Worship: Hymns in Haiku

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At Morning Mass

The water has lost its chill:

Lent has come.

Japanese take to haiku as naturally as Canadians take to hockey; 1,000,000 Japanese habitually spend their leisure hours composing the 17-syllable poemlets. But the delicate work of a writer called Tetsu (Iron) is unique in the world of haiku. Tetsu is the pen name of the Rev. James Tetsuzo Takeda, 62, a witty, convivial Episcopal priest whose haiku are brief meditations upon the mysteries of the Christian year.

Takeda, who is senior chaplain at Tokyo's big (9,500 students) St. Paul's University, writes his Christian haiku in Japanese—and, although he knows English, leaves the translation to Gene Lehman, a Pennsylvania-born professor of chemistry at St. Paul's. Lehman's sensitive version of another verse about Lent is:

Tilling the soil

And counting: how many days now

'Til His Suffering begins? As the favorite art form of Zen Buddhist monks, haiku always have a curiously bittersweet quality even at their happiest. This still, sad music is apparent in Takeda's meditations on both joyous and sorrowful feasts of the Christian year. For Good Friday he writes: A Holy Rood:

I see the five wounds—And a piercing cold besets me. And for Easter:

The light of Spring

Now streams

Into the empty Tomb.

The summertime feast of Trinity Sunday brings to mind the zeal of the first disciples:

By the Sea of Galilee

They went forth.

The trees' fresh green was everywhere.

And at Christmas:

Around the old monk

The orphan children gather.

O Holy Night!

Takeda, who studied for the priesthood in Boston and New York, began writing haiku 40 years ago, when he was an English teacher in a suburban Tokyo high school. Only in the last decade has he seriously begun to explore the Christian possibilities of the form. "I realized," he recalls, ''that in composing haiku in praise of nature I had been responding in praise to the creations of God." Takeda, who is now imparting his poetic technique to members of the University's haiku club, believes that the verse "is the Japanese form of hymn." He regards writing haiku as a kind of spiritual exercise, and admits that "whenever I'm lazy with my prayer schedule, then it becomes hard for me to compose good haiku." The best of his inspirations occur to him "the moment I stand up after offering long prayers, wherever that might be."

His work is admired even by Japanese poets who have little understanding or sympathy for his Christian faith. "Tetsu's versification is in the best of the haiku tradition." says Yatsuka Ishiwara. who is the president of Tokyo's Contemporary Haiku Society. "It is a lovely fusion of East and West."