Did you know that poetry can be a tool to grow in faith?
In a world where information is disseminated in soundbites, Instagram stories and TikTok videos, you might be thinking, “Poetry? Why poetry?
At a time when many articles tell you precisely how many minutes it will take you to read them, what need could we have of spending indefinite periods of time with (supposedly) complex writing that is so different from how are we actually talking?
Here is the truth.
Reading poetry is one of those activities that slows us down and invites us to live life more fully. It helps us to truly engage with the world around us. Such activity reorients us towards the beauty of life and even helps us to grow in virtue.
As the famous writer Joseph Pearce said:
Saint Thomas Aquinas shows us that humility is the beginning of wisdom because it is the necessary condition for our eyes to open to reality. One who has humility will have a feeling of gratitude for his own existence and for the existence of everything he sees. This gratitude allows him to see with eyes of wonder. Eyes that see in wonder will be moved to behold the goodness, truth, and beauty of the reality they see. Such contemplation leads to the greatest fruit of perception, which is what St. Thomas calls dilation, the dilation of the mind. It is in this dilation, this opening of the mind to the depths of reality, which allows us to live in communion with the fullness of the good, the true and the beautiful.
Joseph Pearce, Poems Every Catholic Should Know
We all want to be more in tune with the truth, goodness and beauty of our realities, right?
Poetry helps us. Poetry teaches us to “see with the eyes of wonder”. Poetry teaches us to contemplate truth, goodness and beauty. It expands the mind and leads us to contemplate the glory of God.
You may be wondering how to incorporate poetry into your life of faith.
Here are some ideas, using Catholic poetry.
1. Incorporate poetry into your liturgical fasts and feasts.
Allow poems to be part of your liturgical celebrations, Lent and Advent, for example.
In “Lenten Illuminations” by Siegfried Sassoon, we hear about the natural and personal transformation that occurs during this season:
It’s the time of year when, even for old people,
The youth comes knocking on the door with an indefinite
Sorrows and announcements – blurred bliss announced,
And (obvious saying) the boring winter left behind.
I’ve never felt it more than now, when beyond these security walls
Sculpted with Stations of the Cross, spring confident, unloaded, bold,
The first March robin overheard transmitting vision flutes and cries.
What a different approach to this solemn season! Where I would be tempted to associate ideas of Lent with disciplines too difficult for me to achieve, Sassoon invites me to observe the freedom and growth to which Lent (which means “spring”) calls me. It is certainly a season of perseverance, but this perseverance is more like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis or a seed piercing the ground. He calls me up.
Also consider incorporating poetry into your Christmas practices. “On the Nativity of Christ” by William Dunbar is a lovely poem to feast your eyes and ears on Christmas Eve:
Rorate coeli desuper!
Heavens, distill your sweet showers!
For now has risen the bright star of the day,
Of the rose Mary, flower of flowers:
The clear Son, whom no cloud devours,
Overcoming Phoebus in the East,
Detaches itself from its celestial towers:
And nobis Puer natus est.
How vivid and glorious is the scene of Christ’s coming at the beginning of 16andcentury poem. What a party call!
2. Cultivate poetic traditions around the feasts of saints.
Until reading Joseph Pearce’s book, I hadn’t realized how many poems had been inspired by the saints.
You may know Alexandra Greeley and Fernando Flores Cooking with the Saints, where the feasts are accompanied by recipes related to the life of the saint. Why not also start the tradition of reading a poem about a saint on his feast day?
For example, on July 22, consider reading “Mary Magdalene” by George MacDonald.
From a few stanzas of this poem, you can already taste its richness:
With wandering eyes and aimless zeal
She goes here, there goes;
His speech, his movements, everything reveals
A restless mind…
Run Mary! lift up your heavenly voice;
Cry, cry and don’t care how;
Rejoice everyone newly resurrected—
You are the first apostle!
This poem opens a conversation about the transforming and healing power of Jesus. The zeal of Mary Magdalene, redirected towards the love of Christ, made her audacious in her search, even during her Passion and after her Resurrection. His tenacity is something we can all learn from.
