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October 10, 2016

tsowI don’t usually like poetry but this book does a kind of lectio divina on a varied selection of poems and likens scripture to poetry- you can’t exhaust its meaning unless you’re a wooden fundamentalist.

Poetry is what we reach for when we are falling in love, when we are grieving and when we search the great mysteries. Much of the Bible is poetry and most of what we do in church is sing, read and listen to poetry. It’s easy to think the language of faith is in creeds, sermons and certainties, but Mark Oakley says that it is poetry that is the person of faith’s native language.

But what is it that makes poetry and faith such close companions? Mark Oakley says it is because God is not the easy object of our knowledge, but the deepest cause of our wonder. In this talk he will invite us on an adventure into poetry’s power to startle, challenge and reframe our vision: like throwing a pebble into water, the words of a poem cause a splash whose ripples can, if we let them, transform the way we see the world, ourselves, and God.

It includes 40 poems from contemporary poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott and Jen Hadfield, as well as poems from earlier generations. Each is accompanied by a reflection, based on a deep understanding of poets and their art, which explores why poetry is vital to faith and how scripture, liturgy and theology are all poetry in motion.


Henri Nouwen: ‘My deepest vocation is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch’.

Marcel Proust came to appreciate, ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes’.

I HAVE come to understand language as sacramental. This means that for people of Christian faith, the placing of our spaces, the metaphors, rhythms, cadences, and chosen vocabulary, is as vital to the transforming of the flat world of first impressions into the rich interconnectivity of the Kingdom of God as the placing of bread and wine on the table, and the pouring of water into the font.

We may be working very hard to ensure that our Christian communication explains and clarifies biblical and religious metaphors, giving one meaning to a biblical text, and, in doing so, maybe depriving them of their sacramental effect. Identify the point, it is assumed, and no more need be said.

But part of the point may well be that there is no single point, but a range of possibilities, to be brought into play as free and flowing as the font waters and as extravagant in meaning as the wedding vows — being allowed to filter into all the levels and invisible histories of those who listen.

The eucharist is the sacrament that feeds us by making us more hungry. It deepens our desire for God. Faith intensifies rather than satisfies our longing for God. Are our words to do the same, feeding by their refusal to be captured? In poetry, the poem never has the last word. To use an image of D. H. Lawrence (from “Morality and the Novel”), if you try to nail down the meaning of a poem, it either kills the poem, or the poem gets up and walks away with the nail.

Poetry reminds us that words are not just a medium for conveying something else, but are themselves an essential constituent in the ex­perience. Thomas Howard describes this well: A poem is a thing. It is not a set of fancy trimmings to an otherwise obvious truth. Many readers suppose that that is exactly what poetry is: fancy trimmings. On the contrary, poetry is language brought to its most scorching, most succinct, most pellucid purity, like a Bunsen burner, where we want, not a bonfire, but a small prick of blue flame.

(from Dove Descending: A journey into T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, Ignatius Press, 2006)

It is because of the open-ended images of poetic forms that their power is exercised. All imagery forces us beyond containment. Words carefully crafted induce us to move beyond their literal meaning towards thinking in quite a different way, and so, potentially, of a quite different order of reality.

Poetry allows a creative freedom in terms of “constructing meaning”, as opposed to be “being told something”. The great poet Geoffrey Hill calls this poetry’s “democracy”.

As readers of scripture, we all too quickly jump to a single meaning, whereas scripture derives much of its power from the fact that the images are multivalent; that is, they allow our imaginations the possibility of moving in more than one direction. Language must be richer than our prejudices, and even in a clash or dissonance of words, they can function sacramentally.

Our faith is nothing without metaphor, without analogy, without sacramental shape and sound. Scriptural poetry liberates words from a hardened possession of definition, in praise of a God beyond our imagining, and yet intimate to our realities. Let’s celebrate the fact!

The whole scriptural enterprise is that of trying to read the love between the lines. Nothing saddens me more than the thought of the poetic and radical richness, and the imaginative playfulness, of the Christian tradition being daily simmered down into a self-exonerating interpretation of selected parts, often narrowly centred on who’s supposedly in and who’s out in God’s eyes.

The Orkney poet Edwin Muir wrote about a form of Presbyterianism he had been brought up on:

The Word made flesh here is made word


A word made word in flourish and arrogant


See there King Calvin with his

iron pen,

And God three angry letters in a book,

And there the logical hook

On which the Mystery is impaled

and bent

Into an ideological argument.

(From “The Incarnate One” in The Penguin Book of Religious Verse, edited by R. S.

Thomas, 1963)

We all need to watch ourselves, though. It is too easy, in a world of constant chat and com­ment, to develop low expectations of lan­guage; to see it purely as some helpful utensil to point to things, or clarify reason with.

If I suddenly appeared next to you now, and said in a prim BBC voice: “Here is the news,” you would probably sit up and be ex­pectant to hear truth coming your way as facts — things that have happened over the past 24 hours with some added commentary that you will try to assess for accuracy.

If, though, I said to you instead, in more hushed tones: “Once upon a time,” you would probably be equally expectant, maybe more so, and ready to hear truth coming now in a dif­ferent form, in narrative or poem; and your heart and mind would work at different levels together to draw meaning from this encounter. We are used to tuning in to truth in lots of ways but often forget it.

