Words of Companionship: Poetry and Ministry
Saint Hilda's House recently went on our fall retreat, and I had the invigorating experience of going deeper into prayer and Scripture study than I have in some time. Because of this, I found myself writing a poem while I mulled over a particular passage.
Poetry-as-prayer is just one of the ways the medium of poetry has served me on my journey with God. My hope is that my poetry will not only bolster my own inner life, but can also have some positive influence on the journeys of others. My hope is that, in this, it might function as a part of my calling.
Since coming to Saint Hilda's House, I've made some progress on a path of articulating what I believe my calling might be. I passionately believe that young adult Christian women, who are so often presented damaging, narrow models of womanhood (yes, from the secular realm, but more disturbingly from their faith communities), should receive the message that Christ loves and calls them as unique, complex individuals. To this end I have decided to apply to seminary in order to prepare for campus ministry or chaplaincy. This is a ministry setting within which I could accompany young Christians as they wrestle with faith and the gendered expectations that are sometimes imposed (or self-imposed) when you claim that faith. My own beliefs about what it means to be a Christian woman drastically changed during college (see my earlier post, “How I Learned (And Unlearned) To Be A Christian Girl” ). I have seen many of my Christian, female peers struggle with similar questions. And while I had a lot of support from friends as I explored these issues, it would have benefited me to have a consistent, older, Christian mentor who was not afraid to vocally embrace feminism and live her life outside the strictures of “biblical womanhood.” I hope seminary will shape me to be that mentor for young women.
So what does all of this have to do with poetry? Well, the way I think of ministry is very much shaped by the idea of accompaniment, influenced by a long-time favorite verse of mine, Romans 12:15 (NRSV): “Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn.” As a fairly emotional person, who very much requires the conversation and support of others to process and handle my emotions, I can't help but be attracted to this verse. I believe it's calling us to some of the most important work in life—being with other people as they feel whatever it is they are feeling and accompanying them in those feelings.
There are some limitations to how much one can live out this companion role, however. In terms of thinking about my own future, there are only so many people I can physically be with in a ministry capacity. My time and energy are limited, and I will be limited to a specific place. Poetry, however, is slightly different: it cannot take the place of a person, but neither is it bounded in the same ways a person can be. It can, to some extent, serve as a companion when other companions cannot be found.
Different writers have certainly accompanied me on my own faith journey. When Julia Kasdorf writes of the overemphasis on sexual sin in the faith community she grew up in in the poem “Sinning,” found in the collection Eve's Striptease (“What other sin got such attention? No wonder I grew weary of bearing that cargo”), I have company in my own frustrations in terms of the way churches treat and talk about sexuality. When I read “Who shall deliver me?” by Christina Rosetti and her prayer of “God harden me against myself,/This coward with pathetic voice/Who craves for ease, and rest, and joys...,” I have company in my frustrations with myself, my sin, and my apathy. The questioning words of Sara Teasdale's poem “Spring Night,” (“O beauty, are you not enough?/Why am I crying after love?”), have echoed my own discontent in situations where I've felt like I should be satisfied, particularly by God's beauty, but keep longing for something else. I identify with the hesitance written about by Mary Karr in her poem “For a Dying Tomcat Who's Relinquished His Former Hissing and Predatory Nature” in the collection Sinners Welcome: “So you surrender in the way/I pray for: Lord, before my own death/....let me cease to fear/the embrace that seeks to still me.”
My own poetry often navigates subjects like life as a Christian woman, attitudes towards my body and its relationship to God, experiences of church, and struggles of faith. As I get a stronger sense my calling, I've begun to think about how this calling can manifest in my creative writing as well as in a more traditional ministry. Perhaps my words can reach a Christian out there who I'll never meet, who will feel validated by seeing one of their frustrations, long suppressed, in print. Perhaps my words will give a Christian girl confidence, in some way, to vocalize her own words—words that are not always pretty and pleasing, words that may be raw or frustrated or doubtful, words that need to be said and heard.
Of course, not all my poems are fit for other people to read. There are some poems that I write that I want to keep for myself—or are simply not good enough for anyone but me to see. Sometimes writing these poems, as I mentioned earlier, is a form of prayer. When I'm feeling particularly distant from God and prayer seems like an intimidating prospect, poetry is one of the few ways I feel comfortable praying. Even poems I wouldn't label as prayers provide opportunities to explore my thoughts on God and the Christian life. Recently, I discussed with one of my best friends why I think I shifted from mostly writing fiction to writing poetry. I concluded that, in my experience it's a bit more acceptable and easier to go into a piece with the intention of teasing out or diving into an idea or concept than it is in a story.
For me, reading good poetry can also be an experience of coming into contact with beauty, just as seeing an amazing painting at an art museum or stepping into a gorgeous cathedral can be. These experiences of beauty are a bit different to those I have with nature, in that, in addition to impressing upon me how glorious God is, they make me marvel at humanity as well. Despite our sin and selfishness, we are capable of so much. We are creative. We can make art. We can make beauty. Seeing these capabilities bolsters my confidence in the divine. While I rarely get those feelings when reading my own work, perhaps one day my writing will be on a level where it can give someone else an experience of beauty. Whether that beauty will hint to something beyond itself for that person is anyone's guess.
That is one of the tricky things about writing, I suppose. Though people will sometimes give us feedback on our work, we can never really know quite what impact our words have in the heart and mind of someone else. This can be discouraging. However, even if I knew my words would never change another person, I would still be drawn to carrying on in this pursuit of poetry for the sake of my own spirit. A poem is a place where I can dwell with God, and for that I am very thankful.