In honor of Saint Agnes, “St Agnes’ Eve” by Alfred Lord Tennyson calls us to deeper devotion. Tennyson breathes life into this January feast, inviting us to meditate on what could be Saint Agnes’ prayer and our own:
At the bottom of the roof of the convent, the snows
Twinkle to the moon:
My breath to the sky like vapor goes:
May my soul soon follow!
The shadows of the convent towers
Tilt the snow-covered grass,
Always creeping with the creeping hours
Which lead me to the Lord:
Make my mind pure and clear
As are the frozen skies,
Or that first snowdrop of the year
That in my bosom lies.
The meter and rhyme that guide this poem make it particularly memorable. And Tennyson’s interpretation of winter as a mirror of spiritual life is exquisite.
3. Allow poetry to deepen your appreciation of nature.
According to CatechismGod’s creation reflects Him (CCC 341).
No wonder the natural world figures in the work of so many poets. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “To Nature,” the speaker notices God in the small, simple details of the natural world:
Maybe it’s a fantasy when I
Trying to draw from all created things
Deep, sincere, inner joy that clings tightly;
And trace in the leaves and the flowers that surround me
Lessons of love and sincere piety.
One of the things I appreciate about this poem is that it leads the speaker to embrace the priestly role of our vocation to be priests, prophets and kings (see CCC 783):
And the sweet scent of the wild flower
Will be the incense that I will give you,
You alone God! and you will not despise
Even me, the priest of this poor sacrifice.
How beautiful it is to bring to God the small delights and the smallest details of our day. The appeal here is to notice the “deep, sincere, inner joy” found in these “lessons of love.”
And lest our love lessons end with nature, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reminds us of the beauty of our fellow human beings:
…for Christ is playing in ten thousand places,
Beautiful in limbs, and beautiful in eyes not hers
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
4. Pray with poetry.
Consider bringing poetry into your daily prayer time.
Select a stanza and, as you do with lectio divinathink about the words and phrases that speak to you in the poem.
You may decide to pray the poetry aloud in a group, which allows both hearing the poetry (a very different experience from silent reading) and the insight of several people to further develop the poem. A poem like Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” can be an excellent choice to read in a group for its themes of human restlessness and the constancy of God. The speaker’s sentiments are certainly relatable:
I fled from Him, nights and days;
I have fled it, under the vaults of the years;
I fled it, through the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under the running laughter…
Of those strong feet that followed, followed after.
But with an unhurried pursuit,
And unperturbed rhythm,
Deliberate speed, majestic moment,
They beat – and a voice beat
More instantaneous than feet—
‘All things betray you, you who betray me.’
Unlike the fleeing speaker, Jesus’ step is gentle; it follows “with unhurried pursuit, / And imperturbable rhythm, / Deliberate speed, stately intimacy”, which eventually wins the speaker’s heart.
George Herbert’s “The Pulley” also meditates on human restlessness, viewing it as a gift that can lead to intimacy with God:
But let him keep the rest,
But keep them with distressing trepidation:
Let him be rich and tired, let him at least
If kindness does not drive him, yet weariness
Can throw it on my chest.
With its compact format and focused topic, poetry can be an incredible accompaniment to prayer.
5. Play with poetry.
Good poetry is meant to be read aloud, to be shared.
Not only does it foster community: Joseph Pearce would say it forges bonds that are more real, more meaningful, than activities that divide our attention from others.
So don’t be afraid to play with poetry. Invite friends over and swap reading stanzas together. Memorize poetry, both for your own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of others.
And, if you’re feeling so inspired, give it a try. It can be as simple as writing a short note of gratitude to the Lord each night, incorporating details that engage all five senses. Rhyme and meter aren’t strictly necessary, but if you like them, definitely give them a try.
Poetry is a special elevation of the heart to God. She invites us to wonder, to the extraordinary of life, to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:9) and abundant in his inspirations.
Let the journey begin!
Does poetry intimidate you? Why do you think that is?
Have you thought about finding a favorite poet to encourage your poetry reading? Saint John of the Cross and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were both poets. You can also start with classic poets such as Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.
Share your thoughts on this article with us in the comments below!