Prayers into Poems
I pray a lot. I have no regular daily spiritual practice, as many people do. I simply pray many times a day. I find that much prayer is wordless, more a state of openness to hearing from God than an explicit conversation. This is the sort of thing I can do when I’m in a quiet time and place that allows me to clear other matters from my mind, and I think it is much like what is meant by meditation in the general sense. At other times, I pray short and frequent prayers, usually thanks, but sometimes quick petitions. For instance, I look out my window at almost any time of day and say, “Thank you for this beautiful place You have allowed me to live.” I catch something I seemed sure to drop and say, “Thanks, God. That saved me a lot of trouble.” I ask, “Please help me get through this particular trial.” I breathe a wordless rush of gratitude for the health and general wonderfulness of my husband, children, and grandchild. When I do use words and take the time to sit down with God and converse in a more formal way, my prayers tend to follow the same pattern: invocation or address (which is usually simply “Lord”—to me, a student of Medieval history, a genderless title—or “Dear Mother and Father”); then a litany of thanks for my countless blessings; and lastly requests, usually to be guided in the service God wants of me and to be more truly appreciative of my blessings, and only then, sometimes, for things such as a loved one’s health.
Placing myself in circumstances which are as simple as possible helps me to pray. I like to leave man-made things behind and get back to trees, birds, grass, water, wildflowers, snow. Scientists have recently studied the chemical aspects of walking in the woods—where the air is full of the exhalations of trees—and concluded that there is excellent reason why this is physically good for you, but being close to those things which have come directly from God’s hands is also good for you mentally and spiritually. Dorothy Frances Gurney famously wrote, “One is nearer God’s heart in a garden / Than anywhere else on earth.” I appreciate this notion, but my feeling is, the less human beings have had to do with the nature I’m getting back to, the nearer I am to God. A garden is good; a forest or uncultivated meadow is even better. When I was a child, my favorite place for meditation was in the top of an old apple tree in an open space between my grandparents’ farm home and the crop field beyond. I used to sit in the top of that tree and sing, or compose poems. My poetry, in fact, tends to feature both nature and God, usually together.
Gathered in a powerful centre
Of beating heart, pumping lungs,
And flaring out
In a sudden star
Of open wings and tail outspread,
Lifting, spiralling to heaven—
And my heart springs up.
Here lie God’s promises upon the autumn ground,
Not discarded but strewn in offering.
Here is a golden starry vow
Its veins emptied,
Cut off from the source of nurture,
The hardworking green of living withdrawn,
So that the hidden gold is seen, now
That life is gone.
And here is a gleaming pledge
Of life renewed—
Not withheld but only waiting,
Safe in brown armour
From the promised death and dark and cold,
For the right moments of warmth and water and sun
To dissolve its hard edges And show its truth of tenderness and growth and green:
Here lie God’s promises upon the ground,
And whether or not we choose to pick them up,
They are here.
Meditation, though in many ways not greatly different from prayer, is a more adult activity. The very freedom of mind that permits children to make immediate contact with the numinous, the ineffable, tends to make a more focused contemplation more difficult. I think we have to grow into the ability to “engage in contemplation or reflection,” yet as we do, we should do our best to hold onto the childlike qualities of spirit and mind that permit us to pray in an immediate and intimate way.
Praying started for me in childhood. A prayer that came from at least two generations back in my family was, “Dear Jesus, sometimes I forget, and then I get cross and often fret. Help me to laugh and play and sing, and share my toys and everything. Amen.” That didn’t quite take care of it, even for a small child, so we were taught to add, “God bless Daddy and Mommy and…” (there followed all the appropriate names of loved ones and assorted impromptu blessees, which might include a pet or a current best friend.) Other petitions could be added at this point, but they needed to be important ones. Trivialities—such as a coveted toy—were discouraged. In those early days of childhood prayer, I said my prayers in a parent’s presence just before being tucked into bed, and so did my sister.
But I soon realized that the prayer I had been taught didn’t really say everything I had to say to God, and when my parents weren’t supervising, I talked to God myself. Because my parents mentioned God casually and not infrequently in our daily life, in phrases such as “I bet God is happy to see you doing that” or “Let’s ask God to help us with this,” I felt a certain familiarity with the Divine Being, and I simply said (usually silently) whatever was on my mind. God was always there, sort of all around me, and I talked to Him. (In those days God was definitely male—that was what I was taught, and I accepted it.) I believe many children feel this sort of direct connection to God, and probably the biggest help parents can be to their children’s relationship to the Divine is not to be too explicit, not to restrict a child’s perception with too many prescribed words or attitudes. On the whole, though it may sound trite, I think children have an easier time relating to God than adults do. Partly it’s because they are chronologically closer to a time when they were being held in God’s hands; partly it’s because their relative lack of life experience has put fewer barriers between them and the Divine. Too many worries; too many things to analyze, expect, or remember; too many possessions; too much technology all get in the way of a direct communication with God. The early Quakers had it right: simplicity is the best way to enable a direct and personal relationship with God. And children have it right: it is our nature to be close to the Divine. As Teilhard de Chardin has put it, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
From the dark earth they loosened and drew
The unyielding stones, squared their sides and edges,
And laid them one upon another, and another,
Sealed and steadied with mortar mixed to endure
By men who had laid many stones and so best knew
How to make crops and beasts and people secure.
