by Jon Nilson
Sunday, June 11, 2017
“We are really well taught only by the words which God addresses especially to us,” says the classic spiritual writer, J.-P. de Caussade. The Church tells us that we find the words of God in the Bible and, of course, we do. Yet, sometimes, doesn’t it feel like the Scriptures are like our family’s stories and sayings? We’ve heard them over and over since we were children. We think we know them so well. We might even think that they have little to teach us now. Reading or hearing them, we shrug. “Oh, yeah, that one again . . .”
At these moments we may need words clearly and unmistakably addressed “especially to us” – and often we can find them in poetry.
Some poetry can be off-putting: confusing, intimidating, or downright unintelligible. Books like Kim Rosen’s Saved by a Poem. The Transformative Power of Words or Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry point us to the kind of poems we need. Then we don’t need a library or a bookstore to find more of them. One of the best “places” to look is www.poetryfoundation.org. Not only can you access a wealth of poems and poets here, but the site also enables you to search for poems that might fit your moment’s mood and needs.
A poem demands, first, that we put our own agenda and anxieties on hold during the time we spend with it. Then it demands that we slow down (no speed reading or skimming!) and read it at least three or four times, letting the sound and sense of the words have their way with us. This is how a poem makes us receptive and prepares us to recognize the words addressed “especially to us” at this point in our life’s journey.
There’s no predicting what God might say to us in poetry. There are challenges, like “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” (Mary Oliver). We also find invitations to praise: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins) or to give thanks: “I mean, / though often forget, / to give thanks, / to faint down by the kitchen table / in a prayer of rejoicing” (Anne Sexton). Testimonies like Jane Kenyon’s “God does not leave us comfortless, / so let evening come” can fortify our faith. When our priorities get mixed up, D.H. Lawrence reminds us, “All that matters is to be at one with the living God.”
And then, as God speaks to us, we may find ourselves speaking back to God, just as John Berryman did: “May I stand until death forever at attention / for any your least instruction or enlightenment.
Jon Nilson is Professor Emeritus of Theology at Loyola University Chicago and a good friend of Old St. Pat’s.