Poetry is the language of faith.Mark Oakley
Not long ago, I shared some thoughts here on how reading poetry has deepened my reading of scripture. Now I want to reflect on how writing poetry has deepened my life of prayer.
I have been reading poetry for quite some time, but not writing very much of my own. The first poem of mine that I published on my blog was in April, in the early days of this pandemic. “My Porch Is My Pilgrimage” was an early reflection on the joys and challenges, spiritually speaking, of sheltering in place. Writing that poem helped me respond to the pandemic indirectly, and reminded me of the truth of Emily Dickinson’s insight that sometimes it is best to tell the truth slant.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —Emily Dickinson
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Not long after I wrote that poem I discovered the poet, Malcolm Guite, and particularly his book, “Sounding the Seasons: Seventy Sonnets for the Christian Year.” This wonderful book of sonnets showed me their potential for expressing theology, devotion and prayer in deeply meaningful and creative ways. From the introduction to this book, Guite writes of the sonnet:
At the heart of its virtues are brevity, clarity, concentration, and a capacity for paradox, for expressing, juxtaposing and containing contradiction, all of which are required if we are to approach the paradox and mystery that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Yes – I believe that paradox and mystery are at the heart of our Christian faith, and that sonnets can offer glimpses of that in unique ways. So, after spending some time with his book, I began trying my hand at writing sonnets of my own. I love the challenge of trying to write something meaningful in fourteen lines. It is a form whose discipline seems to fuel creativity. It is a challenge made more so by being poetry that is typically rhymable, and I love Malcolm Guite’s explanation for the importance of rhyme in an Interview with Lancia E. Smith:
This awareness of our need to recover memory and hope (both which are missing from our wider culture) and to move dynamically between them is also one of the reasons why I chose the particular form of rhymed sonnets for these poems … unrhymed sound depends for part of its effect on the anticipation or hope of the rhyme which is still to come, and the rhyme, when it does come, depends for its effect on the memory of that first unrhymed sound, a sound whose real potential is only fulfilled when it is remembered and so becomes rhyme.
I am grateful to Malcolm Guite for introducing me to this possibility, which he received from those before him (George Herbert, John Donne, and others). I am new at this craft, and my sonnets certainly do not compare to theirs, but it has proved to be a meaningful spiritual practice for me, which has nourished my faith in these challenging times, and which I have enjoyed sharing here on my blog.
Sonnets and Psalms
These sonnets of mine began in conversation with the Psalms, the first being my Sonnet for Psalm 61. The Psalms are poetry, of course, some of the most beautiful poetry that I know. And what better way to interact with God’s poetry than through our poetry? And so, each week I have selected a psalm and spent time prayerfully pondering its meaning before offering my response in the form of a sonnet.
Often, though not always, as I have done this my thoughts have turned to Jesus. The Psalms were obviously written long before the time of Christ, and can be read and prayed without seeing them through the lens of our Christian faith, as our Jewish brothers and sisters have done for millennia. But I read and pray the Psalms particularly as a Christian, so I can’t help but see Jesus at every turn. I still remember coming across the opening line of St. Augustine’s Exposition of Psalm 1 which led to me thinking even more about Christ in the Psalms:
“Blessed is the man that has not gone away in the counsel of the ungodly.” (Psalm 1:1) This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man.
I had never thought of Psalm 1 as describing Jesus, and this insight led me to look for other examples. But when you think about it, even Jesus himself seems to have recognized himself in the psalms, when he referred, for example, to himself as the good shepherd. The same Jesus who prayed these Psalms, most poignantly on the cross, also fulfills these Psalms, in other words, and my sonnets on the Psalms try to reflect that.
My aim is not to write a sonnet about every psalm, although I very much look forward to Malcolm Guite’s project doing just that. Instead, I am simply writing sonnets about psalms or other passages of scripture that currently speak to me. It is a spiritual discipline that has deepened my encounters with God’s Word and blessed me in ways I did not anticipate. I encourage you to give it a try, if you have not already done so, and I look forward to continuing to reflect on God’s word in this meaningful way.
It seems only fitting to share a sonnet as a conclusion to this post, so here it is:
Your Perfect Word
Your word does not need my poems or prayers.
It is perfect without me – complete, whole,
Beautiful; whose truth, so multi-layered,
Breathes new life into my heart, mind, and soul.
But artists try to capture your sunsets;
Composers the music of your angels.
Created in your image we can’t rest
Until we co-create with you, and tell
Of your glory, as you made us to do.
Each of us an artist, your perfect poem,
Created with a born longing to view
This life through your eyes, and see our true home.
And so, Lord of the beautiful sunset,
I offer to you this little sonnet.