By Celine Klosterman
Poetry can be spiritual medicine, Sister Marilyn Brinker, CHM, discovered.
A nearly lifelong lover of this written form of art, she published her first book of poems last month after years of composition helped her deal with painful, chronic illnesses.
“It was a way to pray to God,” she said of writing some of the 45 poems in “A Joy-Filled Journey.” “It helped me work through some of my physical problems.”
But Sr. Brinker’s passion for poetry began long before she was diagnosed in 1987 with rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma, a disease that involves joint pain and skin hardening. As an eighth-grader whose teacher required students to memorize a poem a month, she grew fascinated with rhyme. Later, an English literature class at the former Marycrest College in Davenport strengthened her interest in poetry.
After she graduated, she taught elementary students and eventually earned a master’s degree in elementary curriculum and instruction from Drake University in Des Moines. The professional endeavors left little time for writing, but a personal struggle eventually set her on a path that would bring her back to the art.
While a preschool teacher in Minnesota, Sr. Brinker was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The condition left her with little energy, so she made the “heart-rending” decision to retire in 1997 after 38 years of teaching.
She later moved to Adel, Iowa, where she one day discovered in her mailbox an un-addressed National Catholic Reporter. Not a subscriber to the newspaper, she opened it to discover an advertisement seeking applicants for a Clinical Pastoral Education program. Curious, she applied and eventually entered training at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics to become a hospital chaplain.
St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, Okla., hired her in 1998. Serving as a chaplain took less energy than teaching and was rewarding in several ways.
“I felt I could relate to patients due to my own illnesses,” she said. And when people confessed anger at God over their ailments, Sr. Brinker counseled them. “I’d say everything that happens to you can be an opportunity. You can blame God and go away from him, or use your struggle as an opportunity to grow closer to him.”
Her own illnesses strengthened her relationship with the Lord, though dealing with pain sometimes proved frustrating. To express those feelings and reflect on experiences counseling patients, she returned to poetry.
“Writing gives me an outlet for when I’m having a really bad day, or for when something awesome happened with a patient and I made them feel better,” Sr. Brinker said.
She didn’t intend to publish her compositions, which she shared with only a few close friends. But a health scare in 2008 and friends’ encouragement persuaded her to look into publication. “I thought God was trying to push me into doing it,” said Sr. Brinker, who returned to Iowa last year and now lives in Des Moines. “It was as though I survived to get the book done.”
Her book includes about a third of the 150 poems she’s written, divided into sections by topic: nature, prayer, faith, and death and grief.
Barb Barber, an Oklahoma resident, friend and former co-worker of Sr. Brinker, said she’s glad the collection was finally published. Many people can likely relate to experiences the poems describe, Barber said. “Her poetry is just beautiful… it brings tears to my eyes.”
Barber’s father often requested to hear poems Sr. Brinker shared before he passed away, Barber said. “They’re bound to touch everybody who reads them.”
Sr. Brinker hopes they do. Though publishing her poetry was a lengthy, sometimes frustrating process, she said it will have been worth it if her writing “can give hope and love to even one person. I did the book for that one reason.”
“A Joy-filled Journey” is available for $10.99 through Xulon Press Christian Bookstore at www.xulonpress.com and through Barnes and Noble.
God, you who shaped creation, every land and sea,
Also deigned to fashion me.
God, you gifted me with life. All I am and become are gifts.
Gently guiding my steps aright. Giving me grace and saving hope.
Mercy and grace are mine for the asking,
Peace surrounds me when hope seems at an end.
You know my every pain and sorrow,
And when I am in need of mercy and forgiveness.
I am gifted into life
I return to You awaiting your unconditional generosity.
Being gifted with eternal life,
Holy Spirit bless me with enlightenment.
— Sister Marilyn Brinker, CHM