sa 0867168641}In the original edition, Bodo explained why he chose the motif of the sparrow:

“There is something Franciscan about their simplicity, their habit-coloured feathers and their availability when other birds hide away in the woods or fly south for winter. This book is sparrow-talk, becoming song from time to time.”

This modest aim pervades throughout. There’s no grand theme to provoke or to propose strategies for perfection.

Bodo begins with “Autumn” and with his meditation “A walk in the woods,” because “fall brings with it a clearing of the mind and heart, and we look up and out of ourselves for a Presence whose hand holds the life that will lie hidden till spring.” In the pages following, he guides the reader to the various ways he seeks signs of God’s presence in the men and women he meets as well as in his own inquiry during daily musings, meditations and prayers.

His journal entries become prayers as he tries to grapple with doubts and affirmations. He writes:

“I wonder sometimes why I keep a notebook. What compulsion makes me put pen to paper day after day? Is it because I hear in my heart some intangible voice that says someone may find you, O Lord, in an entry that I took time to write down? It is that way with all our acts, really. In you, they somehow have a deeper, more lasting significance than our mere doing them would seem to warrant. And your words about the cup of water offered to the very least of our brothers and sisters echo in my mind. Nothing is ever lost on you, Lord. You grace all our goings and all our smallest touches of love with your redemptive power. We sanctify everything we touch and, sadly, we seldom know we are redeeming and deifying creation by a mere smile.”

He explains the Franciscan charism as being tied up with loving those who are seemingly unlovable or who return love with hatred and contempt: “St. Francis, in reaching out to the leper, paved the way for his followers to walk. And like St. Francis, when we let God lead us among those who are seemingly repulsive, our love eventually makes them beautiful and they become a source of sweetness and joy to us. This is not because we are patronizing them or ‘doing good’ but because we are changed inside and begin to see people as they really are in God’s sight. Our vision is cleared of our own prejudices and dim perception. For only love opens our eyes to what is really there.”

As he ponders his journal, Bodo reaffirms that he is not writing a book. He is merely filling one page of a yellow legal-sized pad each day. “Neither do I achieve sanctity; I just try to do God’s will.”

And as the poet tosses and turns late at night, the inner sounds call out and the poem emerges:

I reach out to you, O Lord,

And all I touch is my own emptiness,

Air and silence and the memory

That this kind of prayer never works for me.

When I am most in need,

Prayer never seems to help.

It only strengthens my own helplessness.

In your own way, in your own time

You will answer. That I know, that

I remember. So once again I lean on

Patience. I wait…
And sometimes, he says, the reason we cannot pray is that we haven’t any space left in our lives. Or that our own weaknesses often make us spiritually blind.

“The tragedy of those who don’t have charity is that they project their own failures and ugliness onto others and think that the evil and imperfections inside is really outside them and resides in people and situations they can’t stand. And that is what it means to be spiritually blind. It’s hard to see anything but splinters when there’s a beam in your own eye.”

Writing for Bodo is remote preparation for prayer: “Each person finds his or her own avenue to God in that which prepares the heart to listen and speak to God.”

Bodo admits in all humility, “I write, not because I know, but because I don’t know. Similarly, I pray, not because I know how to pray, but because I don’t.”

Instead of offering 300 aphorisms to achieve moral perfection, Bodo’s book offers soul work to accompany us into the chaos of our interior journey.

(Rivera is editor of Catholic Missions In Canada magazine in Toronto.)

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