Poetry can open us to Church’s gifts

  • May 29, 2012

Jonathan recalled his conflict with a co-worker. In mid-sentence, he paused for a full minute, then said, “I’m not an angry person, am I? I don’t want to be an angry person.”

Why is it so difficult, sometimes, to acknowledge we’re angry? Even those of us who are pretty good at showing anger can find it hard to own. We might fear its power, or have experience of the ways anger can unleash terrible harm.  Yet some Church Fathers thought anger existed in Paradise: could we imagine anger an unfallen, pure gift of God? A force that works within us, creatively rather than destructively?

When we let anger move properly, it can open up our spiritual lives. In this regard, the Psalms are teachers. 

The Psalms are hymns, and often their poetic verses are used to express anger: at God, at circumstances, at others. These poems (even in translation) can help us meet, express and learn from forces like anger, rather than hiding from or blindly obeying them. The Psalms help us find hidden treasures.

The Church has always embraced the power of poetry to speak in ways prose can’t. This month we celebrate an unusual feast day. It’s the universal Church’s recognition of a Syrian saint, St. Ephrem, who used poetry to express divine truth. Even if his poems weren’t theologically rich and evocative — which they were — I’d love him just for being an ambassador of poetry, in ways our prosaic sides can’t manage on their own. Nor should they.

What can whisper the mysteries of the Lord like poetry? What can mend the wounded soul more deeply?

One of the most theologically profound New Testament texts is the Philippians hymn (2:1-11): “Though He was in the form of God, He did not regard equality to God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…”

St. Ephrem the Syrian is remembered for being a monk, theologian and holy man, and a poet. His hymns on Paradise, on Christ’s birth, on the Passion, his much-repeated Lenten prayer which says it all in a few words, can reach into our dusty places and polish them to beauty. 

Throughout Christian history, there’s been a creative tension between two goods. One is the inner mystical life of each person; the other is the public, communal life of the Church. At times one has been over-emphasized at the expense of the other. Some folks didn’t need Church because they had direct experience of God, and others held that personal spiritual experiences are irrelevant or suspect. 

Yet they need each other, and the Church’s poetic texts help connect them. Christianity is profoundly personal. It’s about relationship with the persons of the divine Trinity. That’s why our inner selves matter and that’s what brings us into the communion of saints (the Church).

The Church opens us tiny humans to God’s vastness. The poet Tagore wrote: “Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine.” Our liturgy itself is lived poetry. A key moment in our Easter celebration is the ancient poem, the “Exsultet.” Our Creed proclaims our belief in God the “creator,” but the Greek word can also be rendered “poet.” Poetry is powerful with the creative power of God, who speaks His Word (logos) and so creates — makes poetry. When we bring our poetry before God we’re making a dwelling place for Him; our responsibility is to make it a true dwelling. 

When we no longer can hear the language of poetry, will we be able to hear God’s word to us?

Sometimes we get to thinking that theology, along with Church teaching, is prosaic. St. John of the Cross wrote a long prose explanation of the spiritual life — but only upon request, as an introduction to his two-page poem, “Stanzas” (known as “Dark Night of the Soul”). He wanted us to read the poetry so that that we could go where he was pointing.

Even non-liturgical, non-scriptural poetry can guide us to the sacraments. As Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” It can help us turn from sin to Christ — German Rainer Maria Rilke: “I live my life in ever-widening circles that reach out across the world.” It can help us face death, with Maronite Catholic poet Khalil Gibran: “the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” It can waken us to the Holy Spirit — medieval Arabic poet Rumi:  “...the breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”

The language of poetry waters our hearts, especially in places where we have difficulty receiving. Such as anger. Our personal experience reflects the Church’s poetry. It’s a path to help us receive all that the Church so freely offers. 

“Glory to Him, Who came to us by His first-born! Glory to the Silence, that spoke by His Voice. Glory to the One on high, Who was seen by His Day-spring!” (St. Ephrem).

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