The questions here for those of us with Christian faith are: When I go into church, how are my ears tuned? When I sit down to study the scriptures, how then am I tuned in? When I take part in a liturgy, a Bible study, a retreat, how have I adjusted my hearing? Can I see the poetry that is called a psalm, a collect, a hymn, a eucharistic prayer? Can I hear the poetry of the worship song, the Bible reading, the sermon?

These are important questions because if we come ready to “hear the news”, but are actually being asked to come and live in a poem, there is a problematic category error (mythos being encountered as logos, to be a bit classical about it). And this will lead to a lot of frustration at everything sounding a bit implausible — or very implausible. Religious faith is poetry plus, not science minus.

AS A CHRISTIAN, I believe that God has given us all a gift. It is our being. God asks for a gift in return — our becoming: who we become with our being. Because our gift ‘ back to God is lifelong and continu­ally shifting and changing, it means that any language that is to be true to this spiritual adventure of being alive needs equally to resist closure; to protest at black-and-white conclusions and fixed meanings.

To be a language of human growth and formation, it needs to be a language of provocation, with tricks of the light, and complex, nuanced prompts that shift our terrain; that interrupt our snoring. Only this type of language will resemble the life of the soul in relationship and conversation with God, always furthering our bound­aries into fresh wisdom and new being.

The language that helps us become, develop, and mature is rarely factually informative. It is, again as Jesus showed in his own teaching, parabolic and pushy, as it forbids our comprehension to close down.

I doubt that if, Jesus had written a clear manifesto, mission statement or instructive text-book on the Kingdom of God, we would still be engaging excitedly with his vision today. His ceaselessly figurative preaching stops us, and our hope, becoming grounded. He never tells us what the Kingdom is, only what it is like.

“A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” noted Paul Valery. Poetry is the language that most truly reflects the life of the soul. It is not for nothing that the Psalms remain one of the most treasured parts of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

I am privileged to be a spiritual director to some incredible people. One of the questions we find our­selves asking from time to time is: Who do people become in my pres­ence? When they are with me, who do they become?

It is a question we can ask when in the presence of a poem, too. Poems can be very helpful to two people in this soul-friendship, as they unearth things that we know somewhere within us, but have never yet said, or even consciously recognised.

When John F. Kennedy gave a eulogy to the American poet Robert Frost, reminding his listeners that art was never a form of propaganda, but a form of truth, he said: “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”

And just as the person of faith brings him- or herself before God in prayer, seeking the freshness that will illuminate his or her own reality, so that it might be humbled by God’s, so reading a good poem can be like standing in an empty room, having to confront yourself and the depths that you have learned to ‘cover over or avoid. _ Poems and prayer make us think about lives that have never been. ours because forces of habit have deprived us of them, and they set us on course to be remade to fit our larger unspoken hopes and glimpses. Poetry may be fun or sad, complex or accessible, but it is always inseparable from possibility.

The American poet Emily Dickinson captures this in one of her untitled poems:

I dwell in Possibility —

A fairer House than Prose — More numerous of Windows ­Superior — for Doors —

Of Chambers as the Cedars ­Impregnable of eye —

And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky —

Of Visitors — the fairest ‑
For Occupation — This ‑

The spreading wide my narrow


To gather Paradise —

I’m a Shropshire boy by birth, and I love returning to what is one of the most beautiful counties of England. There are a lot of sheep in Shropshire, and I joked once with an old shepherd that my boss in London had a shepherd’s crook a bit like the one he was holding. I asked him if he used it to haul in the naughty stray lambs.

“No,” he said, “that’s not what this is good for. I’ll tell you what I do with this crook. I stick it in the ground so deep that I can hold on to it and keep myself so still that even­tually the sheep learn to trust me.”

I have been dying to preach at a bishops’ consecration service ever since!

It seems, though, that, as well as being a good model for a pastoral ministry, this story could be applied to how poetry differs from our day-to-day language.

“Let us be proud of the words that are given to us for nothing, not to teach anyone, not to confute anyone, not to prove anyone absurd, but to point beyond all objects into the silence where nothing can be said,” advised Thomas Merton (“Message to Poets” in Selected Essays, Orbis, 2013).

Instead of its being used to barter, argue, and casually relate, poetry is the language that is more rooted in a deeper earth, and which, with patience and attentiveness, we can learn to trust. We can have faith that it is leading us to places of refreshment, even if we don’t yet know where those might be. It is the language that takes on the spirit of self-postponement that can too easily take hold of a life.

ATTENTIVENESS, Malebranche said, is the natural prayer of the soul. Poetry is a form of attention, a literal coming to our senses, a turning aside from convention and memory. Our attentiveness will make us more alive by the time we die. We are greed of first impress sions, as we properly attend pa­tiently on what is before us.

In poetry, with this initiation of attention: seeing is meaning. This is more than important because of all the aggressive danger that fantasy fuels in us. Poetry can instil a peace as we come to see, in an incarnational way, how the material and the spiritual are indivisible. Poetry and faith are both arts of attention.

Rowan Williams has written: one of the tests of actual faith, as opposed to bad religion, is whether it stops you ignoring things. Faith is most fully itself and most fully life-giving when it opens your eyes and uncovers for you a world larger than you thought — and, of course, therefore, a world that’s a bit more alarming than you ever thought. The test of true faith is how much more it lets you see, and how much it stops you denying, resisting, ignoring aspects of what is real. (What is Christianity?, SPCK, 2015)

Again, the same could be said of poetry.



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