Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prayer the Church's Banquet

Here is an amazing poem by the English clergyman George Herbert (1593-1633).

Prayer the Church's Banquet

Prayer the Church's banquet; Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet, sounding heaven and earth ;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days' world-transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear ;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

This poem, in sonnet form, is essentially a list. I find it provocative and daring, I don't understand it all, but it makes me almost "hungry," in my soul.

What does it mean that prayer is "reversed thunder" or an "engine against the Almighty"? I don't really know, but I like it. I believe it.

And how wonderously helpful to think of prayer as the "soul in paraphrase." How beautiful to be able to say: "God's breath in man returning to its birth."

This poem very much recalls for me a poem by contemporary poet Carol Ann Duffy. She also uses the sonnet form to write about prayer. It's very modern in its ability to believe (by which I mean filled with angst and self), but still, I find it beautiful and full of hope. It's worth comparing these two poems.

Let these poems get into you... their cadences and images, their music and meaning. Maybe comment on your favorite phrases. And for an assignment, write your own list-poem exploring all sorts of facets of something that captivates you.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

"Art as Spiritual Formation" or "What Mary Oliver Said"

I was going to title this blog "more great stuff about how the making of art parallels our journeys in spiritual formation." But that was a little long. The truth is, more and more I see that the making of art is a way becoming aware and alive to one central part of me that is being spiritually formed. (not the only part, but a very crucial one...perhaps this is our soul?)

I just read something Mary Oliver wrote along those lines. For those of you who aren't acquainted with Oliver--check her out! Oliver is a contemporary poet who is an Anglican (or Episcopalian) who writes beautifully and accessibly both about nature and about Christ. The Christian element is most especially obvious in her recent book, Thirst.

I have been reading one of her books about how to write poetry, A Poetry Handbook. And at the very end she mentions two "cherished" quotes about art making. The first by the French novelist, Flaubert. He says, "Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation."

Oliver then comments: "What a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one! How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well do you look and see the things of this world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them.... What Flaubert is talking about are skills, after all..."

My response to what she says and to Flaubert's quote is to say, Yes. Talent is a small thing. And not worth my attention, since it is completely outside of my control. The parallel to our spiritual journeys, that I see, is that for any good change to occur in any part of my life, I am completely dependent on the grace of God coming to me. And I can do nothing to control this. But, I can do something. I can learn skills of "Patience" and "intense observation".

As Oliver says, "When people ask me if I do not take pleasere in poems I have written, I am astonished. What I think of all the time is how to have more patience, and a wilder will--how to see better, and write better."

A Wilder Will.
What a remarkable thing to say... to dwell on... to pray for.

Oliver's second cherished quote is from the poet Emerson, who said: The poem is a confession of faith.

Oliver then says,

"Which is to say, the poem is not an exercise. It is not "wordplay." Whatever skill or beauty it has, it contains something beyond language devices, and has a purpose other than itself. And it is a part of the sensibility of the writer. ....."

In the quote below Oliver talks about the importance of nourishing that "sensibility..." which I would call the "soul." Obviously this nuturing is crucial for every soul, not only those who would be poets. Her counsel is good and beautiful. I give it to you as a blessing:

"Althetes take care of their bodies. Writers must similarily take care of the sensibility that houses the possiblity of poems. There is nourishment in books, other art, history, philosophies-- in holiness and in mirth. It is in honest hands-on labor also... And it is in the green world--among people, and animals, and trees for that matter, if one genuinely cares about trees. A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry. Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision--a faith, to use an old-fashioned term.

"Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry."