Imagining a poetry of Christian spirituality…

broken statue

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!

Looking through windows…

I heard this on the radio the other day;

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes-
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of your hands-
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Louis Macneice

It is a lovely poem, opening up all sorts of delicious possibilities. I particularly liked the second stanza, as it captures the whole world in an tangerine pip- the drunkeness of things being various.

It reminded me of the way poets look at things- looking through different windows perhaps, and seeing deeply.

It also reminded me of another poem- which the radio programme also made mention of later- by Gerard Manley Hopkins, with these lines;

Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

The first poem glimpses the size and wonder of the world, the second the spaces for God in it.

Amen to both.

Making recovery real…

To Oban today to a Scottish Recovery Network conference on the promotion of ‘recovery’ as a concept and driver for mental health services, and more importantly, for those of us who experience mental ill health.

It snowed, and so we were a bit worried about the drive, but in the end Audrey, Victoria and I got there and back with no trouble.

The challenge and critique brought to services by the change of thinking and shifts in power required to move towards a recovery based system (rather than an illness based system) has been the stuff of my working life for a while now. I have found that it has had the capacity to reignite my passion for the work that I do.

I have spoken about recovery before- here and here, but for those who have not come across the concept before, here is the definition from the SRN website-

“Recovery is being able to live a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by each person, in the presence or absence of symptoms. It is about having control over and input into your own life. Each individual’s recovery, like his or her experience of the mental health problems or illness, is a unique and deeply personal process.”

It is about trying to stop expecting people to fit into hierarchical burearocratic structures, but rather shifting power from the institution to the individual. It is about creating opportunities for people to rediscover hope, and to re imagine what a fuller life might look like.

You could say that it is about the redemption business- the Jesus business. And where he is, I want to be near.

But lest you think that I am doing that familiar paid helper thing, and dividing the world into us (the professionals) and you (the recipients of our expertise) then let me confess that I too am in a process of recovery.

Or should I say sometimes I am.

Because we were asked today to consider what might contribute to our own ‘wellness’, and people gave the usual answers- love, relationships, long walks in the country, meaningful activity, meditation and rich ruby wine… But I was led once again to reflect on my own mercurial sense of wellbeing, and how fragile it was at times.

Because sometimes it seems as though I am merely a victim to unfolding circumstance. Things happen, and I have little control over them, nor my emotional reaction to them. Of course, this is not true. There are lots of things I do, or avoid doing that make me who I am.

It is perhaps more like one of those slow unfolding accidents, that give you chance to react and minimise the inevitable impact- which is nonetheless still painful and shocking.

Of course there is such blessing in this journey of mine too- and I am so grateful that I do not walk alone.

So by way of celebrating these continuing outbreaks of redemption, almost in spite of my own ability to miss them- I offer you this lovely poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins-

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.