Poetry & prayer

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

Reading and reflecting on poetry is an excellent way to open up the mind and the imagination to the life of the spirit. Poetry makes connections between daily life experiences and seeks to draw meaning out of them. Poetry makes pattern and structure out of random thoughts. It is unifying and often satisfying. It gives voice to questions and anxieties that are often unformed and unexpressed. It can give expression of emotional and spiritual ecstasy in image and metaphor that is almost impossible to express in any other way.

It is no surprise that much Scripture is poetry and song; the Psalms are paramount, but many of the prophets expressed their vision and insight in poetic form. St Paul often recites (or writes) rhythmic poetry or song. The book of Revelation is punctuated with poetry that has found its way into our eucharistic liturgy.

In the same way, many of the great spiritual writers of the Church have been poets, from St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun to the Spiritual Canticles of St John of the Cross. The Anglican spiritual tradition is rich in poetry. The profound theology of the Restoration divines was matched by poetic creativity as seen in John Donne and pre-figured in George Herbert. Every Anglican generation has produced priest poets, like John Keble, Thomas Traherne and more recently R.S. Thomas. Anglican laity have also been ‘spiritual poets’ of stature, such as T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden.

In poetry there is a distillation of thought and experience. Poems can provide a short cut to engagement with the Lord in prayer; they provide a mechanism to trigger conversation with God. Often they are short. This means that it takes less time to draw fruit from them. Often they can be learnt by heart; this means that one can carry them about as aid to prayer and a starting point in intercession or praise. It is not an accident that many poems have become hymns; think of George Herbert’s hymns or those of William Cowper; Dear Lord and Father of Mankind is a poem by the American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier. This last example is a reminder that poetry enables us to draw on the wealth of the Christian Church in every age.

There are countless anthologies of religious verse, the most renowned being that of Oxford University Press, but others include The Lion Christian Poetry Collection, The Rider Book of Mystical Verse and The Poet’s Christ.

Many people find it helpful to write poetry to help them reflect on the call and experience of Christ in their lives. This can be so valuable in sharing experience with a spiritual director or soul friend. For some time, I belonged to a Christian writers’ group – this too helped in expressing and learning from spiritual experience. Many readers would benefit from a blank piece of paper and the freedom and encouragement to ‘let it go’ and ‘put in down’. That simple exercise says so much; it is a sign of the truth that the Lord is at work transforming the way we perceive the world and our place within it.