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Poetry and Spirituality in the Workplace: A Reflection on Practice

Life turned upside down

Six or so years ago, when I was practicing as a Spiritual Care Worker in the community sector, I was supporting a woman in her mid-60’s. Just at the time of her and her husbands’ retirement, due to a traumatic family event, she found herself in custody of her teenage niece and nephew. Her whole life was turned upside down – all plans of a quiet retirement had gone out the window. We had met for several support sessions, but her anger and tears and debilitating sense of loss were always present. I listened and reflected but it seemed as though even a tiny step toward acceptance was impossible. At the end of our fifth session, we were nearing the end of our catch up when I offered to recite a favourite and classic Michael Leunig poem that had been helpful to me in tough times:

Anyone can get a life
Anyone can lose it
But who will dare to inhabit the thing … and use it?
A lived-in life will soon get loose and worn from use and feeling;
Countless tiny scratches;
The shine goes off.
It’s very unappealing!
Dirt builds up
A load of muck and grit
A part of you gets lost-
A hope, a philosophy
Or a love that doesn’t fit.
Another broken sleep
A dream collapses
A quick repair.
It’s worth a try
A scrap of string from the soul
Perhaps a battered grin
Will fill the hole-
Or just a sigh
Flakes and cracks!
A major idea buckles badly.
A makeshift support is invoked quickly.
A tired joke could hide the dint.
Or be a wedge, or a patch or a splint.
Truly, sweetly, sadly.
And yet it works and lives!
It all still goes. It forgives. It’s a miracle!
Worn in, bashed in, cried in,
And the great thing –
A lived in life…
Can be happily died in.

Poems – Michael Leunig

The tears were again flowing but I think they were tears of acceptance as she pulled from her bag a copy of a Leunig’s book, A Common Prayer which she had been given by someone some years earlier. She opened the front cover and found a loose inserted copy of the poem I had just recited. In her mind this was a sign, but the poem enabled a moment of acceptance and our conversations changed from then on and were able to focus more on the internal and external resources she could access to face the challenges this turn in her journey of life and love had led her to.

Poetry as a way to belonging

At the time, this was one of the few poems I knew by heart – but it led me to thinking how I might use poetry to help support the social workers back at the Community Services office where I was based. It reminded me of my role as a spiritual care worker being present to staff working in that liminal space between trauma and professional care, of the need to recognise the essential pathos that being human and being a social worker invokes. Poet and author, David Whyte, a well-known writer on the intersection of spirituality and work, suggests that “…individuals need a sense of belonging in their work, a conversation with something larger than themselves, a felt participation, and a touch of spiritual fulfilment and the mysterious generative nature of that fulfilment.”[1]

A few weeks later, on one dreary Melbourne day near mid-winter, I arrived late morning at the office with a huge pot of home-made lentil and tomato soup and some home-made Turkish bread, placed it in the staff kitchen then sent an all-staff email with the following Leunig poem.

Into weariness and woe
I am bound to simply go,
Understanding less and less
Of this existential mess.
Not to stagger or to stoop
But to bear this bowl of soup
with careful steadiness and cheer;
This soup I made, this bowl so dear,
This time on earth, these bits I found,
The trembling heart, the shaky ground,
The fading light, the wistful moon
My winding path, my wooden spoon.

Poems – Michael Leunig

For the rest of that day and that week, I had many conversations with staff (sometimes in tears) moved deeply by the gesture and the poem. In all the conversations, there was hardly a mention of the ‘G word’ (God) or the ‘S word’(Spiritual) – but of course, almost without exception, these were spiritual conversations!

Embracing vulnerability

In the context of an inclusive multifaith staff team, sometimes the best way to invite growth in their understanding of what spiritual care is, is simply to allow them to reconnect their work with their life, to give permission to bring their whole selves into the workplace, to invite them gently but deliberately to embrace and inhabit their vulnerability.

Jumping forward in time about four years from that experience, I find myself in the role of ‘Head of Spiritual Care’ for the organisation, based in an office hub with multiple corporate services teams. The main focus of my role was the management and support of a large team of Spiritual Care Workers (Chaplains) dispersed across our Aged Care and Family Services operations, but one morning, I was asked at short notice to give a reflection at the start of a mandatory session on Mission Integration for our IT Crowd! This was a challenge too good to pass up! 

Again, poetry came to the rescue – but by this time I now had about 15 poems in my repertoire.

