Relig-ish: Poetry as Sacred Text

Today at Relig-ish we have a special guest, Jessica Schafer. (old site :: new site) Jessica and I met on a Soulsister’s Retreat I hosted 3 summers ago. (Three!! How can that be!!) Jessica is a spiritual director who’s soul is dedicated to poetry. This weeks as a follow up to A New Kind of Sacred Texts, she’s talking with us about how poetry helped her find a spirituality that fits.

Poetry as a Spiritual Text
by Jessica Schafer

For a long time I thought poetry was pretty much only useful to high school English teachers and those ultra-deep artsy types who wrote poetry so abstract my eyes just wouldn’t stop rolling. Then I discovered Rilke. And Rumi. And Mary Oliver and John O’Donohue and Hafiz. And now? Now poetry is the lifeblood of my spirituality. Its all about finding a poem or poet that fits.

The poems that fit for me are the ones that make me pause and savour the phrases and metaphors that stand out a beat longer than the rest. Poems where the symbols and images in the words are like open doors into new ways of knowing and being. Poems that remind me that in the grand scheme of things, I’m not alone in my questions, my dreams, my desires, my suffering and my joy. I’m praying the poem, because someone else prayed it first.

One of my chief frustrations with prayer as I grew up knowing it was the apparent one-sidedness. I knew it was supposed to be “dialogue” and that God would “answer” if I listened, but no ever talked about how to listen or that maybe “listening” could take different forms. Like, reading poetry or listening to poetry spoken out loud. Some of the poems I turn to over and over again are the ones written in the voice of the Divine:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
You need to keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself be separated from me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Poems like this are an anchor, a cornerstone for my faith. I pray them as a means of dialogue, of hearing God remind me of who I am, who God is and what life is all about. Here’s what that dialogue looks like on paper:

When I sit with a poem like this, it forces me to slow down and become truly present, to really chew on the words and find where they resonate in my heart, not just my head. It asks me to shift my mindset away from the day-to-day and into my emotions and intuition, the sliver of divinity in me.

“. . . the head is not a very good place for prayer. It is not a bad place for starting your prayer. But if your prayer stays there too long and doesn’t move into the heart, it will gradually dry up and prove tiresome and frustrating. You must learn to move out of the area of thinking and talking and move into the area of feeling, sensing, loving, and intuiting. That is the area where contemplation is born and prayer becomes a transforming power and a source of never-ending delight and peace.” ~Anthony de Mello

Poetry has also changed the way I pray for others. Phrases borrowed from my favourite poets let me express my empathy and their need in a much more profound way than all the overused and overtired phrases I started to tune out in church. Praying for others with poetry reminds me that I am just a channel for grace, that the source of any wisdom or comfort I offer is the deep well of our collective human experience. Take a moment and imagine me praying these words over you:

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

~John O’Donohue, “Beannacht”

Can you feel the cloak?

Jessica Schafer is a spiritual director and lover of poetry. You can read about her soulcare work here, or find her at a new poetry blog, Poem Postcards. She also blogs about s-e-x, at Conversations About Sex and Faith.


What about you? How do you relate to poetry? What poems, poets or quotations have become your sacred text? How has a poem shaped part of your life?


Relig-ish is a new series at Magpie Girl dedicated to exploring a new kind of faith. Come along with us as we help each other find a spirituality that fits. Click here to read all the Relig-ish posts, and join the mailing list for additional musings on this (re)construction project. Thanks for being here today. Much Warmth, Rachelle

Spiritual but not religious? Recovering Evangelical? Jill of all faiths? You might be relig-ish. Browse the posts to learn more, or click here to watch a video about our relig-ish community.

Teachingwithsoul May 13, 2011 at 10:45 am

Beautiful post. I have also recently re-discovered a passion for poetry. I’m now on the hunt at used book stores to build a collection of poetry books. Have so far been very successful. Going to keep a series on the topic going on my blog. And Yes, I felt the cloak. Blessings to you, Rachelle.

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