Poems & Prayers

Martha Dudich

Somewhere                        beyond empty and full
there is a place of space, a quiet, blessed darkness.
No longer in or out                         beyond knowing
there is a place of rest, a wonder possibility.
It is.  What is takes to get there is Yes!
A place as close as my heartbeat
steadfast and patient it waits.  Steadfast
and patient it waits.
What it takes to get there is Yes! (Kim Caird)

I often look to the calendar as an aid in my prayer life – as catalyst or prompt, to put me into the world or make it bigger, more inclusive than my own limited universe.  April is POETRY MONTH and before you reach for the mouse to exit the website, consider for just a moment what scares you about poetry? Perhaps nothing – a gold star for you.  I must admit I haven’t met too many of those people, particularly of a certain age (mine) who can without too much trouble flash back to grammar school English classes insisting there was one way to interpret a poem or requiring us to deconstruct those epics or memorize endless rhyming couplets.  May I invite you to put that residual resistance or anxiety to rest for just the next several hundred words or so?

I suspect a few of us might also be able to speak to what scares you about prayer? In prayer, as in many other areas of life, we tend to begin with a “should” rather than an “is.”  Our prayer can be frustrated because we feel we ought to say certain words or place our body in a particular position or show God a certain face.  Again, if there is some apprehension or self-consciousness around prayer, perhaps you can put that aside for these few paragraphs as well.  Trust that you won’t find words like analysis or interpretation or questions like what does it mean? You will find words like consider or imagine and questions like what might your prayer look like then?

Poetry speaks a universal language akin to prayer. Poetry, from the Greek word poesis (to make), like prayer, from the Sanskrit pras or prcchati (for asking), abides in the world of INVOCATION – employing words to summon thoughts, feelings, emotions from our deepest selves.  Praying, like poetry, is an activity. It stimulates us. It is of less concern at the start about what one prays – the creed of prayer – than that one begins an inner life of words, praying or poetry, and that one discovers a certain attitude of inner life.  Poetry activates the memory, attitude, and perception, and it may be a good beginning or refresher for persons interested in eliciting the peace, power, and the active inner life of prayer.

Indeed, it makes complete sense to link the poetic form with the spiritual life.  For right up to the present, poets have sought out a contemporary language to express the inexpressible, have set words to that which is beyond words, the transcendent.  They may not be writing anything remotely religious and yet there can be the presence of a divine spirit, a voice for the communal, the contemplative, the redemptive and the prophetic.  To look and listen are the first tasks of the poet, and these duties require a “sacramental language,” if you will, a language that pays homage to the messiness of things physical as well as the solace of the spiritual.

Every morning the world is created.  Under the orange sticks of the sun
the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches –
and the ponds appear like black cloth on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.  If is it your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.  And if your spirit carries within it
the thorn that is heavier than lead – if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging –
there is still somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted –
each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered
lavishly, every morning,
whether or not you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not you have ever dared to pray. (Morning Poem by Mary Oliver)

Augustine wrote: “you have made us for yourself and our heart is restless til it rests in you” (Confessions, 1.1).  Poetry can capture that restlessness and longing.  Poems evoke wonder and awe.  Their subtle rhythms can touch us at levels lingering below words and open us to deep rhythms in the world around us.  Prayerful time with poems can shift our awareness and help us look more “deeply at life in the very here and now” (Thich Nhat Hanh).  Praying with poems, like praying with the scriptures or softly chanting, can slow us down and help us hear with the “ear of the heart” (Benedict).

The time will come when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine.  Give bread.  Give back your heart
to itself, to the stanger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit.  Feast on your life. (Love After Love by Derek Walcott)

Have you let go of some of that “interpretation anxiety”?  There is no right or wrong understanding, but your understanding.  Poems will offer something that will prompt you, challenge you, annoy you, delight you, confuse you, comfort you, frighten you, strengthen you, disturb you.  There is some question for you to ask, and for you to answer.  Poems, as prayer, have the potential to move us to a deeper place in our relationship with God.  What it takes to get there is Yes!

Love has taken away all my practices and filled me with poetry.
I tried to keep quiet but I couldn’t.  I had to clap and sing.
I used to be respectable and chaste and stable,
but who can stand in this strong wind and remember those things?
. . .So the journey goes on, and who knows where?
Just to be held by the ocean is the best we could have.
. . . Feel the motion of tenderness around you.,
the buoyancy of these warm, wet prayers. (RUMI)
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