Poetry and Prayer

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the worldLet the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19)

Poetry and prayer have a great deal in common. We observe and reflect in each; sum up some internal or external phenomena in each; pause and breathe in each. We struggle to articulate in each, often finding the apt words escape us despite our best efforts. It’s nearly impossible to divorce poetry and prayer. So knitted together in the literature and liturgy of many traditions they have often become indistinguishable from one another. A person experienced in each might argue that all prayer is a kind of poetry, even that all poetry, in a sense, is a kind of prayer. The writer of Psalm 19 goes so far as to describe all activity in the firmament as a pouring out of revelatory language in which we see God’s reputation on full display. And since the psalmists believed humans weren’t exempt from this work, but were made to “speak” – along with the stars, forests, waterfalls, humming birds and tigers –  the poetic voice ultimately manifests as worship language, merging together with creation’s wider symphony. “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!” sounds Psalm 150 in the energetic closing of the Psalter.

Through poetry and prayer I am part of the symphony, together with “everything that has breath”, active in offering something up. With that in mind, a few thoughts about what can be learned through such offerings. Among a great many others, poetry and prayer give us two gifts: they help us to be honest, and they help us to be present.

A word on being honest. When we offer something up or out, something of our own making, something of ourselves, we know right away (as do others) if it’s honest. There’s no room for posturing, for straining to be more or less than who or what we are. Our listeners see right through all that. Which is one reason, for instance, why the Psalms make as much room for despair and sorrow as they do for hope and joy. The Psalmic Audience wants the truth. A false poem or prayer is not only an an offence to the listener but a foolish endeavour for the author as dishonestly misses the point of each exercise entirely. This lumps us in with Ananias, our hearts “filled to lie”, with death inevitably following untruth as there can be no life, no true communion in deceit. So, no matter how meager or how opulent, a poem or prayer will be well received if it is honest. There might be more incisive poems, more comprehensive prayers, but honesty is the key ingredient. Any offering, whatever else it may be, must in the very least be genuine in heart. And the good news is that we can all start there.

A word on being present. When we stop trying to be someone else, when we’re honest, we stop trying to be somewhere else. Many of us find being present to be a challenge today as there seem to be more distractions than ever. The rapidity of our thoughts and movements make it difficult to feel as though we’re ever really here, pressed in and pushed about in a culture enslaved by stimulation. Poetry and prayer help us to find here again, even if just for a moment, before we’re on to a million others. They help us to take hold of what’s right in front of us, not clutching onto yesterday or grasping for tomorrow. During these honest offerings we settle into where we are rather than where we are not. We’re present to the world around us, to others, and even to God. And make no mistake, if scripture says anything about God’s whereabouts it’s that he’s very much present in the here and now, not only the there and then. The question is, where are we?

Honesty and presence (or truth and connection, we could say) is at the heart of all poetry and prayer. And that is what we long for: to be who we really are, together.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.