View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Haiku - God bless you

On Pentecost Sunday my thoughts naturally turn to …short, Japanese nature poems.

I mean, of course, haiku.

English teachers have inflicted haiku on generations of elementary students, teaching them the rigid form: three lines, seventeen syllables divided over those lines in a 5-7-5 arrangement. The poem has to be about nature linked to human nature in some way.

Of course, haiku is not that rigid. I have seen one-line and four-line haiku. I have seen haiku as short as six syllables. The seventeen figure is based on an approximation of the original Japanese form, but Japanese and English are very different languages with different structures.

The linking of nature and human nature in some way remains true, however.

A good haiku captures a keenly perceived moment – which brings us to Pentecost.

On this day we mark the descent of the Holy Spirit, that moment of inspiration that led the Apostles to begin proclaiming the Good News.

What can be a more keenly perceived moment than when the Spirit fills us and moves us? And what is haiku but an inspired proclamation? (Okay, I know all about redneck haiku, and the automobile haiku known as honku, and other humorous forms, but forget about them for now.)

A lot of Japanese haiku has a deeply spiritual element to it. And it would seem a natural form for Catholics to express their sense of wonder and awe at God’s creation. Imagine if St. Francis of Assisi had known about haiku!

So I am puzzled that I have encountered very little Catholic haiku – or even Christian haiku for that matter.

I don’t mean haiku just written by Catholics – there are plenty of those. There are even a number of Catholics who play with the form. For example, there are some amusing music related ones over at Aristotle A. Esguerra’s Confessions of a Recovering Choir Director - And Envoy Encore has an interesting mix of humorous and spiritual -

But what I mean are haiku infused with some sense of the spiritual from a Catholic/Christian perspective. It could be that haiku is relatively new to the West – known only for the last century or so, and the writing of haiku only blossomed in the 1950s/60s. Catholic poets have also had a long tradition of working with western verse forms that have served them well,

Still, for a faith that has readily, um, borrowed, other culture’s traditions (Christmas, for example), haiku would seem a natural.

Oddly enough, one of the most moving “Catholic” haiku I have ever read was written by a Japanese Buddhist, Seishi Yamaguchi.

The Lord’s hands and feet,
with nails hammered through them –
dewdrops on blossoms.

He also wrote:

Mass on the river –
crystals of the rosary
scatter in the water

I have occasionally stumbled across Catholic haiku – though sometimes of mixed quality.

I did find some nice ones through – Culture and arts – -
which had a review and a selection of haiku from Small world: Haiku on the way by Dermot O'Brien. I haven’t read his book, but here’s two of them.

The pearl among stars
his new found knowledge of God
on a cold hill-top

Beneath the bright stars
a boy on a hill sensing
the nearness of God

Catholic Doors Ministry -
has 16 haiku prayers. Here’s #1

We praise you, O God,
for forming Mary to be
mother of your Son.

A few other Catholic/Christian spiritual haiku I’ve encountered include:

First communion:
light shining from the chalice
into the boy’s face - Rich Youmans

ash wednesday
a streetcleaner sweeps confetti
into the fire - Frank K. Robinson

Ash Wednesday –
on the playground children
compare smudges - Ursula Sandlee

Easter sunrise
lighting the candles
in the longleaf pine - Kenneth C. Leibman

Christmas Eve…
in the snowbank
a full-grown angle print - Elizabeth St. Jacques

Christmas Eve;
hanging her ornaments
without her - Ce Rosenow

Christmas Eve –
Lonely granny at the station:
Shelter till midnight mass. – Pachnik Zoltan

And then there’s a few of my own modest contributions:

April morning –
cardinals in conclave
at the bird feeder

April morning walk
reciting the rosary -
good exercise

abbey chapel –
monks celebrate Mass
as crickets chant

A single candle
burns in the quiet chapel
outside … cicadas

in the window seat
the divinity student rests –
sunlight haloes her

outside the abbey
the bird in the sycamore
falls silent - (in memory of Thomas Merton)

Pentecost Sunday –
the cantor turns red when she
sings the wrong note

There must be more out there. Maybe even some of my good readers have a few Catholic-oriented spiritual haiku tucked away in a notebooks. I’d be happy if you would share them, or direct me to more haiku.

Save the funny ones, though. That’s a future entry.


Anonymous Matt Stone said...


Just thought I'd let you know I linked to you at

I have an interest in Christian haiku myself

9:57 PM  

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