By Mary Marrocco
Church embraces power of poetry to speak to us
Jonathan recalled his conflict with a co-worker. In mid-sentence, he
paused for a full minute, then said, “I’m not an angry person,
am I? I don’t want to be an angry person.”
Why is it so difficult, sometimes, to acknowledge we’re
angry? Even those of us who are pretty good at showing anger can find
it hard to own. We might fear its power, or have experience of the ways
anger can unleash terrible harm. Yet some church fathers thought anger
existed in Paradise: could we imagine anger an unfallen, pure gift of
God? A force that works within us, creatively rather than destructively?
When we let anger move properly, it can open up our spiritual lives.
In this regard, the Psalms are teachers.
The Psalms are hymns, and often their poetic verses are used to express
anger: at God, at circumstances, at others. These poems (even in translation)
can help us meet, express and learn from forces like anger, rather than
hiding from or blindly obeying them. The Psalms help us find hidden treasures.
The church has always embraced the power of poetry to speak
in ways prose can’t. This month we celebrate an unusual feast day. It’s
the universal church’s recognition of a Syrian saint who used poetry
to express divine truth. Even if his poetry was not theologically rich
and evocative — which it is — I’d love him just for
being an ambassador of poetry, in ways our prosaic sides can’t
manage on their own. Nor should they.
What can whisper the mysteries of the Lord like poetry? What can mend
the wounded soul more deeply?
One of the most theologically profound New Testament texts
is the Philippians hymn (2:1-11): “Though he was in the form of
God, he did not regard equality to God a thing to be grasped, but emptied
himself . . . ”
St. Ephrem the Syrian is remembered for being a monk, theologian
and holy man, and a poet. His hymns on paradise, on Christ’s birth,
on the Passion, his much-repeated lenten prayer which says it all in
a few words, can reach into our dusty places and polish them to beauty.
Throughout Christian history there’s been a creative tension between
two goods. One is the inner mystical life of each person; the other is
the public, communal life of the church. At times one has been over-emphasized
at the expense of the other. Some folks didn’t need church because
they had direct experience of God, and others held that personal spiritual
experiences are irrelevant or suspect.
Yet they need each other, and the church’s poetic texts help connect
them. Christianity is profoundly personal. It’s about relationship
with the persons of the divine Trinity. That’s why our inner selves
matter, and that’s what brings us into the communion of saints
The church opens us tiny humans to God’s vastness; the poet Tagore
wrote: “Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small
hands of mine.” Our liturgy itself is lived poetry. A key moment
in our Easter celebration is the ancient poem, the Exsultet. Our Creed
proclaims our belief in God the “creator,” but the Greek
word can also be rendered “poet.” Poetry is powerful with
the creative power of God, who speaks his Word (logos) and so creates — makes
poetry. When we bring our poetry before God, we’re making a dwelling
place for God; our responsibility is to make it a true dwelling.
When we no longer can hear the language of poetry, will
we be able to hear God’s Word to us?
Sometimes we get to thinking that theology, along with
church teaching, is prosaic. St John of the Cross wrote a long prose
explanation of the spiritual life — but only upon request, as an
introduction to his two-page poem Stanzas (known as Dark Night of the
Soul). He wanted us to read the poetry so that we could go where he was
Even non-liturgical, non-scriptural poetry can guide us
to the sacraments; as Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “there lives the dearest
freshness deep down things.” It can help us turn from sin to Christ — German
Rainer Maria Rilke: “I live my life in ever widening circles that
reach out across the world.” It can help us face death, with Maronite
Catholic poet Khalil Gibran: “the deeper that sorrow carves into
your being, the more joy you can contain.” It can waken us to the
Holy Spirit — medieval Arabic poet Rumi: “. . . the breeze
at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”
The language of poetry waters our hearts, especially in
places where we have difficulty receiving. Such as anger. Our personal
experience reflects the church’s poetry. It’s a path to help
us receive all the church freely offers.
Glory to Him, who came to us by His first-born! Glory to the Silence, that spoke by His Voice. Glory to the One on high, who was seen by His Day-spring! (St. Ephrem).
Marrocco is an associate secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches. She is also a teacher, writer and lay pastoral worker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org