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:
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.”
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.
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!
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:
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:
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 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:
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.
 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