Approaching God through poetry

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Some years ago Bill Countryman wrote a book whose very title brings together two things I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks. The book is The Poetic Imagination: An Anglican Spiritual Tradition. In it he writes, memorably:

“The continuing power of the Anglican poetic tradition depends on the fact that it does not seek power. It gives no prescriptions; it does not compel. It springs out of the gospel of Jesus, but remains blessedly free of theology’s a priori concern to nail everything down and make sure that others toe the line. It is able to listen to people of other religion and of none and to hear the voice of God there, too. It is able to speak in terms that connect with our human experience, and it invites a sharing of things that lie, as Wordsworth wrote, “too deep for tears.” It connects with the human world and the world beyond humanity. It invites us, with Vaughan, to rise up, weeping and singing, into the great circle of light where our life-experience at last begins to have full meaning. That also means, of course, that it invites us to see our own poverty and sin and to experience, in the absence of God, how truly empty life can be. But it invites us to this experience of loss precisely so that we can delight fully in the unpredictable but certain experience of God’s presence and the fullness of connection and life that it makes possible.

I thought of this vision of the Anglican poetic tradition again this past week when I was co-leading, with Esther de Waal and Bonnie Thurston, a residential conference at the Cathedral College entitled “Approaching God through Poetry.” At that conference, looking at a variety of poets, from early Welsh poetry praising the creation, to Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver and others, we returned repeatedly to the ability of poetry to create “both-and” experiences, and especially to help us discern the holy in the ordinary, and to embrace an incarnational and sacramental vision in which the divine and the human come together in the particularities of our experience. Repeatedly we returned to poetry as a kind of experiential, relational theology, a different kind of language than the categorical statements of systematic theology, but no less powerful in its ability to open our hearts and minds to the mystery of God.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the experience was the communal part of it — gathering of a group of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds, in a space that was both beautiful and prayed-in, and sharing a common life that was punctuated by communal meals and regular liturgy. Some of us gathered daily for early morning Communion in the crypt of the Cathedral, all came to choral Evensong in the Great Choir, with poetry included in our worship each evening, and we all attended the night prayers of compline led by members of the group at the end of our days together. In between we were immersing ourselves in words, and engaging in a practice of listening — both to the various poets we were hearing about, and to life as they saw it.

We talked about how poetry can help us slow down and look more attentively at the world around us, how the words of a poem can offer us new ways of imagining the relationship between God and the world. (Consider, for example, the many levels of meaning carried by the word “charged” in Hopkins’s famous line “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” – with its evocation of electrical current, a responsibility or “charge,” a burden to be borne.) We considered how the voices of poets invite us in a lively way into the communion of saints, the blessed company of faithful people exclaiming over both the gifts that life brings and the darkness that we also encounter in human life. In that conversation, I was inspired to hear participants finding their own voices in new ways, some writing poems for the first time, others responding from the heart to one another and to what they were seeing in new ways through the eyes and words of the poets.

It was a refreshing time, not least because all of us were doing more or less “one thing” in our gathered time that week, instead of the usual multitasking that tends to determine our frenetic lives. Gathered as a community, we were drinking from many streams that have fed our tradition — the rootedness in Creation and the resistance to darkness that we find in Celtic spirituality; the balanced rhythms of “practicing the presence of God” from Benedictine spirituality; and the delight in words and “noticing” that poetic language brings; and the coming together of all kinds of beauty in the practice of liturgy. These are all things I treasure about our Anglican heritage, and it was delightful to see how people were fed by this gathering. The feeling I came away with was a sense of grace, gratitude and rootedness, an awareness of the rightness of what Mary Oliver observes in Thirst, when she suggests in one of her poems that the practices of prayer and poetry open a “doorway into thanks, and a silence in which/another voice may speak.”

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

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