Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Women in Praise of the Sacred

Jane Hirshfield is a poet with six collections including After, Given Sugar, Given Salt, has received honors for her work including The Poetry Center Book Award and numerous fellowships. Hirshfield’s collection of women’s in Women in Praise of the Sacred, 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women is superb. Published by HaperCollins books in 1994, this collection contains poems from a wide range of women from all over the world throughout the centuries. I was hoping I would have time to request permission to post some poems in their entirety but I was eager to share the book with you and will try to do brief excerpts instead. For each woman there is a brief history of her life and some poems are explained in regards to religious symbols mentioned or which religions they pertain to. The majority of the poems are too short for me to attempt to share with you. It is an excellent read and I am certain I cannot do it justice through excerpts but I will do my best:

I will begin with Kassiane, born in 804, was a Byzantine woman whose work is included in Eastern Orthodox liturgy per Hirshfield’s description. Kassiane founded a convent and was an outspoken defender of her beliefs. Her hymn “Troparion” refers to the “Sinful Woman” from the Gospel of St. Luke:


This woman who encountered her shadow
Perceives the numinous in You,
leads the women who come with grief
and myrrh to Your grave.


You who are limitless mercy—who will trace the results
of a lifetime I’ve done wrong, evaluate
my weakness? I ask, remember me
if nothing else, as one who lived.

(tr. By Liana Sakelliou)

I have given you the first and last stanzas of the hymn, I hope I will be forgiven if I’ve revealed too much. To me, Kassiane speaks of the Lord knowing and understanding her as a woman, her grief, her weakness, and asks him to remember her as a woman who lived her life to the fullest and asks for mercy of her weaknesses.

Ly Ngoc Kieu lived from 1041-1113, she was a Zen Buddhist nun in Vietnam who took religious vows after becoming a widow from Hirshfield’s description, and is the earliest known woman writer from Vietnam:

Birth, old age,
Sickness, and death:
From the beginning,
This is the way
Things have always been.

But the one who knows
That there’s nothing to seek
Knows too that there’s nothing to say.
She keeps her mouth closed.

(tr. By Thich Nhat Hanh and Jane Hirshfield)

I have left out just over a half dozen lines of the poem but hope you are able to get a sense of it. I have included the very beginning and the very end. Ly Ngoc Kien describes those who seek answers and explains that the one who knows the answer says nothing because there is now way to explain with an answer. It’s a wonderful poem to contemplate, don’t you think?

I am going to leave this as two shared poems for now, the entire collection is 239 pages and well worth reading slowly and savoring.

If you would like a copy for yourself, you may be able to find one in your local library or you may purchase a copy from Amazon using the link below:


To learn more about Jane Hirshfield, please visit:


Thanks always for reading, please click in tomorrow for more Poems Found by Poet Hound…

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