SOUL FOOD Talk #15 – Using Poetry in Prayer
1. Being a poet, years ago when I began experiencing contemplation, I made an observation. Entering into a somewhat inspired state, given an insight from reading or from an experience, I often felt deeply impelled to write it down, or to try to do so. Yet, especially when the insight was a spiritual one, if I resisted the urge to write, but instead turned to God in prayer, especially in quiet of heart, and followed the inspirational impulse, thinking about it, musing on it, turning it over and over in my spirit, I found that I often entered into contemplative prayer. I had to forego the poem, but enjoyed prayer instead. Thus, it seemed to me that this “inspired” state was an early stage in contemplative prayer, a stage in which the heart is opened to the mystery of life and God, a stage of wonder, love, and tenderness, though perhaps not even yet directed at God. If the inner, spiritual compulsion to write poetry, to “capture” the vision of a poem, was a stage which could lead to contemplation, could the reading of poetry or other inspired words also lead to prayer? Absolutely!
2. Poems can often suggest spiritual states better than prose can because they are intense expressions which use unusual combinations of words, images, and metaphors which jolt us out of our everyday experience of divine realities, even the experience of a flower, a cup of coffee, a simple act of a child. In the nineties when I was unchurched, but longed to have faith, I wrote the following reflection after reading a short poem.
3. REFLECTION ON FAITH – T. K. Andre-Eames
FAITH is such an abstract. How strange we are, or at least how strange I am. I often question what it is I believe, yet I never question that I believe. Is it because Faith is a posture of the spirit, an attitude, an openness? Let me share with you a short poem I found by the noted native American writer, N. Scott Momoday, a Kiowa Indian born in 1934. He writes:
4. “To a Child Running with Outstretched Arms in Canyon de Chelly”
You are small and intense
In your excitement, whole,
Embodied in delight.
The background is immense;
The sanddrifts break and roll
Through cleavages of light
And shadow. You embrace
The spirit of this place.
5. “You can see it, can’t you? A little child running into the endless expanse of the great Southwest–black hair streaming, arms wide, running wide open, holding nothing back? This vision is Faith. It’s the color and grain of Faith the way a child wears it: close to the skin and in between the toes.
6. “This kind of Faith I can go for: believing with all my heart though I too am small against the immense background of all the people who confuse me with controversy or politics, policy or violence, or the contortions of love that never work out quite the way I have come to expect.
7. “This is my kind of Faith: belief with its hair down, an intense, running, outstretched human being flung open in innocence, vulnerable in delight.
8. “I want this kind of Faith to be the stuff of my life, to believe with all my heart although the world will not stay still, and the spirit (even my own) won’t stay put either, but blows like the canyon winds through the wild places. I want to believe although sand shifts, rocks crack, hearts break, heroes fail, friends fall.
9. “I want to believe through all of this and more, through sifting shadows and doubt, through light flickering in ragged ribbons across the garment of my life. I want to wear Faith the way a child wears it: close to the skin and in between my toes.”
10. *****You can see how far I have come in Christ since the 1990’s! Yet this image of the child running in the Canyon de Chelly [pronounced Shay] presents a wonderful picture of openness, innocence, and abandonment. After rereading this recently, I find myself praying: “O My God, I’m running to You in the Canyon de Chelly!”
11. The poem or piece doesn’t even have to overtly spiritual. I remember being moved and meditating on this simple line:
BRETON FISHERMAN’S PRAYER
“ O God, your sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”
12. Another piece which moved me deeply also describes our human condition and attitude toward God—how we tend to blow problems out of proportion.
INUIT SONG [Eskimo]
“And I thought over again
My small adventures
As with a shore-wind I drifted out
In my kayak And thought I was in danger
Those small ones
That I thought so big
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach
And yet, there is only
One great thing,
The only thing–
To live to see in huts and on journeys
The great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.”
13. As I read the poem, I always changed one word, “the Light that fills the world.” And what of the “Great Day that dawns” ? Doesn’t the poem also make you think of Jesus’ words to Martha, “Mary has chosen the best part, and it will not be taken away from her—“One great thing, The only thing….”
14. Our Christian tradition is also filled with overtly spiritual poems. Take this classic of the 17th century by an Anglican priest:
DISCIPLINE by GEORGE HERBERT
“Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
To a full consent.
Not a word or look
I affect to own,
But by book,
And thy book alone.
Though I fail, I weep;
Though I halt in pace,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.
Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.
Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
And can shoot,
And can hit from far.
Who can ‘scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.
Throw away the rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God,
Throw away thy wrath.”
14. What an attitude of humility and pleading fills this poem, a spiritual stance we all need in approaching our God as we also beg that He reach us through Love, not through wrath!
15. For several years, especially when I had left the church, I read the poetry of a Muslim poet and mystic, Hafiz. So down to earth, he has such a sense of humor and wonder, a love of the Beloved, that he often moved me greatly. Take this little poem:
REMOVING THE SHOE FROM THE TEMPLE – Hafiz, a Muslim poet & mystic, 1320-1389
“Once someone asked me,
‘Why do saints seek divine annihilation
And are often humble
And like to spend their free time
Upon their knees?’
