Martin Smith: ‘The Parts Prose Can’t Reach’

Episcopal priest Martin L. Smith wrote a lovely piece on poetry and spirituality in the May-June issue of Washington Window (the Episcopal Diocese paper in D.C.) titled Refreshing the Parts Prose Cannot Reach.

Smith is a wonderful spirituality writer, having published such books as A Season for the Spirit, Love Set Free, and The Word is Very Near You. Martin is pastor at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in northwest D.C.

Below is an excerpt from his article:

Many of us have had the experience of responding to poems so viscerally that we are physically and emotionally shaken as they speak to us. We have a heightened sense that somehow the opposites of life – birth and death, connectedness and brokenness, love and fear – are being held together. We hold our breath on the brink of being suffused with meaning. Words glow on the page and like magnets seem to pull us out of our usual harried state into a place where we recognize our own right to be passionate, to be human beings on a divine quest.

Researchers have made some intriguing discoveries. The typical length of the line in poetry in cultures the world over is virtually identical, taking between 2.5 and 3.5 seconds to pronounce. There is a convincing theory that when words convey meaning to us in this short package, followed by a tiny pause before the next line, it allows the input to pass from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, and so our receptivity is fully opened and our consciousness unified. No wonder human culture and religion has placed such value on metred poetry and song in the sharing of meaning, and in ritual. No wonder that pages and pages of text or hours of speech seldom have a fraction of the effect that a short poem committed to memory can have as it lodges in our consciousness and continues to illuminate and challenge us from within.

I am sure I could write an entire spiritual biography by stringing together the poems that came to me unsought as visiting angels at the right time year after year. About 15 poems of Rilke that I learned 40 years ago shaped my whole way of feeling about God: “we feel round rage and desolation the finally enfolding tenderness.” I look through the pages, worn round the edges from use, where I have copied out the poems. Here’s the Tao Te Ching and Li Po. Here are the poems of David Whyte: “always this fire smolders inside. When it remains unlit, the body fills with dense smoke.” e.e. cummings: “all which isn’t singing is mere talking.” Rumi. Mirabai. Machado. W.H. Auden. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Peguy. None of them deliberately researched. We just come upon the poems when we are ready.

In a beautiful poem, Seamus Heaney remembers the counsel given in confession by a Spanish priest: simply, “Read poems as prayers.” Wise man.

Read Smith’s whole piece here.

Francis of Assisi: Obama’s Saint?

tablet-orig1The Franciscan Catholic religious order is celebrating its 800th birthday this year. I grew up around the fantastic women and men who are members of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity and the Order of Friars Minor on the West Coast.

The spirits of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare have had a profound influence on my faith, ministry, and vision of and for the world.

Check out the current issue of The Tablet, a U.K.-based Catholic magazine, which has a great article by literary critic Philip Hoare examines the influence of Francis on arts and culture–not to mention, President Obama. Here’s an excerpt:

Francis’ message of poverty was a potent antidote to an age obsessed with material advancement at the cost of both human lives and earthly resources. This was nowhere more noticeable than in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland”, published a year after Ruskin’s visit to Assisi. It dwelt upon the fate of five German Franciscan nuns fleeing anti-Catholic laws and who drowned together as their ship sank in a storm off Harwich, the sisters holding hands as their leader called out, “O Christ, come quickly!” In his exquisite verse, Hopkins elided the nuns’ fate with their founder’s, “With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance/his/ Lovescape crucified.” In Hopkins’ words, St Francis’ stigmatic body became a landscape of Christ’s love.

Throughout the twentieth century, Francis remained an inspiration to artists and dramatists. In 1922, Laurence Housman, brother of A.E. Housman and a socialist and pacifist, wrote a series of playlets based on the life of St Francis. In 1950, Roberto Rossellini directed the beautifully shot Francesco, giullare di Dio (Francis, God’s Jester). By the 1960s, Francis was recast as a radical, the Che Guevara of the faith. Franco Zeffirelli portrayed him in his 1972 film Brother Sun, Sister Moon, as a proto-hippie in soft focus – complete with a poster displaying the naked saint and a soundtrack by Donovan. In 1989, a tougher Francis was played by the New York-born Catholic Mickey Rourke, in Francesco, a film by Liliana Cavani based on a novel by Hermann Hesse.

Yet even as a new generation embraced Francis’ proto-ecological message, welcoming his recognition as patron saint of the environment, Francis’ words were being invoked to herald an era of materialism. When Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street on 4 May 1979, she intoned the saint’s prayer: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.” Recently, critics of Barack Obama’s tax plans have also quoted Francis at the president: “It is not lawful to take the things of others to give to the poor.” More optimistically, Francis’ embrace of change may be seen in the ambitions of the new leader – who, as a boy, attended the St Francis of Assisi school in Jakarta.

Read the whole article here.