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Ernesto Cardenal: 1925—: Poet

Found Inspiration In Religion

In 1956, at the age of 31, Cardenal experienced the first of two incidents he called "conversions," and he decided to become a monk. He renounced all forms of violence and took up residence in the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Cardenal studied under the well-known religious scholar and poet Thomas Merton, who was in charge of the novices at the monastery. He and Merton became very close and Merton would later write the forewords to Cardenal's Gethsemani, Ky in 1960 and To Live is to Love in 1970. The former was a series of short poems written on the theme of God's love. The latter was a collection of spiritual meditations on the theme of universal love. A stomach ulcer forced Cardenal to abandon his studies at Gethsemani and return to Latin America. There he recovered and resumed his seminary studies at the Benedictine Monastery in Cuernavaca, Mexico. In 1961 he moved to Colombia and studied for four more years at the Le Ceja Seminary. While in Colombia he completed Epigrams and The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation. The latter won the prestigious Peace Prize for literature from the West German government in 1980. He also completed Prayer for Marilyn Monroe and Other Poems, a collection of poetry critical of the excesses of affluent society, "in which commercialization is seen to have replaced emotional spontaneity," noted the website for Curbstone Press. He also began to research the lives and history of the local indigenous populations, visiting several Indian tribes. The poems in his volume Homage to the American Indians portray the lives of the pre-Colombian natives as spiritually superior to those in money-driven modern society.

Cardenal returned to Nicaragua in 1965, where he was ordained a priest. He soon began building a religious refuge on a lush tropical island in Lake Nicaragua. Founded in 1966, Solentiname was a commune of artists, writers, peasants, and others who sought a contemplative spiritual life, and it also included a school of primitive painting, which produced widely acclaimed works. Life in Solentiname reflected Cardenal's philosophy that men could live in harmony with nature and with each other if they adhered to Christian principles, including those which advocated non-violence. On Sundays, rather than attend a traditional sermon given by a priest, the commune's residents gathered together to take part in a dialogue about spiritual matters. Cardenal began tape-recording these meetings, and in 1975 published them in a multi-volume set called The Gospel in Solentiname. It was considered an important work in the newly emerging philosophy of "liberation theology." While at Solentiname, Cardenal also published one of his most important poems, The Doubtful Strait. Using myth and history, the long poem reexamines the conquests of Christopher Columbus in Central America and juxtaposes them with commentary on the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Reflecting Cardenal's spirituality, the poem also uses Biblical imagery and implies that Central America's history, like that of the rest of the world, will ultimately bend to God's divine will.

In 1970 Cardenal visited Cuba and had his second "conversion." He spent three months there and had a meeting with Fidel Castro, the country's revolutionary leader. Though he was aware that the island had some serious economic problems, he became convinced that Nicaragua could also have a successful revolution. He felt that if Nicaraguans could accept the ideals that he practiced in Solentiname, post-revolutionary Nicaragua would be a success. According to the Curbstone Press website, "Cardenal changed his stance on violence and decreed that militancy would be necessary to achieve the Christian goals of peace and brotherhood desired by the anti-Somozan majority." The pacifism he had practiced since his days at Gethsemani seemed to be no longer practical. In 1972 he published En Cuba, an account of his trip.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: Katie Burke (1953–) Biography - Personal to Galeazzo Ciano (1903–1944) BiographyErnesto Cardenal: 1925—: Poet Biography - Married Poetry To Politics, Found Inspiration In Religion, Became Spokesman For Sandinistas, Maintained Dream Of Utopia