November 20, 2009

Book of poetry captures mysteries of faith and challenges of life

By Mary Ann Wyand

The cover of The Number Touched Untold, by St. Walburga Press“Fulfillment,” one of Dorothy M. Colgan’s newest poems, is also a concise and insightful instruction guide for how to live a Christian life.

The prolific 93-year-old poet from St. Meinrad Parish in St. Meinrad is humble yet thrilled about the recent publication of her first book of poetry, The Number Touched Untold, by St. Walburga Press.

The book title comes from the closing line in her poem “A Touching Scene,” which was inspired by the Gospel stories of an afflicted woman who sought healing by touching Jesus’ cloak (Mt 9:20-22, Mk 5:25-34 and Lk 8:43-48).

For more than a decade, Criterion readers have enjoyed Colgan’s poetic reflections regularly featured in the “My Journey to God” column, which qualify her for the unofficial honor of “poet laureate” of the archdiocese. (Related: At 90, Dorothy Colgan stays busy writing poetry | See a small collection of Colgan's poems)

Now a wider audience will have the opportunity to benefit from Colgan’s faith-based wisdom preserved in her catechetical book of poems that reveal God’s presence in the present moment.

Scriptural, sacramental and succinct, Colgan’s inspirational poetry captures in a few well-chosen words the mysteries of faith and challenges of life.

Writing poetry is a devout expression of her love for God, she said, and much of her inspiration comes from Gospel accounts of miracles performed by Jesus.

As a clock chimes the hours in her apartment just down the hill from Saint Meinrad Archabbey in scenic southern Indiana, the devout Catholic, mother of seven children and grandmother sits at a table with a pen and paper to craft poignant poems inspired by Scripture, saints and daily life events.

“None of this was my idea,” Colgan said with a laugh. “It’s been very trying on an old gal. … My children finally told me what was going on [publishing her poems in a book]. Heavens, I’m not going to get up and brag about my few words. But everything just seemed to fall into place.”

She dedicated the book to her parents, Cecelia and Joseph Gstettenbauer of Rock Island, Ill., and her late husband, Thad Colgan, “for the poetry they carried in their hearts.”

Her inspiration for poems often comes from a single word or phrase, Colgan said. “I love to work with words. I’ve always liked to write poems as teasers that leave the readers to make up their own endings. … I like to think of them as more than words, as reflections on life and eternity.”

Benedictine Archabbot Lambert Reilly of Saint Meinrad Archabbey noted in his review for the book cover that Colgan has “poem-prayed her life for many a year,” and her gift of poetry has enhanced his prayer life.

“Each reading [of her poems] for me has been a mini-Lectio Divina,” Archabbot Lambert wrote. “I experience each pick-up as a lift-up. God reward her gift, now shared more fully.”

Father Robert Barron, an author and founder of the Word on Fire ministry, wrote on the book cover that Colgan’s poetry is “born of a deep faith and a fine literary sensibility.”

Her poems “have the Gospel-like quality of cutting to the heart of things,” he noted, with “neatly crafted language” perfectly suited for “those who seek deeper insight into the things of the spirit.”

Benedictine Father Prior Tobias Colgan, also a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, said he continues to be amazed by his mother’s gift of writing and rhyming.

“I reflected on how many people in the history of the world published their first book at the age of 93 or higher,” he said. “It’s probably a rather small number.”

Father Prior Tobias and his six siblings—Mary, Quentin, Philip, Kathryn, Dorothy and Ann—co-wrote the foreword for their mother’s book.

“[She] grew up loving poetry,” they explained in the book. “Since the age of 65, she has been converting her everyday experiences and reflections into the poems in this volume. All her life, [she] has been reading God’s touch in nature and the seasons; in reverence for those who lived before us; in the company of loved ones; in the smallest events, quandaries and musings of daily life; in the process of aging and death; and, above all, in the Scriptures.”

Her poetry is a “response to a lifetime of Divine Reading,” they wrote, “and the all-pervasive touch of God in earthly days and nights.”

His mother’s skillful choice of words in her poems conveys simple yet profound images and symbols, Father Prior Tobias said, often punctuated with compassion and empathy as well as humor and whimsy.

“You’re lured in by its simplicity and then struck by its profundity,” he said of her poetry. “Especially her scriptural-based poems are the fruit of her own meditation and Lectio Divina on those Scriptures. … In some instances, she has humanized the scenes very nicely with perspectives we don’t often think of.”

In a poem titled “Bouquet,” Colgan writes, “Death is the blossom, life the stem—/One breath will touch the two of them./… O ageless flower, withered stem,/Make sweet the scent of requiem.”

Her theological insights transform her poems into opportunities for catechesis.

Benedictine Brother Martin Erspamer, a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and well-known liturgical artist, contributed the unique drawings for Colgan’s book.

This collaboration of a talented writer and gifted artist make the book a keepsake, said Benedictine Sister Genevieve Glen of the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colo., who is the director of St. Walburga Press.

“I revere her as a poet,” Sister Genevieve said, “and find great encouragement that someone her age can write with such beauty and wisdom.”

(To read another poem by Dorothy M. Colgan, see the “My Journey to God” column of this week’s issue. For a link to a few more of her poems, click here. To buy her book, which sells for $19.95, log on to The book is also for sale at the Scholar Shop and Archabbey Gift Shop at Saint Meinrad.)

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