Meeting the Poet
by Lynn D. Morrissey
Note: This story unfolded at Central Presbyterian Church, in St. Louis, where I am a member.
Louis. Daniel. Brodsky. After the names caromed around in my mind, I shaped each one with my mouth, thoughtfully, haltingly, as if trying to retrieve from memory the lyrics of some long-ago song, lyrics I had once known well, but had since forgotten.
“His name is Louis Daniel Brodsky,” repeated an usher at my church named Bob. “He’s an award-winning Jewish poet and William Faulkner expert. He lives across the street from church and has been attending here regularly.”
Suddenly, my vague impressions coalesced, and I visualized the nimbus haze of silver curls I’d spied every Sunday morning across the sanctuary aisle, or just before me in a front-row pew, and I knew …
I knew it was he.
Many years earlier, as a young starving newlywed without cash enough to fund a personal library, I’d sit cross-legged on a bookstore floor, mesmerized, poring over poetry. I was particularly enthralled with the lilting lyricism spun from Brodsky’s pen. I also recall being fascinated by his book-jacket photo—haloed hair, wreath-like around his head, broad shoulders flanked by suspenders, elegant hands cupped over keys of an old Smith Corona, as if bestowing benedictions of grace over his words.
Now, the poet was attending our church. And I would learn over time that it was God who was cupping grace over him.
Not long after my conversation with Bob, one Sunday morning after worship service, I dared introductions and extended my hand to Mr. Brodsky. He received it gladly, presenting himself simply as L.D. At this juncture my husband Michael audaciously piped up, proclaiming that his wife was an author too. I almost slid under the nearest pew. But amazingly L.D. humbly received this newsflash with apparent appreciation, inviting both Mike and me to luncheon for conversation and a book exchange.
And exchange we did—signed books and stimulating banter, writing ideas and relational encouragement. But most important, as we got to know each other better in the coming months, we shared our thoughts about God.
It was obvious that L.D. knew Scripture. Old-Testament references liberally laced his poetry with the flourish of beauty and the foundation of truth. He knew the God of the Torah.
He and I had much to share, because we, Jew and Gentile, were cut from the same creational cloth, both fashioned intricately by the hand of Elohim, our Creator-God. But for reasons undeserved, God the Father had revealed God the Son to me. And, unknown to me at the time, He was soon to extend such lavish mercy to a lost lamb from His originally chosen flock.
L.D. continued to attend worship services, where he was welcomed warmly. More and more, I could tell he felt at home among our caring congregation. Our former pastor Dan also personally befriended him. They were to become dear cohorts who sometimes met for lunch, feasting on camaraderie and theology. Dan was a compassionate shepherd, leading L.D. step by step to behold the glory of our Savior. L.D. loved Dan’s sermons, eagerly receiving new insights each week about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Though each revelation was a surprise to him, sometimes he would ask me, “But you already understand all of this, don’t you?” To some degree that may have been true, but through L.D.’s excitement, I was seeing old truth with new eyes.
“But you already understand all of this, don’t you?”
And God was beginning to lift of the veil from L.D.’s eyes as well. His poetry began to reflect fresh fervor and spiritual understanding. I could see traces of Jesus shining faintly in his verses. I began to see the love of Christ shining softly in his eyes.
L.D. was especially looking forward to celebrating the birth of the Savior at Christmas 2012. He was also planning a trip to California to visit a beloved friend named Linda over the Holidays.
When he returned to church in early January, he was elated to tell me he had become engaged. “One day,” he explained, “I went to the beach and began to write a poem about Linda. In reading it aloud, I realized it was a marriage proposal! She and I are to be married in June.” He was a giddy schoolboy. After he shared this delightful announcement, he said he planned to meet Michael and me for luncheon soon to tell us more about it.
And that was the last time that I saw L.D. well. Several weeks later, Dan emailed to say that L.D. had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive, devastating form of brain cancer. Specialists didn’t give him more than a year to live.
I wept. I prayed. I longed to call or visit.
But even though L.D. and I were becoming dear friends, and even though in many ways his life was an open book in his prolific and highly autobiographical poetry, in other ways, he was a private person. I respected that and felt that I had to await God’s timing to reach out to him after his brain surgery, other than sending greeting cards, which I did regularly.
Months passed, and L.D. never came back to church. I was unsure of his condition since his surgery. Then God’s Spirit prompted me to contact him. Because Dan had resigned as senior pastor at church to return to his work at a seminary, I wanted to be sure that L.D. knew. And on Dan’s second-to-last Sunday in the pulpit, coincidentally, I was soloing at church. I emailed L.D., inviting him to come, having no idea if he would.
