July 28, 2014

Poetry and Prayer

Every Sunday at St. Lydia’s we read a poem after prayers. I know, reading poetry at dinner church in Brooklyn sounds a little like your stereotypical hipster church, but I find that it is an authentic expression of our community.

For example, this past Sunday I read Mary Karr’s poem, Disgraceland, which is lovely and funny and bracing. It spoke to me, because of the beauty of the words, the way they surprised me and told a story that was bigger than itself. I don’t pretend to understand every line, but understanding isn’t everything.

Now, I’m not all that qualified to talk about poetry. I wrote a poem once in the fifth grade and I think that’s the last time I tried. But I love how poetry feels to me like prayer, something somewhat mysterious that does not speak to me explicitly, but nonetheless reveals something sacred.

My friend Joel Avery recently wrote this blog entry about science and religion, which I think touches on this same idea. He studied physics and now is in divinity school. People ask him about the conflict between science and religion, and his answer is art. “Art doesn’t trump science or religion,” he writes, “art stands as a reminder that there is no trump.”

I think that much of what we do on a Sunday in church—liturgy and music and even poetry—falls into this space as well, the space between intellectual and emotional, the scientific and the spiritual. That is not to say that art, music, and liturgy are not created and used thoughtfully. Rather, it is a reminder that art and prayer and liturgy speak to us in ways we can’t always measure or totally understand, and that’s how it should be.

Lately, I’ve found that poetry and literature speak to me more loudly than prayer and liturgy and sermons. Perhaps that’s because I can engage these things outside of my intellectual misgivings and doubts.

Of course, reading poetry isn’t appropriate in every church, but every church should consider whether its liturgy has a place for the kind of art—including poetry and music and liturgy—that operates just outside our understanding. We often find God there, at the edges of our understanding.