by Ana Stjelja
Jelena Ljubenović is a Serbian theologian, contemporary poet, and writer. Her modern poetry has been translated into many languages, including Farsi, Arabic, Turkish, English, German, Chinese, among others. Most of her poems are dedicated to her grandfather Gradimir Ljubenović, who understood, supported and encouraged every step of her literary and artistic ideas. Her works have been published across numerous international anthologies, magazines, and websites. Poetry is her necessity and serenity that is sometimes so elusive.
In a heart-to-heart interview with our Interviews Editor, Ana Stjelja, Jelena discusses theology, writing, and beyond.
You graduated from the Faculty of Theology in Serbia. Can you tell us what motivated you to begin with theological studies and how you look at this experience?
Thank you for the question. Actually, I had no desire to study theology — as a teenager I wanted to study the history of arts. After some time, I realized that theology is a synthesis of all the things I am interested in as a person. I truly wanted to understand God’s creation. As a child, I asked adults questions about our purpose, etc. These were deeply existential questions that I understand today theology can comprehensively answer. Theology, therefore, is the study of everything. My theological path, or the path of roses and thorns, is illuminated by God’s grace and love, and I consider that experience to be the most significant for me at this moment.
When did you start writing spiritual poetry and in what way did Christianity make an impact on your poetry?
I have always loved reading spiritual poetry. I think it affects my writing and I’m pretty glad about that. I thank God every day for giving me the gift of seeing the things around me from a poetic perspective. It is impressive to know that God is always so close, even though he is seemingly hidden. God, the One Who is hidden from the eyes of His creation, the One Who is beyond anyone’s vision or intellect — it leads me and inspires me. Actually, this thought has an influence on my writing and, in general, my whole existence.
What are your main Christian topics and how your poetry corresponds with your religious beliefs?
God speaks in verses. Its echo comes from the verses. I realized that by reading the Bible. In this sense, I am occupied with the attributes and narratives that describe Him, such as — The Pure, The Majestic One, The All-Knowing, The Generous, etc.
I think that faith and poetry are inseparable. Therefore, my poetry follows my religious beliefs.
In your opinion, what are the major ideas that Christianity brought up? What does it mean to you and your worldview?
There are many important ideas that Christianity brought up and some of them are still hidden for us. I like to focus on Jesus’s teachings filled with messages of peace, love and hope. Jessus used parables — short stories with essentially important hidden messages in his teachings and daily life. Some of the main topics that Jesus taught, which Christians embraced, are like commandments. I would especially emphasize waves through parables that say: Love God, love your neighbor as yourself, forgive others who have wronged you, love your enemies, don’t judge others, etc.
These messages, as simple as they may seem, are always revolutionary. Especially in the time when Jesus lived and preached. For me, all the above means glorifying and worshiping The One Who created light, love and words. In that sense, there is a gorgeous saying by Francis of Assisi: ”It is no use walking somewhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”
What your poems are predominantly about and how do you incorporate religious / spiritual elements in it?
My poetry reveals longing for the Absolute and deals with eternity and the impermanence of the moment. It is always transforming and wants to touch the spaces of the transcendent. I think the spiritual elements naturally become a part of it, because they are in the depth of my heart. And I want to always create — write — think and speak from the heart or not create at all.
If you could choose one key word that would depict Christianity the best, what it would be and why?
It would be contemplation, religious contemplation. We should understand it as a state of mystical awareness of God’s being. The more a person contemplates, the more he or she realizes his or her role and importance in the world.
Which poets (of any) made an influence on your poetic work?
Persian poets like Jalaluddin Rumi, Saadi, Khayyam and Ferdowsi. They occupy my thoughts and I understand them as my poetic light and consider their poetry to be eternal. Their verses make my every silence pleasant and mystical. In many sufferings of life, I found tranquility in the poetry of these poets.
What inspires you the most as a poet?
I think that poetry has the power to inspire change like no other art form. I think that change occupies my microworld and leads me, but also deeply inspires me.
How do you see women as religious beings and as poets? Did they get the place they deserve or the process of emancipation is not over yet? Which women of the Bible do you admire the most?
Women are above all peacemakers, and their historical contribution to different religions is immeasurable.
“God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” (Psalm 46:5)
God is with women always, and even in the most difficult of times, He is there to support them and bring them strength for the new day. As poets, women show their own authenticity and the beauty of creativity. It is important that women support each other and build spaces for the expansion of different artistic disciplines. The process of emancipation is still ongoing and many changes and revolutions are still needed to achieve full emancipation in many geographical areas around the world.
Throughout the history of Christianity, power has been associated with men. Women played major roles in their families, but rarely on national levels. Then, a few women shifted the paradigm.
Many women from the Bible are my inspiration. Among them, Esther is perhaps the foremost. She is a woman of hope, beauty, wisdom, grace, and intelligence. An example of beauty, humility, brains, and courage, Esther is depicted as the Jewish queen of the Persian king Ahasuerus (Xerxes I). She used her powerful and high position for good. When her people were on the verge of being annihilated, Esther selflessly risked her life to save and raise them. In the history of Christianity, Esther is not only a queen, but a liberator. I think that her sacrificial love for her people makes her an outstanding woman.
From your perspective, what could be the secret thread between Christianity and poetry? Can poetry express well our religious beliefs and practices?
It is a prayer of the heart, always contemplative, transformative, tender and hidden in the deepest part of a person’s being. Prayer is the secret thread that makes poetry sublime and dignified in its existence and constant movement.
Poetry can brilliantly express our religious beliefs and customs. Moreover, poetry expresses all things in a prayerful way. Poetry, like faith, never ends, because it is a journey towards the horizon of God’s grace, where eternity is as quiet as a breeze.