That Sunday, after I had sung the final words of the prelude piece, the poignant spiritual, “Give Me Jesus,” and returned to my front-row pew, pivoting to sit, a man rose, frail and gaunt, teetering his way across the sanctuary aisle from the front pew on the opposite side. His boney arms outstretched in front of him like longing, and I realized it was L.D.! The froth of sudsing gray curls had been shorn short, straight hair now laying flat against his head. I barely recognized him.
But as we embraced, children of God, Jew and Gentile, the sun stopped—right there in the center aisle, right there in front of the congregation, right there as the mighty organ soared and swelled, beckoning the faithful to worship, right there as tears coursed my cheeks. I, who shy away from impropriety in worship, didn’t care who saw. Our hug was only a matter of seconds, but I was like David, dancing with all my might in my heart before the Lord, straight from the depths of my being. My soul waltzed, because I saw my beloved friend, with all the strength he could muster, attempting barely even a shuffle before the Lord. L.D. loved God so much—with all his heart, soul, and yes, every last ounce of fading strength—that he defied cancer to worship, to worship right in the midst and pit of it.
L.D. would continue to attend church from September 2013 to April 2014, whenever his condition permitted. He had always loved sitting in a front-row pew to be nearer to God, he thought, and to listen attentively, sans distraction, to the pastor’s sermons. But week after week, he began to retreat further to the rear of the sanctuary, to avoid crowds. Now, a care-giver was always at his side, and sometimes he wore a medical mask and wool scarf around his neck for protection. But he warmly welcomed Mike and me to sit with him. He said he liked to hear me sing, because it helped him to learn the hymns he had never sung before. They were all new to him.
There were so many firsts for L.D. in these months of lasts. His poetry took a decidedly exalted turn as he began penning what he came to call his meditations—palms of praise and pathos to the Most High God and His Son Jesus Christ, poems decidedly sacred.
L.D. also had never before taken Communion, avoiding participance in the sacrament, until he felt he could fully dedicate his life to Christ, absorbing the meaning of this commitment. He had too much integrity to be deceptive. But on this particular late-winter Sunday, he unexpectedly met Jesus in this memorial meal, expressing his joy in partaking of the Lord’s Supper in his poem, “First Communion.”
This Sunday morning, Jesus invited me to eat at His table, in church.
I prayed and drank from the cup of the Lord’s Supper,
Broke matzo with the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
I became transfixed on a distant vision of Him,
His hands and His feet nailed to His crucifix.
Oh, what a tear-sweet, mystical Eucharistic feast
For my lips, tongue, and glistening eyes!
Within that stained-glass sanctuary, my soul was seized
By a glowing, holy rainbow of grace-illuminated love.
I was no interloper among Gentiles, but a Jew at a Passover supper,
Celebrating the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, Who died for me,
To save my spirit from having to remain enslaved
To selfish, perfidious, unclean, insidious, misanthropic sinfulness.
I found myself being handed a tray making its way down the pew.
What an uplifting my spirit experienced, in that moment of glorious ecstasy,
As I ascended to Eternity.
This celebratory Sunday,
I was in Pharoah’s Egypt, Jesus’ Gethsemane, my St. Louis, simultaneously.
And when ‘amen’ and ‘hallelujah’ ushered me from the church,
Back to my apartment,
I was no longer who’d walked inside me, comprised me,
When I’d crossed the street, earlier, to Central Presbyterian Church.
I was no longer in my lifetime’s present.
My future had presented me with the vision of who’ll I’ll be, in Eternity:
A saved sheep embraced by the grace of the Lamb.
“A saved sheep embraced by the grace of the Lamb.”
L.D., who had penned over 12,000 poems (published in 84 books) during his prolific career, now, despite his physical fragility, wrote more feverishly, fervently than ever. He said he had a mission to spread the loving-kindness of Christ. Each poem reflected some new nuance, some fresh insight into his passion. He was determined to publish them in a book.
On one of the happiest days of my life, at luncheon with L.D. and his care-giver, he presented me with a signed, completed manuscript of what was to become his last book, The Words of My Mouth and The Meditations of My Heart: A Poetic Pilgrimage from Illness to Healing-Living. It contained 294 poems, one of which was called “Acceptance,” which he dedicated to Michael and me.
Through this gracious act, L.D. was indeed spreading the loving-kindness of Christ, to assure Michael and me in his own writing that he knew the Savior. I shall always treasure this gift, just as I will always treasure my abiding friendship with its giver.
L.D.’s influence on my life has been profound. From those early days in my twenties, when I met him virtually through his poetry, his writing had encouraged me to appreciate beauty and lyricism, description and depth. Looking back through the years, I can see how, even if subliminally, my own writing in some ways began to dance to similar cadences as his. We learn through imitation.
