When the Poem Comes to Life

wooden chair in forest - photo by Abdul Azeez Garbadeen on Unsplash

In the woods of central Maryland there sits an unassuming chair. It’s big, thick, and old. It’s set in its place, with wooden legs sinking into mud and grass and stone, overlooking a trickling spring. There’s no telling how many living creatures have settled in its wooden frame over the course of time: squirrels cracking nuts, birds scouting nesting sites, humans pausing for moments of reflection.

I fell under the last category not so long ago while on retreat—a day of silence and solitude—in those same woods. I had been slowly, carefully, meditatively picking my way along the trails, having set out into the harsh winter, leaving behind the smoldering fire that so kindly warmed the rooms in the old retreat center cabin.

The landscape was brown, still, and dead. Tall trees towered high and barren; colorless leaves crunched under foot. And then this chair was just sitting there, peacefully.

I approached with reverence, struck by this simple piece of furniture stranded in the woods. Someone had placed it there, someone who knew nothing of me or my thoughts but who cared for the many someones like me who passed this way all the same.

I stood alongside that chair, studying it. A poem came to mind, a few stanzas tripping over one another, jumbled but meaningful all the same. The poem was “Sometimes,” and the poet, David Whyte, writes about moving carefully through a forest and passing over dry leaves in silence and stillness and eventually coming “to a place whose only task is to trouble you.”

Whose only task is to trouble you.

I felt like I’d stepped into the poem, like I had crossed some hidden threshold between my own life and that of the poet’s and that I was seeing behind the curtain at the raw material he’d used to craft his poem.

I walked in silence; the leaves were dry. I stood alone in a forest that was strange to me. And I knew what came next in that poem; I recite it all the time. Because the place, Whyte claims, troubles with “questions that have patiently waited for you, questions that have no right to go away.”

I think about this moment not so much because I had some great spiritual breakthrough or profound encounter with God while sitting in that chair—though certainly I sat for a long while and prayed and God whispered in my being. Rather, I think about the air of holy context with which I arrived at that moment and how the words—jumbled though they were—quite suddenly and decisively arrived in my mind, spilling out and over and into the real and tangible world around me.

I’m left wondering how a simple chair in a quite unremarkable corner of the Maryland wilderness suddenly assumed an aura of sacred profundity. Because of a simple poem I’ve read on numerous occasions, my walk in the woods became transcendent; I was more ready to encounter God. The simple act of being there was enough.

What power words have! The ability to transform an ordinary moment into a sacred encounter—isn’t that what the Ignatian tradition has insisted all along? Through poems, prayer texts, mantras, and prose, the Spirit moves and works here, in this place, preparing us to encounter more deeply that same Spirit at work in other places—places we may have yet to find but which we will know intimately when we do, places in which we will then be all the more ready to sink into the living God.

Happy National Poetry Month.

Photo by Abdul Azeez Garbadeen on Unsplash.


  1. I resonate with this piece. I too encounter God in the woods. I have a prayer path in our woods here in Northern Michigan. It seems to unfold my thoughts in ways I have no plan for nor do I resist. Thank you for sharing this piece of your experience.

  2. Your writing has been a wonderful way in for me to Ignatian Spirituality. The poem showing up alive as you were standing there in the stillness, what a gift! Thank you

  3. Thank you in abundance for sharing your experience and thoughts. Sometimes it is difficult to give ourselves up to breathe and consciously meditate in the moment. I find your writing helpful in providing me guidance in how to just be silent, listen intently, and hear fully and intensely in talking to God. Blessings!


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