Gentle but firm, the buildings and the people came together,
In silent defiance of the law, their will more holy, and as strong.
Sunlight streamed like honey through the windows
Set in walls thick as a man’s forearm is long;
Rain washed over the stones like grace from heavens bestowed;
And the people, gathered in unceasing Light,
Worshipped and listened, knowing in their souls
That this was true and right,
As their hands had known the laying of the stone.
Now we who sit within the cool and ancient walls,
Waiting upon God as did those worshippers,
Feel our beings enwrapped in their spirit
That streams through and washes over us
Like the sun and rain of times both now and past.
The stones are saturated with their prayers;
The wood of doors and benches is imbued
With the strength of their seeking, with their joys and cares;
The laughter of children is caught in the cracks of the floor.
In the silence we are suspended in the sacredness Of lives lived here—oh, long! oh, long before.
When I allow myself to get too involved in the material world, the technological world, I begin to sense a distancing of myself from God. If I spend too much time in front of a computer or driving in traffic, I can go far too long without praying—that is, without consciously contacting God. I sometimes fear that our world is in danger of too many layers between its people and the Divine. I suspect that people who spend more of their time in physical contact with natural materials find it easier to connect with God.
Opened Her hands
And poured forth the light
And it splashed and sprayed
And rained down through the trees
And now it gleams
White and dazzling
On the forest floor.
But it does no good to become downcast about modern society. Scientists and God both tell us we need to take action to curb the influence of industrialization and to preserve nature. Meanwhile, perhaps being challenged to make time, space, and spirit for prayer and meditation will cause us to value them more. When I seek that time and space, I find that as a biologist and a person of faith, I always come down solidly on nature’s side.
Reflections on an Old Road
I love the sight of something overgrown—
Where human foot has trodden heavily
And now is gone:
A vine-entangled gate,
A weed-choked path,
Nature reclaiming what once was paved or bounded.
I love to see the sapling break through stone,
Wild grape and wildflowers obliterate
A fence or wall,
Neatly-drawn lines erased,
Angles and squares
(Our foolish presumptions)
now made blunt and rounded.
Oh, I am blessed when God reclaims God’s own—
With holy fingers disassembling all
We thought was ours,
By storm and sunlight,
Green growth, rush of air:
I am at home when nature puts me in my place.
Two other ways I facilitate meditation for myself are walking a labyrinth and chanting, either alone or in a group. Both may seem complex, but actually they are at heart simple. Chants are repeated, the same words over and over, so that they have the simplicity of a candle flame. Any musical complexity in group chanting arises spontaneously—an impulse coming from a spiritual openness. And the labyrinth is actually a single path with a single center: the complexity is an illusion. Either of these practices, for me, is just complex enough to compel me to focus my mind and spirit, and still simple enough to let the Divine in.
One November, when my family was having hard challenges and I was feeling somewhat down, I left for meeting on a Sunday morning feeling particularly dejected. Driving down the long country road on my half-hour journey to meeting, I thought, “This certainly isn’t going to get me to meeting “with heart and mind prepared.’’ So I looked around at the grey skies, leafless trees, and brown fields of November and decided that I would find all the beauty I could in my surroundings. I was somewhat surprised at how much there was. By the time I got to meeting, I was dazzled and grateful, and before I settled completely into the silence, I wrote a poem.
The morning light is low
Do not think of it with sorrow
As the sign of coming dark and cold
See how the stands of giant reed
The fields of milkweed
Are lit to pale brilliance
Waves of silver flame
See how the roadsides yet are limned
With the golden treasures of fallen leaves
Shifting and lifting as if still alive
See how the country roads curve away
Amid colours more tender, more gentle
Than any seen in careless summer.
Even when the sky is heavy with grey cloud
The soft breathing of the earth
Slipping toward winter sleep
Makes beautiful the very air
Imbues the ground with the peace
Of all things at home
Their places known
God’s order shown.
It is that very order that amazes, convinces, and reassures me of the existence and power of God, as well as God’s accessibility. The conjunction of nature and God in so much of what I think and feel and say is not an accident, not a whim, but the result of that childhood experience which has reached the level of a profound and lasting belief. Alleluia.