“Teach us to pray” is a prayer to keep praying. Those who teach us are not always parents or priests or pastors. Sometimes we learn from strangers on street corners whose words stay with us. Sometimes we learn from children, who know how to ask in trust that what they need will be given. Sometimes we learn from poets.

Marilyn McEntyre, When Poets Pray

“Teach us to pray,” the disciples once asked of Jesus. And I continue to join them in praying that same prayer. Because in prayer, I am convinced, we are all beginners, and always will be. There are an astounding number of books on prayer, and I have read a fair number of them. They all have helped me, in one way or another. But I remain eager to learn and grow in my prayer life. And one of the challenges that I often face with prayer is simply the need to slow down. Life is so fast, and like all of you, I am so busy. And so, it is a constant challenge for me to slow down enough to simply listen for that “still, small voice.” But how do we slow down?

Poetry, I have discovered in recent years, is a very helpful way for me to learn to slow down. Poetry helps me to listen, and to ponder, and to linger over a mystery that seems important, but still not quite within reach. And this brings me to Marilyn McEntyre’s wonderful book, “When Poets Pray”. A book that has helped me to slow down, and to linger, and to listen for that “still, small voice.” How does poetry help me to do that? As McEntyre writes in her introduction:

Poetry and prayer are closely related. Even poems that make no pretense of broaching the sacred invite us to look closely and listen to words, to notice how they trigger associations and invite the mind to play with meaning, how they summon feelings that take us by surprise. Poets slow us down. They teach us to stop and go in before we go on. They play at the edges of mystery, holding a tension between line and sentence, between sense and reason, between the epiphanic and the deeply, comfortingly familiar.

Marilyn McEntyre

Poets slow us down, and most of us need to be slowed down. I know that I do. But even when I slow down to read poetry, I can still find it challenging. Reading and pondering poems does not come easily to me. So I was delighted to receive this book as a Christmas gift from my wife, a book that combines my decades-long love of books about prayer with my newfound love of poetry. 

One of the challenges of poetry for me is simply that I find it difficult. Some poems are easier to read and interpret than others, of course. But for me, as a relative newcomer to poetry, it is very helpful to have a guide to teach me how to read and interpret poetry. Books like this one are helping me to learn how to approach poetry. And so, they are helping me to learn how to slow down. 

“When Poets Pray” contains 24 poems, by 24 poets, that are either poems about prayer or poems that are prayer. Each chapter starts with the poem itself, followed by McEntyre’s meditation on the poem. I personally found it helpful to read no more than one chapter of this book a day. Each day, I would read a poem, think and pray about it for a while, then read her meditation on the poem, and then read the poem again. Some of the poems were familiar to me, whether because I have encountered them as hymns (George Herbert’s “The Call”), or because they are poets that I have already spent time with (Mary Oliver’s “Praying” or Scott Cairns’ “Possible Answers to Prayer”). Others were quite new to me. Some will stick with me for a long time. An example would be “Prayer” by Galway Kinnell:

Whatever happens. Whatever

what is is is what I want.

Only that. But that.  

Galway Kinnell

What a captivating little poem! And what a courageous prayer! It takes a lot of trust to acknowledge that we want “whatever happens.” That we want whatever “what is is.” As McEntyre puts it:

Reading Kinnell’s “Prayer” for the first time (and the second and third) made me smile. It still does. It reads like a riddle, or a haiku, or a koan, all of which deliver a surprise deftly, obliquely, eliciting laughter, puzzlement, and then reflection, then insight, sometimes dropping us suddenly, as off the end of a sandbar, into deep waters. 

Read this poem again and see if it does that for you. See if it drops you into the deep waters of really pondering your life, “what is” in your life, and see if this poem becomes a prayer in you, asking in a trustful way that your Creator – who loves you and wants what is best for you – might simply give to you “whatever.”

After the 24 chapters of poems, McEntyre offers an afterword that I found very helpful called “Praying with Poems, Praying through Poems.” If, like me, you are eager to how to integrate poetry into your life of prayer, you will love experimenting with her many suggestions for how you might do this. Let me share with you just one of these practices as an example:

Carry a single poem with you for a week, taking it out to look at when, for instance, you’re standing in line or waiting for the gas tank to fill, or at times when you might be inclined to pull out your phone or riffle through magazines in the check-out line. At the end of the week, see how much of it you know by heart. See what little shoots of feeling and growth it’s produced – how, for instance, it’s fostered gratitude or awareness of God’s presence and hope.

As I “carried” Kinnell’s poem (quoted above) with me, I found this little poem speaking to me at different times and in different ways. Now that I have completed this book, I might start the whole book over again and take a chapter a week, carrying that particular poem with me.

Are you interested in poetry? Do you still find yourself joining with disciples of every generation in asking the Lord to “teach us to pray?” If so, I think that you will find this book to be very helpful, and one that you will return to often. 

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