‘In the kingdom of love there is no competition; there is no possessiveness or control. The more love you give away, the more love you will have.” These words, by poet John O’Donohue, have guided me for several decades. This simple sentiment is a whole sermon in two sentences.
Poetry and spirituality are inseparable. Both bring forth a recognition of familiar human challenges, desires, joys and regrets. Whether hailing the beauty of the breaking surf or excavating the dark chamber of death, poetry takes us on a journey to a richer understanding of what life is all about.
The art and essence of poetry lie in a person’s ability to skillfully use words that invite the reader into the heart of an experience with such potent direction that each line or stanza unveils a new kind of understanding. And poetry can be funny too — or express anger — or reflect suffering. It’s all about the authentic and unique perspective of the poet, and the undeniable fact that the experience of being human really doesn’t change much across the ages. Poetry is timeless and spiritually instructive, introducing us to the subtle messages of Spirit.
When Rev. Roger Butts writes prayers, they often read like poetry. When he writes poetry, it’s certainly prayerful. A hospital chaplain, congregational minister, husband and father of three, Rev. Butts has helped many cross the veil between this world and the next. Those who know him will attest to the fact that every sermon he offers includes poetry to punctuate his message.
In 2020, he released a book called Seeds of Devotion. His second book, Praying the Poets, will be available in early 2022.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention…” — Mary Oliver
Jewish Psalms. Sufi mystical poems, enduring and eternal. St. Paul and his poem on love. Pagans drawing down the moon. Poetry is all over the religious landscape. So is the silence that makes poetry sing.
What if you aren’t religious? What if you are spiritual but not religious?
First, don’t sleep on spiritual wisdom poetry. If your cousin just died, you may find comfort in Psalm 23. If you just fell in love, Rumi may land in your heart. If you seek justice, Mary’s Magnificat may shake you. Angry? The poetry in Job may empower you to scream out: “Why?!” You need not join a religious tradition to get tipsy on its poetic wisdom.
Second, engage in deep reading of “secular” poetry. If Billy Collins mentions orange things in a poem, spend the day finding orange things. Give them a word of thanks. If they are mundane, really pay attention to them. If they are unexpected, take a moment, breathe and fill yourself with amazement. Turn your days into magic. Re-enchant your world.
Find a library. Find Roger Housden’s Ten Poems series. Into lesbian/postcolonial poetry? Natalie Diaz. Seeking inspiration? David Whyte. Nature? Mary Oliver. Pick up five books at Pikes Peak Library District. Like funny? Billy Collins. Our very own Nate Marshall has written a, transcendent book called Finna. Get it.
Sit in silence, read and let the words give you life, whether you are This or That or None of the Above. Let the words give you life.
Ahriana Platten is founder-executive director of In Good Faith and speaks around the country on the topics of interfaith and intercultural understanding (ingoodfaithconversations.org).