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The Poetry of Prayer
A recent Friday forum of the City Club of Cleveland, its nationally broadcast lecture series, featured Dave Lucas, Ohio Poet Laureate, presenting an engaging invitation to “welcome readers, and in some cases welcome readers back, to poetry.” In his opening remarks, he defined poetry as “a name for the pleasure we take in the language we hear and speak, read, and write. We savor words for how they sound and what they mean, the wonderful alchemy of their sound and sense together, even as we use them for the most mundane, practical purposes.” It brought to mind how we sometimes refer to the poetry of life, when mundane and practical experiences conspire to reveal deep meaning and awaken unexpected emotion.

Mr. Lucas teaches a course at Case Western Reserve University entitled Poetry for People who Hate Poetry, which is also the title of a syndicated newspaper column that soon will be in distribution state-wide, three examples of which he read. In one of these he described how, on the first day of class in the course he teaches, he asks the students to share a favorite word. After some moments of self-conscious hesitation, they begin to offer examples such as serendipity, defenestrate, home, and dream. Some words, he explained, seem chosen for the way they sound, others for a particular importance they may hold beyond their strict definition.

Listening to his talk on the radio, in the solitude of my car and the privacy of my own thoughts, I found myself wondering what my favorite word might be. Fidelity came readily and first to mind, a word that regularly emerges in my prayer as expressing God’s relentless presence in my life, especially when I feel least deserving of it, and the compelling aspiration to return the same in my relationship to God and to others. (I imagine the fact that Sue and I had earlier the same week marked 30 years of marriage may have been a contributing factor.)

Gratitude followed soon on its heels, no doubt for similar reasons. I suspect that these two words stepped to the front of the line because they seem essential to the disciplines of faith, those practices that make us more fully disciples of Jesus. Indeed, fidelity and gratitude feel like marks of a mature spirituality. I will confess that the word perseverance came quickly to mind as well, but only as pronounced the way the British do, as with the syllabic emphasis in Severance Hall. To my ear perséverance exhibits, as Poet Laureate Lucas remarked, “the wonderful alchemy of…sound and sense together.” Just holding one of these words for a few moments makes me yearn to know it more fully. It invites me to incarnate it, to bring it to life in my life. For words like these to bring us deeper meaning, to become poetic, they need more than just a passing recognition. They need to be held.

Prayer has a similar nature. When a thought or emotion falls on the heart and is held there for a time, it connects with our being in ways we might not have expected. Held in prayer or as a prayer, it can awaken other feelings and desires, fears and expectations, regrets and thanksgivings. While it is certainly true that panic can generate considerable prayer and lead us, in the words of the Prayer Book, to acknowledge our dependence on God alone, the prayer of contemplation, of holding a word or a thought or an image or a person before God requires some patience, humility, and surrender (other favorite words). It requires us to put other things aside and take time. Time with God, time in quiet, time at peace.

The Roman poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso), whose life overlapped for a few years with that of Jesus and whose poetry I struggled with in Latin class as a schoolboy, wrote, “Poetry comes fine-spun from a mind at peace.” As does prayer, of course, the prayer that breaks us open to experience deeply the life of our own soul and to cherish the loving presence of God in Christ. When we quiet the mind, the heart is more free to fine-spin prayer. In this way our prayer, in every form, becomes the poetry of the soul. That, I believe, is how it falls upon God’s ear.

In these late weeks of summer, I pray that we will follow the example of Jesus and take time to rest in God’s presence, even if only for a few minutes each day, to deepen the disciplines of holding and being held – holding in our hearts the words and images that write the poetry of our lives and being held by the God who hears our every prayer as a poem longing to be lived.

In the vegetable beds at Bellwether Farm, Kyle Mitchell, the Farm Manager, has planted every seventh row as a “sabbath row.” Rather than holding vegetables, it holds pollinators, beautiful flowers that attract the bees and other insects that pollinate the crops. Each sabbath row is an icon of rest, reminding us that our souls need the same. In our busy lives, the occasional sabbath row, the few quiet moments of intentional peace, are where our prayers take root and grow into fidelity, gratitude, perseverance, and all the disciplines that make us disciples of Jesus.

As Ovid wrote, “Take a rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.”

Gratefully, 
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio
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