Poetry Opens a Window to Prayer, Healing: Nun Helps Others Discover Spirituality in Verse. (Spirituality)

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, December 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Poetry Opens a Window to Prayer, Healing: Nun Helps Others Discover Spirituality in Verse. (Spirituality)


Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter


For Arleen Hynes the essence of the spiritual life lies in making holy the here and now, in her own daily life and that of others.

The 85-year-old Benedictine sister has spent 27 years using poetry as a tool to help others discover and enhance their spiritual life. Although retired, she still works with Benedictine sisters during their annual retreats -- at St. Benedict's Monastery here -- and occasionally with laypersons who make directed retreats at the monastery.

Hynes' work emerged during her first full-time job, that of librarian at St. Elizabeth Hospital, a government-run mental health facility in Washington, D.C. Before that, she had been the wife of Emerson Hynes, with whom she had 10 children. Emerson, a professor of ethics for two decades at St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., moved his family to Washington in the late 1960s after his friend and St. John's classmate, Eugene McCarthy, named him press spokesman and later legislative adviser for McCarthy's presidential campaign.

But Emerson suffered a stroke at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention and died in 1970 -- six months after the couple's son, Michael, 18, drowned in an accident in the Potomac.

With three children still in school, Hynes could have permitted herself to collapse into widowhood. She could have become absorbed in her children's lives or could have chosen to live out her days on Social Security. But she did not. "God blessed me with the gift of faith. He did not allow me to be paralyzed by the loss of Emerson," she told NCR in an interview at the monastery here. While making the transition from homemaker to librarian, Hynes began to read to patients who had never been read to before.

"I didn't do any of that English teacher stuff." She did not analyze a poem's structure, language imagery or rhythm. Rather she asked the patients what the work meant to them, making no effort to critique their response.

"I would pose questions that allowed them to strip the poem down to its very core -- questions that would help them to integrate the poem into their vision of themselves." Often very ill patients would reject the poem. No matter.

Once a man who had not spoken for years began relating to a poem, expressing a point of view. Another, who did not know his name and who had spent years staring at the ceiling, started to make relevant comments. Hynes began to witness the power of words to mend and watched as some of the sickest patients in the back wards got transferred onto "looser" wards.

She saw the beauty of words lift hearts and uncloud minds.

With the support of Dr. Kenneth Gorelick, head of psychiatric training at St. Elizabeth, Hynes pioneered the first comprehensive training course in biblio/poetry therapy in 1974. The course recognizes that literature can be a healing tool and that a person can read or listen to a work of literature for its therapeutic value alone.

Hynes and Gorelick kept their focus on standards and criteria for the practice of biblio/poetry therapy. Hynes became a registered poetry therapist, completing a program that required 1,000 hours of work, study, analysis and supervision. She also trained the first bibliotherapist in the federal system, a job title that had not existed before. Later she and her daughter Mary Hynes-Berry, a teacher and storyteller, wrote the first handbook: Biblio/Poetry Therapy: The Interactive Process.

After a decade at St. Elizabeth, Hynes entered the monastery. A grandmother and near retirement age, she wanted nothing more than to pray the divine office three times a day, attend Mass and participate in the core Benedictine tradition of lectio divina or spiritual reading. When she was a child in Sheldon, Iowa, in the 1920s and `30s, Hynes' mother had taught her to spend an hour a day in religious reading: Over the years, the girl had grown to love the practice.

Hynes discovered the value of using poetry in prayer sessions out of her experience with mental patients -- many of them alcoholics, street people, battered women and excons. …

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