I have engaged in many conversations about prayer during my years as a catechist. I cannot count the number of young people and adults who have confessed to me that they find it difficult to pray. Time and time again, they have hinted that they don’t really know how to pray beyond the rote statements handed to them as children.
Yet whether we were baptized just outside the delivery room as infants, or came to faith as adults, we have learned the necessity of prayer. Thus, many people quickly recite Our Fathers, Hail Marys, Glory Bes and Blessings before meals without ever having a real prayer. Yet if people are to become disciples and enter into the “covenant drama” of God’s revelation to our human hearts, each of us must allow ourselves to be lifted to the heights of prayer in a way that we cannot. have not known. before (see CCC 2558 & 2567).
I would like to propose a new way to grow in prayer. Well, it’s actually not a new way. Instead, it’s really the recovery of a method that has been tested and found to be effective through many centuries, even before the creation of Christianity. Poetry is the way I propose. By reading and meditating on poetry, we can connect more fully with the God who deeply desires to connect with us and reveal beauty to us. We can plumb the depths and climb the heights that God has in store for us.
This idea of turning poetry into prayer has ancient roots, as far back as the choral songs of Greek theater. Yet it is in the Hebrew tradition that poetry became prayer in a specific way. The Psalms, ancient Hebrew poems primarily attributed to King David, became the prayer book for the worship of the Jewish people. These Psalms contain the full range of human emotions: from love to despair; from joy to regret; from cries of protection to cries of mercy after a serious sin. My own relationship with God has deepened through these prayers; and I have recommended the Psalms many times to others who desire a similar deepening relationship.
The High Middle Ages of Church history was also a time of beautiful epic poems. Saint Thomas Aquinas developed poems that would be sung as Eucharistic hymns meant to lead people to deeper devotion. Perhaps equally significant was the composition, in the early 1300s, of Dante divine comedy. The epic poem, often known as the greatest poem in history, contains many intriguing and mystifying elements that lead readers to reflect on the realities of hell, purgative suffering, and the glory of heaven. And the Divine Comedy (any one of its three main segments) offers a new awareness every time it is read. A reader can remain engrossed in prayer and meditation on these concepts for hours, days, or weeks at a time; and the poem invites readers to skim through its words again and again.
Yet over the centuries there is more wonderful poetry that serves to lead us to deeper prayer. TS Eliot once said, “Dante and Shakespeare share the world. There are no third parties. In the late 1500s and early 1600s, William Shakespeare wrote a series of 154 sonnets, many of which put into words the drama of the covenant between God and mankind. A gem that is often overlooked is Doorbell 62, which examines the reality of original sin in a person’s heart; and the effect that sin has on human history.
After Shakespeare, the English-speaking world continued to produce poetry that expressed great spiritual truths. In 1890, the mystical poet, Francis Thompson, wrote one of the greatest poems in the English language. “The Sky Dog” expresses the reality of a man fleeing and hiding from God for many years and in many ways; and the reality of the relentless pursuit of God that leads to the restoration of right relationship and hope.
At the turn of the 20th century, Gilbert Keith Chesterton proclaimed the beauty and consistency of the Catholic faith through the written word. In his magnificent body of cultural commentary there are a number of epic historical poems, such as “The Ballad of the White Horse” and “Lepanto”. Apart from these epics, a few stand out as expressions of the drama of mankind’s covenant with God, such as “The Return of Eve” which is an expression of God’s plan beautifully manifested in Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus.
On our side of the pond, one of America’s great theologians, the Venerable Fulton Sheen, knew the value of poetry in expressing the drama of soul covenant. He often quoted the poems of others in his writings and sermons. In addition to some of his favorite poems by others, Sheen wrote his own poetry that expresses his experience of divine embrace. These were collected in a single volume, published in 1967, entitled This immense love.
It is even possible to find poetry that uplifts us and leads us straight to the heart of God in our world today. For instance, Magnificat magazine often includes poems as meditations on scripture readings; Integrated Catholic Life has a page called “Catholic Poetry Room”; and the Word on Fire apostolate began recording Jonathan Roumie (the actor who plays Jesus in The chosen) read classic catholic poetry. Readers and viewers can tap into each of these sources for written and spoken words that draw us “to worship, prayer, and the love of God…” (CCC 2502).
The point of all this, however, is ultimately not to read or hear other people’s poetry. The ultimate result should be our own mystical poetry, our own expression of a covenant drama between God and each of us. Whether we publish poems like Dante, Shakespeare, Thompson, Chesterton or Sheen is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to encounter the Divine and to have new and powerful ways of expressing our relationship with Him. It will allow each of us to live a unique poetic life that has the potential to impact the world.