‘It is a simple matter of etiquette.’
Then they said,
‘What do you mean, Hafiz?’
‘Well,’ I continued,
‘When one goes into a mosque or temple
is it not common to remove what
covers your feet?
So too does it happen
with this whole mind and body–
That is something like a shoe sole.
When one begins to realize
Upon Whom you are really standing,
to remove the ‘shoe’ from the Temple.”
16. What about this next little poem? How much is expressed with so few words! Do you want to remain in the environs or move deep into the heart of God?
THE SUBURBS by Hafiz
is only possible
when living in the suburbs
17. This prayer/poem by a Jewish rabbi has been a favorite for many years, especially for the line which I highlighted for you:
Rebbe Nachman’s Prayer for Nature, written in the 1800s:
“Master of the Universe:
Grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass, among all growing things.
And there may I be alone to enter into prayer,
talking to the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field
awake at my coming to send the powers
of their life into the words of my prayer
And so that my speech is made whole
through the life and spirit of all growing things,
which are made as one by their transcendent Source.
through this, may my heart open.”
18. Years ago, I was struck by the clear, pure sounds of a little bird, and entered into a deep meditation on it, impelled to write it down. Comparing the urgency of the bird’s song, I felt it described so well the scripture that I attached to it:
THE SOULS OF BIRDS – T. K. Andre-Eames
“Let my tongue be silent if ever I forget You.” Psalm 137, 5-6
“The souls of birds fill their hollow bones,
lighter than the bright side of thistles.
Their clear cries sweep through the mist
till morning breathes green and fresh again,
and paradise seems more than possible.
The milk of kindness gathers to a quill.
God is rich in mercy. So are the birds
who rise to innocence from heavy dark,
their chaste choir as pure as a lark.
The Weird* of God, remotest mystery,
distills then to the single breaking key
of a bird at prayer, impaled on a note.
What round eye is this that sees born
the folded leaf, the whole world of the thorn?”
[The word weird refers to something uncanny, supernatural, unearthly, otherworldly, mysterious—I even had in mind St. Paul’s use of the Greek word mysterion—mystery].
19. Poems are cries of the spirit, cries of wonder, mystery, awe, love, sorrow, desolation, abandonment. I love this poem which expresses so well the desolation of the soul which yet hopes in Christ:
A Better Resurrection — Christina Rossetti
“I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.
My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief,
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall–the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.”
20. Is today driving you crazy? This prayer below, known as St. Teresa’s Bookmark, can help you calm down. Is your stomach all tied up in knots with worries? Is your mind racing like a hamster in a cage going around and around on a wheel? Give yourself a break! Take a deep breath. St. Teresa of Avila, 16th century, can give you some much needed perspective on things!
St. Teresa’s Bookmark
“Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices. “
21. As well as express desolation, a poem can offer consolation. When George was in prison, I sent him this little poem written as a prayer. He put it into his bible and read it everyday:
A PRAYER by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
“Refuse to fall down.
If you cannot refuse to fall down,
refuse to stay down.
If you cannot refuse to stay down,
lift your heart toward heaven,
and like a hungry beggar,
ask that it be filled,
and it will be filled.
You may be pushed down.
You may be kept from rising.
But no one can keep you from lifting your heart
It is in the midst of misery
that so much becomes clear.
The one who says nothing good came of this,
is not yet listening.”
22. Sometimes we catch a glimpse of a spiritual insight into Christ; for example, see how much self-control and restraint Jesus had to practice.
Christ’s Restraint — by Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886)
“He might have reared a palace at a word,
Who sometimes had not where to lay his head:
Time was, and He who nourished crowds with bread
Would not one meal unto Himself afford:
Twelve legions girded with angelic sword
Were at his beck, the scorned and buffeted:
He healed another’s scratch, his own side bled,
Side, feet, and hands, with cruel piercings gored.
Oh wonderful the wonders left undone!
And scarce less wonderful than those He wrought;
Oh self-restraint, passing all human thought,
To have all power, and be as having none;
Oh self-denying Love, which felt alone
For needs of others, never for its own!”
23. I know most of you remember reading John Donne, an Anglican priest in the 16th century, in high school English, and as a teen-ager, had little interest or understanding. Try reading this now as an adult:
Holy Sonnets V: Batter my heart, three-person’d God By John Donne
“Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain*, [*with pleasure]
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”
24. In the above poem you should recognize the cry of St. Paul in Romans 7, as he agonizes over his weakness of will and flesh, his inability to free himself from doing those things he does not want to do!
25. As far back as the 4th century of Christianity in Syria, we have a saint who was a deacon and poet who was famous for preaching in the form of poetry.
By St. Ephrem of Edessa, Syria [Also spelled Ephraim, 4th century]
“From God Christ’s deity came forth,
His manhood from humanity;
his priesthood from Melchizedek,
his royalty from David’s tree:
praised be his Oneness
He joined with guests at wedding feast,
Yet in the wilderness did fast;
he taught within the temple’s gates;
his people saw him die at last:
praised be his teaching.
