Perhaps this is true for everyone, but I can only speak about myself: I was an English major in college nearly 30 years ago, but I still act like one nearly every day. I cannot read anything without a pen in my right hand, ready to underline a phrase or section that hits me or to scratch out a quick note in the margins. Whether reading a book, a newspaper or even a magazine in the doctor’s office, I still look to see whether there is a thesis, body and conclusion. And when someone sends an email, I’m looking for spelling errors as much as whatever information is being communicated! I’m hopeless.However, I have also experienced so many positives in being an eternal English major, the main one being that I simply love good writing. Mandatory reading of the classics did not destroy my love for good books. This summer, when others share the guilty pleasures they are reading on the beach, I am hesitant to reveal that I am reading the 2 ½ inch thick edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry. Like I said, I’m hopeless!
One of the wonders of classic literature is how much biblical imagery is contained within it: think of books like East of Eden, Steinbeck’s magnum opus that helped him to garner a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The plot is directly taken from the Cain and Abel story in Genesis. Authors like John Bunyan, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walker Percy and C.S. Lewis only begin to scratch the surface when it comes to listing writers who touch on profound existential themes.
What I’ve been reminded of this summer is how poetry is an absolute treasure trove of such transcendent works as well. There are many spiritual direction lessons to be learned from poetry. Many poems act like compasses that point me in the right direction toward deeper communion with God. For example, a work by George Herbert titled Prayer (I) still continues to speak to me, though I read it weeks ago. In it, Herbert describes what prayer is through a series of incredible phrases. As one author says, “The whole poem comes rushing out as a single breathless exhilarating sentence, piling image upon image in a kind of rhapsodic abandon. The images are startling, contradictory, incapable of conceptual reduction.” Expressions depicting prayer as “soul in paraphrase,” “heart in pilgrimage,” and “reversed thunder” do not just stun me with their beauty, but actually teach me about what prayer is – and could become.
So much more could be said, but my strongest counsel is to join me in this poetry pilgrimage. Look up poems like Caedmon’s Hymn or Beowulf. Spend some time contemplating works by John Donne, T.S. Eliot or Emily Dickinson. Like me, you will need a pen in one hand, and perhaps your Bible in the other as you travel. It is a heavenly trip.
Join the Conversation
How has poetry or other forms of writing given you spiritual direction?
What are some of your “go to” readings when needing some direction spiritually?
Kelly Soifer is the Director of Recruiting and Leadership Development for the Free Methodist Church in Southern California. She also serves as an adjunct faculty member at Westmont College in the Religious Studies Department.