Poetry as a Resource for Worship in the Lenten Season

Article excerpt

This essay examines the suitability of poetry as a vehicle for prayer, worship and meditation. It takes two specific examples of Lenten courses based on poetry: one based on depictions of the events of Holy Week and one based on a discussion of the problem of suffering in a world created by a loving God. It also looks at the liturgical use of the arts in Holy Week services.

Poetry provides, in my experience, some of the most potent material for use in Christian devotions, whether in private meditation, or in the liturgical context, or in Lenten discussion groups. It will be worth asking ourselves two questions before we look at it more closely. Why does poetry have a more powerful effect, in this context, than ordinary prose? And what kind of poetry should one choose for this purpose? When we have answered these two questions, we can then look at the ways in which such poetry can be most effectively used.


"How shall we attempt to describe or express ultimate reality except through metaphor and symbol?"1 In this statement, poet R. S. Thomas pinpoints the essential difference between poetry and prose. Prose is useful in relation to the things of this world. It can describe the material objects that surround us, and the concepts created by logical discourse. Poetry, on the other hand (and this includes "poetic prose"), takes us into another world of aesthetic experience, in which, mysteriously, we get some insight into what lies behind and beyond external reality.

Philosophers, over the years, have tried to explain the effect of the arts upon us, whether music, the visual arts, or poetry. What causes the "shiver down the spine" that these arts can create? The Christian would answer that it is the glimpse that we perceive, however dimly, of "ultimate reality." The arts can help us to experience the "reflections in a mirror" that are the only glimpses we will get in this life of what we will eventually "know as we ourselves are known."2

While it is easy to understand why music and the visual arts achieve this effect, using as they do components unrelated to discourse, poetry is a rather different matter. After all, it uses words, the same basic materials that prose does. Words, as used normally, are material tools to deal with the material world. Yet the same words that prose uses so pointlessly, can be transformed when they are used in poetry, where they are neither obscured nor constrained by the norms of logical discourse. In poetry, these same words can suggest, hint, give halfperceptions, draw unexpected parallels or double meanings, and create ambiguity, from which far more profound insights can be drawn. R. S. Thomas, in one of his poems, draws a contrast between the "aggression of fact" created by the words of prose, and the way in which poetry "fights language with it own tools."3

It could thus be said that good poetry, whether religious or not, can be the basis for religious meditation (in that through the poet's art we gain a glimpse into the ineffable). But in the religious context, there is of course far greater scope for meditation, worship or discussion if one chooses poetry with a Christian content. In this there is one potential drawback, however. If all great art, including poetry, can be seen as implicidy Christian, not all Christian poetry can be seen as "great," or even good. There are three great dangers that such poetry finds difficult to avoid: sentimentality, piety, and banality. The Christian poet Norman Nicholson, in the introduction to his 1942 Anthology of Religious Verse Designed for the Times, describes the kind of Christian poetry that is only too common:

Many people think of "Religious Poetry" as moral uplift in rhyme or pious verse about the Good Shepherd - the literary equivalent of the pictures distributed by Sunday Schools at Christmas and Easter. There is no need to despise such verse or to doubt the sincerity of those who write it or enjoy it, but, to the more critical reader, the use of conventional images and worn-out phrases seems to imply that Christianity itself is no longer a living thing. …