Reading sacred poetry is a time-honored spiritual practice. If you'd like to incorporate it into your devotions, we have many resources at Spirituality & Practice for you. Every April for National Poetry Month in the United States we post a new poem every day. See the right column under "Also Recommended" for links to these collections.
The following is about our personal experiences with poetry and how it adds to our spiritual life.
During college, Mary Ann went to a "Religion in Life" retreat that was totally devoted to discussing poetry. Making the connection between a wide variety of poems and the Christian faith was not easy for this political science major, whose only experience of sacred poetry previously had been the psalms.
Frederic, on the other hand, has loved poetry since he was a young boy, and in high school spent months reading and rereading the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Christian mystic who translated the doctrines of his faith into bold and sensuous forms.
Hopkins' most famous lines appear in "God's Grandeur," one of the poems studied on Mary Ann's retreat and Frederic's favorite:
"The world is charged with the grandeur of God
It will flame out, like shining shook foil. . . .
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
This is a wonderful example of a sacramental understanding of God's presence in everything. And for a gratitude practice, nothing matches this poet's playfulness as he salutes the creation in "Pied Beauty":
"Glory be to God for dappled things —
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim."
(To read more about this poet, see Hopkins: The Mystic Poets).
Those early experiences convinced us that poetry transports us beyond our narrow concerns and challenges us to look at ourselves and the world with fresh eyes. Over the years, we have read other Christian poets — William Blake, St. John of the Cross, W. H Auden, T. S. Eliot, Denise Levertov, and many others. Carolyn Forche best described the appeal of their work: "Poetry is the voice of soul, whispering, celebrating, singing even."
In the clatter and clamor of our lives, we need ways to connect deeply with our souls. Whenever we feel depleted, our favorite poets invariably refresh and refuel us. The quality of their attention, the way they notice things we easily overlook, summons the joy and wonder within us. Their songs of both praise and lament speak the words it is sometimes hard for us to articulate. They put us in the presence of the ineffable and the holy. We drop our jaws and swallow our pride.
Businessman James Autry captures another attraction of poetry — it "gives you permission to feel." The best poets tap into our deepest yearnings. This is certainly true of our favorite poet, the Persian mystic Rumi (1207-1273). His verse grows out of the rich soil of Sufism, the mystical expression of Islam, but in his day, as in ours, he was revered by people of all traditions. Christians, Jews, and Muslims attended his funeral in Turkey.
Rumi's poetry is celebratory, pensive, and amazingly down-to-earth. He consistently reminds people of the importance of doing the inner work that will help us feel connected to the Beloved. While the ego frets and struts around the room seeking attention and applause, the poet in "Moving Water" points to another way of being: 'When you do things from your soul, you feel a river / moving in you, a joy."
Rumi emphasizes always staying open to God's grace: "In every gathering, in any chance/ meeting on the street, there is a / shine, an elegance rising up." The God he describes affirms diversity: "The motto of this market is, 'Everyone sells something different, because God enjoys the variety.' " Yet "What is praised is one, so the praise is one too, . . . all this singing, one song."
(The poems above are from The Soul of Rumi translated by Coleman Barks. To read more about Rumi, visit our topic page A Celebration of Rumi. To take an e-course with samples of his poetry by different translators, see Practicing Spirituality with Rumi. To explore Rumi's path under the guidance of Sufi teachers Kabir and Camille Helminski, see Rumi — Living a Spiritual Life.).