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Praying a Poem

One lush summer afternoon in the mid 1990s, I took a book and a pen and a pad of paper out into the hammock hanging on our upstairs back porch under a canopy of leafy tree branches. The book, called Burning Bright: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, was a collection of poems from the three Abrahamic traditions, selected and arranged according to the motifs of the rhythm of a day: morning, noon, night. I’d been sent the book by a literary journal asking me to review it. Hence the pen and paper—to take notes as I read through the poems.

But something happened as I lay there in the lightly swaying hammock, browsing through the book and making notes for my review. My arms, with the book in one hand and my notepad in the other, soon lowered to my lap; my eyes gazed upward at the leafy branches, as my mind rested with a phrase from the poem I’d just been reading. I don’t recall now what the phrase was, but I remember how it kept repeating itself softly in my mind like a mantra. I felt suspended in the poem, suspended in the hammock. Suspended as if between heaven and earth. The mantra of the poem’s line began to act in me like a prayer, opening my spirit to God’s presence. I realized that for the first time ever (except for the biblical Psalms), I was praying with and through a poem.

For decades I had read and studied poetry. After all, my doctorate had been in literature. But I’d previously read in order to analyze, as I had intended to do that day in the hammock in order to write the review. Was it the hammock’s swaying suspension, its relaxing of my bodily and mental tautness, that released me into poetry’s expansive, prayerful space?

The question is unanswerable. But I do know that this afternoon in the hammock changed my relation to poetry forever. Having once experienced poetry’s opening of my spirit—its unexpected creation of a space where I could expand into the grace of the living and ever-present God—I threw my whole being into embracing poetry’s welcoming invitation. From that time on, I dedicated my work to sharing poetry’s invitation with others: through retreats, workshops, and writing books on how to enter and grow in poetry’s openness.

So I want to offer you an example of praying with a poem. I’ll take “The Tray” by Naomi Shihab Nye (from her 2002 collection 19 Varieties of Gazelle). Here’s the poem in full:

Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handles
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed,
we would sip
in silence,
it was another way
lips could be speaking together,
opening on the hot rim,
swallowing in unison.

So as I’m reading the first line, my mind moves to images of “a sorrowing day”: the candidate I’ve campaigned long and hard for has just lost the election; a friend has lost her husband; another friend has just been taken to the Emergency Room with chest pain….

But then the “steaming hot tea / in a circle” promises warmth and (in that “circle”) some sort of connectedness. It could be connectedness in sorrow — or beyond sorrow; I don’t know which yet.

“[W]e would sip / in silence.” My mind, my heart, my whole being enters the silence. But is it a sorrowing silence? The grief of a group? Or everyone’s private musings? Whatever the case, I hold still in the stillness.

Oh, but the silence becomes a “speaking.” I smile inwardly at the paradox. And I wonder: how can this be? In what way can “lips” speak “together” in silence. I’m almost holding my breath at this wonder…

Until with the final two lines, the mystery is opened — “opening” with the lips of the group “sipping” and “swallowing” “in unison.” What a gift of an image! A togetherness in silence — created by this image of what happens after the tray is passed around. Even if we’re sorrowing, the comradeship of sorrowing together somehow lightens the burden. My prayer is of gratitude — gratitude for this possibility offered by the poem.

And gratitude, too, for my hammock…which brought me to this place of peace…

…and which moves me to want to compose an Ode to my Hammock:

Swaying me in the gentle breeze,
You turn the leaves
Of my book, of the trees.

Reclined in your striped canvas length
I give you thanks…

But no, dear reader, I won’t subject you to any more of my pathetic odic attempts. Instead, here’s a list of some poems that you might want to try praying with:

R. S. Thomas, "Kneeling"
Denise Levertov, "St. Peter and the Angel"
Louise Erdrich, "Fooling God"
Yehuda Amichai, "God has Pity on Kindergarten Children"
Galway Kinnell, "St. Francis and the Sow"
Jane Hirshfield, "Ripeness"

Peggy Rosenthal has a PhD in English Literature. Her first published book was Words and Values, a close reading of popular language. Since then she has published widely on the spirituality of poetry, in periodicals such as America, The Christian Century, and Image, and in books that can be found here.