Religious poetry can be very healing and comforting inasmuch as it draws us closer to God who is the source of all goodness and well-being. Poetry in general has always had a metaphysical dimension, but religious poetry has a theological dimension because it is specifically God-directed. “And our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” Poetry can help us to attain to this rest in God, which in turn enhances our well-being.
Psalm 23 can be particularly comforting:
Psychiatrist Smiley Blanton relates he had little success in treating a patient’s depression until he began reading to her these words from Cardinal Newman’s poem Lead, Kindly Light:
Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,
Lead Thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on;
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Dr. Smiley states: “Later, I explained that her depression would take some time to cure but that her recovery would be hastened if she would just try to relax for an hour or so each day and as far as possible banish all unpleasant thoughts from her mind. And I recommended she prepare herself by reading this poem and some others…. (The Healing Power of Poetry, p.30).” Dr. Smiley further states that “I write from a long experience in using poetry as a specific means of therapy.”
The poetic originality of the priest-poet Gerard Manley Hopkins has a profound rejuvenating quality to it. Here we look at his masterpiece, God’s Grandeur.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs— Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
What is it about this poem that heals us? It is as W.H. Gardner observes of Hopkin’s poetry the “sensation of inscape – a quasi-mystical illumination, a sudden perception of the deeper pattern, order, and unity which gives meaning to external forms….” (Penguin Poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Introduction). Hopkin’s poetry frees us from the excessive analysis that burdens the mind and takes us back to the “primal intensity” of simplicity and beauty that draws us nearer to God. Here is another example of “inscape” in Hopkin’s poetry:
John Ciardi once said that “Poetry itself is a religion; it gives meaning to life.” Paul Roche adds that poetry “is in touch with a wider, deeper and more immediate range of being.” But religious poetry goes even further than this: it puts us in touch with the primordial reality of all things: God who has life in Himself. The greatest value of (religious) poetry, then, when read and meditated upon, is that it restores our own being in God. Now that’s Catholic strength!
Thomas Mulcahy, M.A.
Ref. I am relying primarily on The Healing Power of Poetry by Dr. Smiley Blanton (Guidepost Associates, Inc.). Nothing in this note is intended to be a substitute for good and necessary medical and professional care.
Note on poetry and prayer: When the words of a poem, deeply experienced, elevate your heart to God there is in this moment an invitation to prayer. It is not to be forgotten that the ultimate purpose of meditation is to enkindle prayer and conversation with God. On this point see Pope Benedict XVI’s address of August 31, 2011 wherein he discusses how “artistic beauty can lead the heart to God” and prayer. See also Conversation With Christ by Thomas Rohrbach. Prayer unites us to God.
Photo attribution: The photo above is by Edwardx, March 29, 2014, “Gerard Manley Hopkins BluePlaque,” at Wikipedia under Gerard Manley Hopkins, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.
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