Saturday, April 2, 2011

On Poetry, Prayer, and Gratitude

I mentioned in one of my past blog entries that my own experiences of mystery and wonder led me first to poetry then to theology, and later back to poetry. I think poetry is a more primary response. Theology, like philosophy and psychology are secondary responses in that they require categories, definitions, rules, and analyses. Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, says that every poem is about death and gratitude. The awareness of death heightens the beauty of the world as we see it. As one who attempts to write poetry, I heartily agree with that notion. Poetry conveys that sense of awareness and gratitude.

I consider poetry to be an open canon of scripture, one that is still being written every day, but that’s just me. You have your own canon of scripture, I’m sure. Maybe you are like John Muir who saw “the scripture of nature” and marveled in the presence of nature and its author. Perhaps music is your doorway to the divine.

I must also consider the great souls, such as Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa, who made service to others their witness of God’s presence on the world. Jim Wallis (Sojourners, Washington, D.C.) and Birmingham’s own Jim Douglass (Mary’s Catholic Worker House, Ensley) are examples of people who bear witness to the divine by way of social activism. I believe the mystery of God is conveyed through words, beauty, and actions.

So how does prayer fit in? I was in an online blog discussion a while back in which the question was posed, “Is it okay to pray for material things?” That same week another blogger friend was writing about how he had been influenced by encounters with different faith expressions and wanted to know what others had experienced. Both of those discussions prompted me to take a look at my own attitude toward prayer and faith.

Certainly one’s concept of God will affect that person’s understanding of prayer. I am one who is enlivened by the contact with many faith expressions that we are seeing more and more as our society becomes more pluralistic. I grew up Baptist in a rural, provincial setting and that was enough for awhile. Later, I came to enjoy worship in the liturgical settings of the Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches. It was like learning a new language for worship. As with any new language, new insights arise in the learning. I have also benefitted in personal devotions by reading the works of Quakers (e.g. John Woolman, Rufus Jones, Elton Trueblood), Catholics (e.g. Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Basil Pennington) as well as Buddhist practitioners (e.g. Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

To me, gratitude is the most enriching kind of prayer. It immediately assumes a relationship with the divine and a trust even in uncertainty. Throughout my pilgrimage, my image of God has certainly changed, but I have never lost that sense of gratitude toward a loving ultimate force behind an ultimately friendly universe. This brings me back to Billy Collins’ statement about poetry: every poem is about death and gratitude. Every prayer, every poem, every offering of service we can make is undergirded by the awareness of our own mortality and by our gratitude for the wonder of existence.


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