Imagining a poetry of Christian spirituality…
I am still gathering poetry submissions for inclusion in an up and coming poetry collection to be published by Proost- please keep them coming in!
Proost is a company set up by Christians to gather together lots of the creativity coming out of the left field ragged edge of the church here in the UK. In doing this they have been incredibly encouraging to people (like me) whose output is unlikely to find other commercial outlets. The poetry collection was an attempt to broaden out this ethos still further.
In the process of looking at this, I have been forced once again to consider what I might understand as ‘Christian’ poetry, or even ‘spiritual’ poetry.
The tradition of church that I grew up has little time for poetry. The nearest we got to it were the lyrics of songs and hymns- with people like Matt Redman or Graham Kendrick as the most widely known contributors. The subject matter and style chosen for these songs is very limited, and goes something like this;
- Substitutionary atonement
- Over use of obvious rhyme structures- face/grace love/above died/justified
- Over identification with love songs- ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ kind of stuff
- Substitutionary atonement
- Lack of room for questions, for uncertainty, for doubt
- Lack of room for lament
- Often driven by commercialism- what sells in the American mid west.
- Substitutionary atonement
These songs became the cultural carriers of our faith- they gave us a proscribed language to describe our understanding of God but this left us only with a set of rather clichéd phrases that we rehashed over and over again- usually strapped to a good tune to make them more palatable.
Hardly surprisingly, those people that wrote poems at all in the churches I went to tended to write poems along these lines too, although this was a marginal practice, as the feeling was that the main forms of expression of faith were preaching the word, evangelising the lost and worshipping through singing.
There is of course a rich tradition of writing poetry in other Christian traditions- Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Asisi, Teresa of Avila, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, Gerard Manley Hopkins, R.S. Thomas, Thomas Merton to name but a few. However, most of us do not know the work of these wonderful poets well, if at all. Some of them we know as people of faith, but the relationship that poetry has to the development of their spiritual understanding is far less clear. It is not something that we are schooled to even ask.
Eastern traditions are much clearer about this relationship. The Sufi tradition of poets like Rumi, Sanai and Attar are all famous because they were poets. The words they made arose from their spiritual journey- they were the very process of engagement with the divine, not an accidental by product. Here is a bit of Rumi to make the point, written around 800 years ago;
Say who I am
I am dust particles in sunlight
I am the round sun.
To the bits of dust I say, stay.
To the sun, keep moving.
I am morning mist,
And the breathing of evening.
I amwind in the top of a grove
and surf on the cliff.
Mast, rudder, helmsman and keel.
I am also the coral reef they founder on.
I am a tree with a trained parot in its branches.
Silence, thought and voice.
The musical air coming through a flute
A spark off a stone, a flickering
in metal. Both candle
and the moth crazy around it.
Rose and the nightingale
lost in the fragrance.
I am all orders of being, the circling galaxy,
the evolutionary intelligence, the lift
and the falling away. What is
and what isn’t.
What makes this poetry so wonderful to us is the freedom that exists in the middle of it- the sense of generosity, wonder and beauty. It opens something up- a window into something deeper. It seems to arise as much from personal experience- revelation even- as from a desire to proselytise or sell a particular idea to us. This is not Christian poetry- but then again, perhaps it is the poetry that we Christians need to be reading.
We often forget that the Bible is a product too of middle eastern mystics, prophets and nomads in their search for God. We forget that around a third of the Bible is written as poetry- not just the obvious bits (Psalms) but we also have searing prophetic rants, apocalyptic weirdness raunchy love poems, even St Paul seemed to be sneaking lyrics from hymns into his letters.
We needed the Bible to be a legal document, a constitional, foundational tool for life that we could mine for concrete instructional truth- what we got was lots of poetry- although we rarely see it as such. It is an interesting question as to whether reading the Bible as poetry changes how we engage with it.
But back to the point of this piece- which is a search for a new kind of Christian poetry- using language set free from the narrow cliches. An honest kind of poetry- that arises from a deep well of the Spirit within us. Poetry that does not shrink from pain, form ugliness, from doubt, from anger at God even. Poetry that asks questions as much as it answers them. Poetry that holds us to account for our actions- particularly those of us in power. Poetry that is skewed towards the weak, the broken, the poor (as these are the last made first.)
Poetry that can become the songs of the Kingdom of God that is woven into the fabric of our world- in each leaf, each ripple, each stratum, each child, each crack addict.
If you should come across poetry like this, you will recognise it for what it is, even if it disturbs you, discomforts you.
And if you do- send it my way!