The dissolute he did not scorn,
Nor turn from those who were in sin;
he for the righteous did rejoice
but bade the fallen to come in:
praised be his mercy.
He did not disregard the sick;
To simple ones his word was given
and he descended to the earth and,
his work done, went up to heaven:
praised be his coming.
Who then, my Lord, compares to you?
The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
the King abased to honor all:
praised be your glory.”
26. Some of our greatest saints and mystics expressed insights into the spiritual life in the form of poetry. Just as St. Paul explained in 2 Cor. 5:8, St. John of the Cross expresses in a poem how he would much rather be with the Lord than remain among the living:
ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS: “I die because I do not die”
“1. I no longer live within myself
and I cannot live without God,
for having neither him nor myself
what will life be?
It will be a thousand deaths,
longing for my true life
and dying because I do not die.
2. This life that I live
is no life at all,
and so I die continually
until I live with you;
hear me, my God:
I do not desire this life,
I am dying because I do not die.
3. When I am away from you
what life can I have
except to endure
the bitterest death known?
I pity myself,
for I go on and on living,
dying because I do not die.
4. A fish that leaves the water
has this relief:
the dying it endures
ends at last in death.
What death can equal my pitiable life?
For the longer I live, the more drawn out is my dying.
5. When I try to find relief
seeing you in the Sacrament,
I find this greater sorrow:
I cannot enjoy you wholly.
All things are affliction
I do not see you as I desire,
and I die because I do not die.
6. And if I rejoice, Lord,
in the hope of seeing you,
yet seeing I can lose you
doubles my sorrow.
Living in such fear
and hoping as I hope,
I die because I do not die.
7. Lift me from this death,
my God, and give me life;
do not hold me bound
with these bonds so strong;
see how I long to see you;
my wretchedness is so complete
that I die because I do not die.
8. I will cry out for death
and mourn my living
while I am held here
for my sins.
O my God, when will it be
that I can truly say:
now I live because I do not die.”
27. St. Teresa of Avila expresses much the same hunger for God as that expressed by St. John of the Cross:
ST. TERESA OF AVILA
“If, Lord, Thy love for me is strong
As this which binds me unto thee,
What holds me from thee Lord so long,
What holds thee Lord so long from me?
O soul, what then desirest thou?
Lord I would see thee, who thus choose thee.
What fears can yet assail me now?
All that I fear is but lose thee.
Love’s whole possession I entreat,
Lord make my soul thine own abode,
And I will build a nest so sweet
It may not be too poor for God.
A soul in God hidden from sin,
What more desires for me remain,
Save but to love again,
And all on flame with love within,
Love on, and turn to love again.”
28. The Bible itself is full of beautiful, inspiring poetry, of course: The Psalms, the Canticle of Canticles [Song of Songs], and so many other books of the bible. The Church’s hymns and spiritual songs are often the most beautiful poems accompanied by music that move us to tears again and again. Write down the sources of what most moves and inspires you, whatever lifts your heart to God. Write down the book, chapter, and verse on the inside covers of your Bible, or copy your favorite scriptures, copy your favorite poems, put these into a prayer journal, and have this wonderful resource at your fingertips when you enter into prayer. What you find fruitful one time, may often move you again and again. God wants our hearts soft and pliable. He loves our tears and cries.
29. Finally, I recently found this beautiful poem by the contemplative monk which contains so much hope and joy. Let this be our finale:
THOMAS MERTON –1944
The Holy Child’s Song – Written in 1944
When midnight occupied the porches of the Poet’s reason
Sweeter than any bird
He heard the Holy Child.
“When My kind Father, kinder than the sun,
With looks and smiles bends down
And utters My bodily life,
My flesh, obeying, praises Heaven like a smiling cloud.
Then I become the laughter of the watercourses.
I am the gay wheat fields, the serious hills:
I fill the sky with words of light, and My incarnate songs
Fly in and out the branches of My childish voice
Like thrushes in a tree.
“And when My Mother, pretty as a church,
Takes Me upon her lap, I laugh with love,
Loving to live in her flesh, which is My house and full of
(Because the sky My Spirit enters in at all the windows)
O, then what songs and what incarnate joys
Dance in the brightest rays of My childish voice!
“In winter when the birds put down their flutes
And wind plays sharper than a fife upon the icy rain,
I sit in this crib,
And laugh like fire, and clap My golden hands:
To view my friends the timid beasts-
Their great brown flanks, muzzles and milky breath!
“Therefore come, shepherds, from your rocky hill,
And bend about My crib in wonder and adore My joy.
My glances are as good as wine.
The little rivers of My smile
Will wash away all ruins from your eyes,
As I lift up My hands,
As white as blackthorn blossoms,
And charm and kiss you with My seven sacraments.
“This seeming winter is your spring
When skies put off their armor:
Because My Heart already holds
The secret mortal wound,
By which I shall transform all deserts into garden-ground:
And there the peaceful trees,
All day say credos, being full of leaves –
And I will come and be your noon-day sun,
And make your shadows palaces of moving light:
And you will show Me your flowers.”
When the midnight occupied the porches of the Poet’s reason
Sweeter than any bird
He heard the Holy Child.