I talked about the awesome nature of reality for a few minutes and how that it was likely that the people in this team would understand that at the heart of all computer operations is a basic stream of ‘1s’ and’0s’. Such a simple yet profound truth. Similarly, that all known matter; from our own bodies to the chairs we were sitting on, consists of three fundamental particles– an up quark, a down quark and an electron. The only difference between us and the chairs was organisation!

I suggested that awareness of this incredible reality that we are made of the same stuff as everything else can lead to a different way of being in the world – indeed of being in conversation with the world.

I finished by reciting David Whyte’s famous Everything is Waiting for You:

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

David Whyte*

With permission from Many Rivers Press, www.davidwhyte.com. David Whyte, Everything is Waiting for You, River Flow, © 2018 Many Rivers Press, Langley, WA USA.

Broadening the notion of spirituality

I don’t always get it right and in this case the reaction was mostly puzzled looks! But there were a few in the room who responded to me later asking questions about the poet and thanking me for taking them to a different place. The experience also began to spread my reputation (notoriety?) at head office and I found myself asked more to write and recite in other corporate services teams.

As noted above, educating people about spirituality is often achieved by helping them connect with their essential humanity, with the commonality of our basic need to belong and to become aware of the deeper conversation we all need between our hearts and our heads. Poetry used carefully is a powerful way to do this.

Sydney poet and teacher Mark Treddinick spoke of this potentiality of poetry in a seminar a few years ago in Melbourne. Here are a few gems I wrote down from that talk:

Poetry gives an account of what is overlooked; and what is overlooked is how life feels,
the texture of how it really is, the music of the intelligence of things.
It speaks especially for the imperfect, the broken.
Poetry is language adequate to hold—to catch
and to keep—the truth of an enormous moment.
A poem, even the possibility of a poem,
is an assurance that nothing need be lost.
And that everything painful is accompanied.
The poem does not answer—it embodies—the question.
And turns uncertainty into mystery;
it makes of it a place and lets you live there.

Mark Treddinick**

Notice the paradox in the way poetry works in these descriptions. On the one hand, good poetry can name the truth of our humanity in a way that is both real and yet gentle, that speaks the unspeakable in words that “catch and keep the truth of an enormous moment”. On the other hand, poetry can walk around the truth, embody the existential questions in a way that allows us to feel the truth of the words yet still feel the openness and mystery of human life.

In the former mode, sometimes naming the truth of our common humanity in the workplace can break down the barriers between us and can underline simply and profoundly the fact that in many ways spirituality is simply the holding of our whole selves in kindness and truth. I’ve often used the following poem by well-known Irish Poet and Theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama in work team contexts:

The Facts of Life

The result is often a softening of the mood in the room; it serves as a reminder that we are all terribly and wonderfully human – the same and yet different, held in the common need to be loved and to love – and here at work together for some common purpose hopefully a little more than just to earn a living.

To help hold loss and grief

At times of loss and grief in the workplace, a carefully selected poem can also help name and release the emotional tightness and hesitation that often accompanies such times in a staff team. I’ve used the poem above in this way, but simpler and shorter poems such as this one by Leunig have also worked well:

God help us if our world should grow dark
And there is no way of seeing or knowing
Grant us courage and trust
To touch and be touched
To find the way onward
By feeling.

Poems – Michael Leunig

Awakening spirituality without actually naming it, is one of the delightful functions of professional spiritual care. But the connectedness, sense of belonging and purpose, and focus on a meaningful life that describes an inclusive and relational model of spirituality is something that all of us can relate to.

In a faith-based organisation such as the one I (previously) worked with, invoking and encouraging reflective spaces, using poetry and images to connect people to themselves and each other in this way both honours and integrates the foundational religious story at the heart of our work. It does this, however, in an inclusive way that invites people both in and outside of the religious world to a deeper spiritual journey and sensitivity and that can only result in a better workplace for all.

[1] David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, Penguin, New York: 2001, p5.

**Mark Tredinnick. From the slides presented at a Talking Sticks Seminar entitled: The ‘Exquisite Spell’ – An Invitation To Radical Presence in St. Kilda on 7 October 2019.

We have reproduced the Michael Leunig poems under the Non-Commercial Copyright permissions, as outlined on: http://www.leunig.com.au/contact/frequently-answered-questions

This article was written by Geoff Wraight, former Head of Spiritual Care, Mission and Corporate Development, Baptcare VIC/TAS