But after I met L.D., personally, he put a face to eloquence. He was generous, prolific in words, profuse in wisdom. He encouraged me in my writing, first by example of his insistence to write daily, and second, in his compliments and counsel. He was a benevolent mentor who championed my writing and cheered me on when I’d wanted to quit.
But most of all, L.D. encouraged me in his living and dying. He lived with intensity, writing every single day about the truth of the world around him, whether about the God-given blessings of his daily round, the beauty of creation, or the barbarity of the Holocaust. All of life was ink for his poetic pen, even during the illness that took his life. He chronicled it all with great courage, candor, and confidence in God.
I longed to do something for him, anything that would convey to him my utter gratitude. How could I possibly repay such magnanimity?
My family, friends, and I prayed. I wrote letters and cards, daily in the end, and sometimes sent gifts. In what was to be our last conversation—just a matter of minutes, but which echoes like eternity in my soul—L.D. telephoned, his voice terribly weak, to thank my family and me for our gifts for his seventy-third birthday: a portrait of him painted by our daughter Sheridan, a poem I’d written for him, and a CD that I had recorded that I called “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which was full of encouraging hymns, spirituals, and hope-filled songs, including the Jewish song, “Avinu Malkeinu.”
First, he told me that I sang “Avinu” better than Barbra Streisand, which made me smile. And then he whispered, finding it hard to breathe, “Why are you doing all this for me?”
“Why are you doing all this for me?”
“Oh, L.D. How can I not? I love you in the Lord. You’ve given so much to my family and me. I don’t think you can understand how much.”
How could we possibly have thanked him adequately enough for the joy and privilege of witnessing his coming to the Lord, of “crossing the street” to Christianity, as he would sometimes express metaphorically in verse.
During the three-plus years that I knew L.D. and in the months since his passing on 16 June 2014, I have thought often, with thanksgiving, about our friendship. Only El Elyon, our sovereign Lord, could have reached beyond the stars, the years, the miles, a street, across a sacred aisle, to co-mingle word-streams of Gentile and Jew into a fjord of friendship to God Most High.
And only our Jehovah God could have transformed the interloper among Gentiles into an inter-lover among Christians, a saved sheep who leapt in faith across the divide between death and life eternal, a saved sheep who leapt straight into the grace and embrace of Messiah, the Lamb.
-a poem by Lynn D. Morrissey-
Thursday, 26 June 2014, one week after L.D.’s funeralin loving memory and deep appreciation of my beloved friend in the Lord, L.D. Brodsky
We gather together in YHWH’s name at B’nai* Amoona Cemetery,
on this near-noon, June-blue day—
beneath a cornflower canopy that mimics God’s welcoming, welkin dome—
beneath a tent embracing over one-hundred mourners like a sheltering home.
On this sweltering summer morn, this tent of benediction shades sacred ground.
His body will lie here in repose, enclosed in shining mahogany,
beneath King David’s six-pronged star.
We join in psalms and songs, blessings and eulogies,
through which we compose ourselves
and our grief.
But he …
he, relieved of his beleaguered mortal coil,
of all his care-worn toil in fighting disease,
Robed in his everlasting, lilting spirit,
he transcends this tilting globe,
like an angel
or soaring bird
or shooting star
or singing line
or exulted verse catapulted one last time from his poetic pen—
springing beyond our limited ken
beyond our dolorous refrains.
We strain our eyes to see what he sees,
train our ears to hear what he hears,
but we can only yearn, tethered as we are to earth,
robed in our own infirm frames.
We reluctantly name our farewells, recite our halting verses to L.D.,
and lovingly shovel scoops of soil,
to drop atop his lilied pall.
We turn our steps away from his grave towards the end of our days,
yet enthralled with gladdening truth:
At the last trumpet, in the twinkling of a winking eye,
the wondrous Wordsinger, Who sang galaxies and stars and souls into being,
will recompose the bard we’ve laid to rest.
On that day,
resplendent in risen bones and glistening flesh, embodying his eternal soul,
the poet will resume penning praises that consumed him here:
endless psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to Messiah Adonai.
even the new heavens and new earth will be incapable of containing
the passionate refrains he’ll fashion forever for the Infinite One,
the One without beginning,
the One without end …
*B’nai: pronounced beh-nay’
Lynn D. Morrissey is author of Love Letters to God: Deeper Intimacy through Written Prayer and other books, contributor to numerous bestsellers, and is a professional journal facilitator (CJF) for her ministry Sacred Journaling, speaker, and soloist. She’s passionate about encouraging transparency in women through reflective journaling.
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