Poetry as a Prayer Catalyst

Have you ever seen those frustrating pictures?  You know the ones. The kind that if you stare at them long enough and hard enough, from the right angle and you will see a hidden image?  I always find these frustrating because naturally, I tend to take things at face value but if I’m not careful, I can fall into a trap where I see from the one perspective and miss something beautiful.  This happens in many aspects of life and can happen in the way we read scriptures and even pray.  Without being aware, we all have a predominant worldview which provides a context for us to interpret and evaluate information.  Our worldview quietly operates in the background of our minds helping us to make sense of the world around us.  This forms the basis of what we deem as “normal.”

As healthy and as necessary as our worldview may be, it can limit the way that we experience life because it sets us in a particular way of seeing, we can miss things which may not present themselves in a way we are accustom to seeing.  Sometimes, we will be offended, but as experience confirms, God has no problem offending the mind to reveal the heart!

For this reason, I like to have a few different tools in my prayer tool box.  These include tools to deal with distraction, different techniques of praying or types of prayer and different postures for different settings.   The foundation of it all is my own personal relationship with God but just as you relate in different ways with a dear friend or a spouse - like what is appropriate for a party and what is appropriate for a quiet one on one coffee - so, we too can cultivate our prayer life as appropriate to the setting. Many folks have utilized music to cultivate an atmosphere of prayer.  Another very effective way of cultivating prayer is through the reading of poetry.  Like music and many other kinds of art, poetry has a way of stepping in behind the empirical walls of our worldview and can be an effective and powerful way to engage our hearts.

Poetry uses words in a variety of ways which causes us to use different parts of our brain.  Good poetry invites us into a picture, into something that transcends mere words and tries to connect us to truth, to love, to God and ourselves and each other in a much deeper way.  We find that we interact with the words in a different way than we would a ‘how-to’ manual and often poetry reveals a subtle conduit to the heart.  This in turns frees us to pray more freely, more heartfelt, to see and experience God in the images created for us in scripture and the Word in our hearts.

Discovery of poetry, be it in the Psalms or other poetic or prophetic books of the Bible when read for the beauty and the imagery it creates in our minds, allows us to enter in a deeper way into the mystery of who our God is.  The ancient fathers of the faith suggest that God is so big that He is a mystery, unknowable and yet we are invited to know God if even as through a glass darkly.  St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila would say God cannot be known but by love and to this end, we experience and know love not just empirically, academically but experientially. Please remember - this deeper sense of knowing doesn't mean we throw our brains away.  Healthy thinking is necessary to inform healthy experience and keep it healthy and vice versa.

There is nothing magical about poetry - it is not the poetry that somehow invokes Gods presence.  Rather, poetry, like most of the arts, allows us a shift in point of view so we can recognize the reality of the presence of God in the here and now!

There are several poets I enjoy, and these include: Robert “Mac” MacKenzie, T.S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert and Mary Oliver.  Many of their works are wonderfully rich, beautiful and thought and heart provoking.   I also enjoy the poetry of scripture.  Most notably the Psalms but many of the prophetic books are rich with poetic imagery.  The challenge when reading poetry from scripture for prayer is to resist the temptation to 'mine' principles, rules, history- information.  Instead, allow it to paint a picture - a picture of their relationship with God, the picture that they are trying to paint with their words and then enter into it.  When I say enter into it I mean to read it slowly, pausing when there is something that seems extra rich and savor it - or hold it in your heart.  Not to evaluate it but to appreciate it for what it is and let it speak to your life.



by Robert “Mac” MacKenzie

I climbed a high hill

One day

To watch the sunset


But elated

When I reached the top

I found a grassy spot

On which to rest

And revel in the festivities

Much to my delight

I discovered

That I wasn’t alone

For God had decided

To keep me company

“O my Love

I exclaimed,

Looking at the scene

Stretched out before me

You’ve outdone Yourself

this time!”

Her eyes twinkled a little

Obviously delighted

With my enthusiasm

And her face radiated

With pure childlike joy and wonder

Then without a single word

She lifted her finger to her lips

“Shhh! Let’s just enjoy the moment”

And her Whisper filled and enfolded me

With life and peace

Though her mouth never moved

And the sweetest of smiles

Lingered upon her lips

So in the stillness

With nothing left to say

We lost ourselves

In a display of rapturous beauty

Our hearts as one

Lost in a single sliver of time

As the heavens expanded

Stretched out into eternity

And declared the glory of God.

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