The colloquial phrase “a picture’s worth a thousand words” is usually meant to champion the power of art, which speaks in a way that words cannot. I’d like to argue that the opposite is also true: sometimes words can truly “speak” in a way that can’t be expressed by visual means. In the realm of poetry, the written word uses eloquent rhythmic imagery and visual strokes to “paint” a feeling or idea in a new and beautiful way. In Christian poetry, this is taken one step further: the written word may allow us to encounter the Word Incarnate.
The rich imagery of Christs bloody sweate by St Robert Southwell, SJ invites readers to a deeper encounter of the paschal mystery throughout the Triduum:
The first five lines can be read either horizontally or vertically, and each way of reading creates a different meaning and experience. The physical, concrete objects in each line speak of tactile realities, but also invite us into the deeper theological meanings underneath. We are brought into the greater experience of Christ’s death and resurrection, which brings us together and frees us- through death- into life.
Though it has no salvific power in itself, poetry still has the ability to bring us together in a common human experience. The words of poetry “…reconcile, they free the individual from the isolation of his loneliness, they make the whole present in each one; they speak of one death and we taste the death of all; they voice one joy and joy itself penetrates our heart; they tell of one man and we have learned to know all men.” (Rahner, 3). Poetry, used in a catechetical or theological context, has the ability to renew the signs of our faith with new meaning. Exploring each line in turn leads us to a new, richer understanding of Christ and our place, our role in our faith communities.
The Altar by George Herbert is another poem that might bring us to a new experience of worship outside the liturgy:
The use of both rhyme and spatial alignment make this poem catechetically accessible to an even wider age range. Although it was written in the 17th century, its phrasing and grammatical structure are more accessible than Southwell’s, and with a little guidance, could be adapted for younger audiences. The text’s central alignment forms the visual structure of an altar, and the use of capitalization emphasizes the themes: ALTAR, HEART, SACRIFICE, and ALTAR again, repeated. This altar is not merely a physical structure, but a spiritual offering of will. It is an invitation to follow Christ’s act of sacrifice on the cross and Eucharistic table by sacrificing our hearts and our very lives to be God’s.
Through imagery and rhyme, poetry like this can become a prayer. When we pray through poetry and ask God to change our hearts, we practice the art of surrender. “To ask is actively to acknowledge that we are not the origin of every good and every gift, and it is actively to acknowledge that the one whom we address is what he is” (Chretien, 21-22). This is especially true of prayer with scripture, the Word who became flesh in Christ and who continues to speak to us in the Old and New Testament. God, the Word, is in control, and worthy of every good gift. By opening our ears and hearts to the power of the poetic, we might also open our hearts to God, surrendering our will and becoming able to hear his voice in us.
The written word uses both rhythm and imagery to illustrate a feeling or idea, and in the light of Christ, may allow us to encounter the Word Incarnate. By our cooperation with grace and our openness to receiving God’s gifts, the written word may move through our ears and our eyes into our hearts, where we encounter Christ and one another in a new way. “Only when one can hear the secret sound of unifying love in sundering words, has one ears to perceive truly the message of Chistianity.” (Rahner, 3)
Jean-Louis Chretien, The Ark of Speech.
Karl Rahner, Poetry and the Christian.