The Poetry of Pope John Paul II

I wish to thank Mitchell Thomas, a member of the John Paul II advisory group, for providing us with this commentary on the poetry of Pope John Paul II.

A Meditation of Shores of Silence

1

The distant shores of silence begin
at the door.  You cannot fly there
like a bird.  You must stop, look deeper,
still deeper, until nothing deflects the soul

No greenery can now satisfy your sight:
the captive eyes will not come home.
And you thought life would hide you from
the other Life that overhangs the depths.

You must know-
there is no return from this flow,
this embrace within the mysterious
beauty of Eternity.

Only endure, endure do not interrupt
the flight of shadows-only endure
clear and simple-more and more.

Meanwhile you always step aside for Someone
from beyond,

who closes the door of your small room.
His coming softens with each step
and with this silence strikes
the target depths.

In a used bookstore I came across a copy of The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II. The poems contained between the covers are profound and fraught with spiritual insight.  I have been very moved by them and inspired to pray and to recollect on my own life. 

John Paul II was a man on whom God had bestowed many gifts.  Certainly, he was a great philosopher, a man of unshakable conviction and courage, a personality both magnetic in charisma, and deeply introspective.  In his philosophical, theological and pastoral writings one sees the fruit of this introspection, this inner conversation with the God.  Yet, this introspection is seen all the more deeply from Wojtyla the poet. In fact the late Holy Father once remarked, “They try to understand me from the outside.  But I can only be understood from the inside.”  The poetry of JPII gives us that glimpse into the man inside.  Even more, and I believe he would agree, through poetry we too, can come to understand ourselves from the inside as well.  Indeed we are all mysteries waiting to be revealed to ourselves (cf. 1 Jn 3:2). The Church, and yes the world, was given a great gift in the Philosopher Pope but I believe the Poet Pope has much to teach us.  I know that that he has taught me and I would like to share with you some of what I have learned from reflecting on his poem the “Shores of Silence.”

To come to a full appreciation of the poem, a brief word needs to be said on the happenings of his life during the time of composition.   The poem is dated at 1944.  At this time the young Wojtyla was all too well acquainted with suffering.  By his twenty-forth year, he had experienced the loss of all his immediate family, the Nazi invasion of his beloved Poland; and the murder (what else can you call it) by this same regime of some dear friends.  Here is a young man that had experienced more loss and uncertainty than most of us will face in a lifetime.  And consider the age!  Think back to your own life and remember the comparatively normal things like graduating from high school, moving away from home, looking for work, was enough to fill one with real anxiety.  Picture yourself at the same age confronted with what our Holy Father faced.  What deep anxiety and fear must have confronted him!  As I am writing this, I have suddenly realized why he had such a deep compassion for the young, a compassion, which he showed his whole life.  It was not a matter of pastoral obligation but of deep experiential understanding of that time of life- a never forgotten solidarity.  This understanding is a model which we as teachers and parents should never forget. 

1

The distant shores of silence begin
at the door.  You cannot fly there
like a bird.  You must stop, look deeper,
still deeper, until nothing deflects the soul
from the deepmost deep.

Young Wojtyla must have longed for this silence, this safety, as we also do long, in our quieter moments.  But these shores are not some distant place to which we can “fly like a bird”.  Wojtyla had learned that the shores are much nearer than we may expect (cf. Rom. 10:8b). . .or even fear.  This refuge is not found through that ceaseless activity the world recommends (what Pascal called diversion).  Nor is it found in retreat from the world.  These shores are not a place to merely hide from but a place to reside in, presenting the weary traveler not simply with an opportunity for quiet but an opportunity for communion.

In light of this, these shores are, paradoxically, found, “at the door”.  This “door” is the door of the heart, the heart even of one in the midst Hell on Earth.  What one must do is to “stop, look deeper, still deeper, until nothing deflects the soul from the deepmost deep.”   That phrase, “deepmost deep” reminded me of Psalm 42:7 where the psalmist tells us that in the midst of his longing for God as the “doe longs for running streams” (Ps. 42:1), “deep is calling to deep”.  This young man’s great suffering inspired him to ardently seek the Great Depth, who seeks dialogue with man in the depths of his heart (cf. CCC 2563).  Indeed, St. Faustina was told by Christ, that though she was an abyss of misery, He was an Abyss of Mercy and thus desired communion with her.

