“A poem in the pocket means we will be accompanied wherever we go,” writes Bishop Robert Morneau.
Morneau’s words ring true to me. Poems have been sturdy companions on my spiritual journey, accompanying me through moments of rejoicing and lament and everything in between. While the liturgical prayer of the church and reflection on scripture are bedrock spiritual practices for me, praying with poetry has also been a fundamental part of my spiritual life for as long as I can remember.
From the psalms of the Hebrew scriptures to the ecstatic Sufi poetry of the 13th century to contemporary spoken word poets, for millennia people of faith have used poetry as a vehicle to reflect on their relationship with God. The author of Hosea writes, “Carry words with you and return to the Lord” (14:32), inviting us to use the gift of language in our relationship with our creator. While God is mystery and our limited words will always fall short, it seems poetry is perhaps the closest that we finite humans can come to naming and approaching that mystery. Today, I read the words of poets both ancient and modern and am strengthened in my own spiritual life by the words they use to wrestle with their own faiths.
Reading poetry as spiritual practice is different from other kinds of reading. Many of us read nearly all day, every day. We scroll through our phones skimming emails, we read memos and articles in our workplaces, we flip through the newspaper each morning to stay informed. Or we kick back with a novel to relax, losing ourselves in the plot. We are awash in words in our digital, hyperconnected information age.
Poetry requires another approach, one that slows us down and shifts our mind-set from being goal oriented, information gathering, or relaxation seeking into being contemplatively receptive. The distillation of a handful of words can make us change gears, become fully present, and sharpen our senses. I find sometimes something cracks open in me as I read or listen to a poem. A few words of a single poem can shift our perception in ways that change our manner of being in the world. Poetry can bypass our rational minds and speak directly to our souls through the power of images and metaphors. Much like lectio divina, reading poetry contemplatively challenges us to focus on slowly ingesting the words and letting them work their way into our hearts and minds.
I strive to read or listen to several poems daily—one or two with my morning coffee after reading the lectionary readings, and another as a work break at some point in my day. In addition, I keep a file of poems that speak to me, which I use as springboards for my own writing. Nourishing myself with a steady diet of poetry enriches the soil of my soul. Sometimes, while I am sitting in contemplative silence or quietly praying after communion, a line of a poem will come to mind and suggest itself. The words of the poem become a bridge to my own prayer. I can make the words my own and offer them to God—whether the words express gratitude, joy, sadness, petition, or lament. In addition to my daily poetry practice, I’ll occasionally carve out a longer period of time to sit with a book of poetry, allowing myself to linger on a particular word or line that resonates with me.
Modeling Bishop Morneau’s words, I, too, keep some poems “in my pocket,” coming back to them like trusted friends as I move through the rhythm of the year.
Every Advent I return to “Annunciation” by Denise Levertov and sit with her words about Mary’s courage to say yes to the angel’s invitation “to bear in her womb/ Infinite weight and lightness.”
As the days grow longer and winter slowly gives way, I read Mary Oliver’s “Spring,” with its delightful image of a black bear coming down the mountain with “her white teeth/ her wordlessness/ her perfect love.” Oliver’s powerful statement in the fourth and fifth stanzas—“There is only one question:/ how to love this world” challenges me each spring to reconnect with my own response to God’s call to love as the natural world wakes up.
Poetry is also a resource I turn to when I want to offer encouragement, consolation, or support to others. More often than not I write a poem into a condolence card to a friend who is grieving the loss of a loved one. I recently read Mary Karr’s poem “The Voice of God” to a dear friend who was stressed out and exhausted, and she responded to the poem with knowing laughter at the truth of Karr’s words. Many times I have written e. e. cummings’ exuberant “i thank you God for most this amazing day” into birthday or wedding cards.
Bohemian-Austrian Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems from the Book of Hours are other trusted companions that accompany me. The words Rilke imagines God speaking have jolted me awake when I have fallen into complacency and challenged me to take risks. “You, sent out beyond your recall,/ go to the limits of your longing./ Embody me./ Flare up like a flame/ and make big shadows I can move in. / Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
Poetry connects us to men and women from different times, places, and cultures who have also wrestled with the big questions of faith and doubt, joy and sorrow, gratitude and loss—all of the glorious and terrible experiences of being human. Literature professor and writer Paul Mariani says of Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “He has been there for me almost every day.” Contemporary poet and Catholic convert Mary Karr says that during a “dark night,” poetry was her “only solace for more than a month.” She wrote of turning to what she termed the ‘terrible sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins to find shape for [her] desolation.” Hopkins died before Mariani and Karr were born, yet his poetry stretches across time to offer spiritual companionship.
Poetry need not be explicitly religious or use theological language to nourish us spiritually. Irish poet Seamus Heaney claimed, “If poetry and the arts can do anything . . . they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.” Whether or not poets name God or not in their writing, good poetry speaks to our inner life as humans and to the place where God dwells within us.
For example, the repeated line, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master” from Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” became an anchor for me during a rocky few days when difficult circumstances suddenly required me to move from one house to another, leaving me disoriented and unexpectedly grieving. Bishop’s words brought consolation as I processed the loss of my home.
Contemporary U.S. poet Christian Wiman says that “a real poem can . . . suddenly make the amount of reality that you have in your life greater. You’re able to apprehend more of it.” Whether that reality is ecstatically joyful, sorrowful, or mundane, poetry makes us more aware of and present to it—and therefore more able to be receptive to God’s presence in the midst of reality. C.S. Lewis calls poetry “a little incarnation,” that is, a manifestation of God’s presence in the world.
In her A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver describes poetry as “a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.” We could all use some poems in our pocket to carry us through the tough moments in our spiritual and physical lives.
This article also appears in the January 2017 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 82, No. 1, pages 47–48).