No greenery can now satisfy your sight:
the captive eyes will not come home.

            This passage shows that once Wojtyla encountered the “deepmost deep” all things were reoriented.  His sight has become transfixed, taken “captive” by a Reality from which a return to former ways will no longer prove satisfying. It is known that Wojtyla showed signs of the being a gifted actor and was drawn to drama and poetry. Such endeavors, when offered to God, are surely good things.  But the suffering that he endured was preparing him for something else, for something more, for the deep. Indeed the “greenery” of our lives, all that is good, safe, stable and pleasant is only a reflections of that Life from which they draw being.  We are called to more.  Yet, how often do we hide.  The young poet may have even been tempted to do just that; but there is something of a playful realization in his reflection,

“And you thought life would hide you from the other Life that overhangs the depths.”

The life in which we seek to hide is passing away.  The Life that is found in the depths of the deepmost deep is everlasting.  Wojtyla sees that the only proper response to this Life is to launch further into the depths, for where else may one go find this Life? (cf. Lk 5:4 and Jn 6:67-69)  Wojtyla knows there is no return, so he says to himself,

“You must know — there is no return from this flow…,”

And yet, we would surely miss the mark interpreting this as a sad recognition or a capitulation to something beyond his control.  Such a response would be beneath the dignity of a true lover, which, as far as human creatures are concerned, is best called a saint.  No, this young man, who had experienced the loss of so much, has found in a most profound way, the Ground of Existence.  No return is possible from this “flow” because this is where one experiences an

“ …embrace within the mysterious beauty of Eternity.”

This is the True Beauty, not the simulacrum that is offered by the world.  This is the Beauty of the interior Life of the God Head.  Oh, what one would not give to have this embrace perpetually here and now!  The Gospel speaks of those seeing this Eternal Beauty revealed and wishing to remain undisturbed before it (cf. Mk 9:5a).  And, yet the young poet recognizes that our life is that of Homo Viator, a being on the way; this embrace within the “mysterious beauty of Eternity” is a both a here and not yet.  So we are encouraged in our “not yet” of life to

“Only endure, endure the flight of shadows — only endure clear and simple — more and more.” 

Though it is surely passing away, do not try to artificially “interrupt” the realities of this passing life for it is the place of fundamental decision.  This present life, amid the seemingly senseless, useless, and absurd sufferings is the site where we confirm our “Yes” or “No” to God.  Here, contrary to the wisdom of the world, failure is an option.  In this “not yet” endurance is what one needs to gain one’s life (cf. Lk 21:9).  Yet how is such endurance possible?  How does one endure the “clear and simple — more and more,” without family support and while studying clandestinely for a vocation that, from a certain vantage point, had absolutely no future in his subjugated country?  How could Wojtyla endure?  He endured because he had learned the indispensible core of human living in the midst of this present darkness: one must pray (cf. Eph. 6:10-13).

Meanwhile you always step aside for Someone
from beyond,
who closes the door of your small room.

            Here is a man who knows the power of going into the depths of the deepmost deep to dialogue with God (cf. Mt 6:6).  Here is a man who in openness of heart will step aside for that Somone, that Tremendous Lover, in order to be conformed to His image.  Such a thing is never easy.  Yet, it is possible for the one who asks for the grace that his heart may become a place of prayer.  If we still have trepidation, we are told:

His coming softens with each step
and with this silence strikes
he target depths. 

            Wojtyla is encouraging us to see that this opening of the heart to God, this conversation with God in the depths our heart, is something which is not forced or imposed on us.  Our Lord opens this site, calls us to the depth, incrementally, though at the time it may feel as if the ground is disappearing beneath our feet (such is our fear of Love at times).  With a gentle silence he begins to touch the part of us that we scarcely know exists apart from Him.  The “target of the depths” is our true self.  This Someone enters into that place slowly and gently to reveal it to us (cf. Gaudium et Spes no. 22).  Wojtyla, the poet, is of one heart with another poet who also wrote of this Beloved Someone:

“His conversation is sweetness itself, he is altogether lovable.  Such is my Beloved, such is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.”  Sg. 5: 15b-16.

1 Comment
  1. wow i didnt know he wrote

    ~ <3 Famous Poetry about life <3~

Join us!

* indicates required