In the midst of a busy life, in which a priest can barely find time to read his breviary, why on earth should he spend his time reading something as useless as poetry?
Because poetry is the purest form of formal language. Because the word of God is eternal, and because Christ himself is the Word made flesh.
Through the word, the mystery of God is revealed; and every priest is a purveyor of the word. He is a preacher and teacher. He shares the mystery of God through the mystery of human language. To do this, he is concerned with speech. Therefore, it is important that he understand the mechanics of language and improve his language skills constantly.
T.S. Eliot wrote that the poet is impelled to “purify the dialect of the tribe.” What he meant is that the poet is constantly seeking new combinations of words to express the mystery of meaning. The poet is forever taking language apart, stretching its boundaries and pushing the meaning of words. Poetry is rough intellectual work. It demands a dismantling of language, a challenge of clichés, a rejection of rubbish and a forging of fresh combinations and expressions. When we read poetry, we expand our imaginations, push our word skills and look at life aslant.
As a priest, I am expected every day to speak God’s word to the people. It may be a brief homily during daily Mass. It may be a funeral oration or it may be a Sunday homily. Because I was brought up with the King James version of the Bible, read widely as a student and have been a lover of poetry, I find my own language fresh, vivid and elastic.
Thanks to my years as an Anglican priest, the cadences of Thomas Cranmer’s prayer book and the great Anglican hymns have stayed with me and refresh my use of language today. The daily reading of the Psalms in the breviary draws me back time and time again to the language of poetry, and that inspiration helps to refresh my own use of language as I seek to minister the word.
These are practical considerations. Reading language that is better than my own everyday garbling exalts and raises my own use of language. The eloquence trickles down and seeps into my ordinary speech. But poetry does more than simply add depth and polish to our language.
Poetry is important to the priest because poetry is naturally sacramental in its ambition. The poet uses words in fresh ways because he sees the world in fresh ways. He is always aware of a greater depth to reality beyond everyday events and objects. It is the poet’s job to heighten awareness of the invisible realm and point to the greater beauty and truth that dwells behind, beneath and beyond our ordinary existence.
This vocation runs parallel to the priest’s, for the priest too is a sign and a pointer to a greater reality. And his celebration of the sacraments is a daily reminder that behind these ordinary objects of bread and wine, water, oil, candles, books and bells, heaven awaits and the invisible realm trembles with a greater reality.
The practice of poetry, therefore, reminds the priest of his higher calling. It helps him to see his world in a fresh way. The eyes of his eyes are opened and the ears of his ears awake. Once awakened, the priest can, through his own words, open the eyes, ears, hearts and minds of those to whom he ministers.
This ministry of using words to open the eyes, ears and hearts of the faithful is constant — not only in homilies, but in teaching, in speaking the words of comfort and absolution, in human times of sorrow and joy, trial and triumph, the poetry echoes through.
This consanguinity of priest and poet is present throughout the history of Christian literature.
Both St. Ambrose and St. Augustine wrote poetry, and the early medieval Church boasted fine Latin poets, among them Venantius Fortunatus, whose translated poems we still sing as hymns today (“Sing My Tongue the Glorious Battle” and “The Royal Banners Forward Go”).
In every age the Church has produced great poets and writers of hymns. The Anglican and English Catholic traditions are especially blessed with great poets, many of them both poets and priests. There is Caedmon, the priest-bard, and St. Patrick, the poet. The list of Anglican poet-priests is long: John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, Charles Wesley, R.S. Thomas. Catholics number Gerard Manley Hopkins, and amongst the saints and blesseds, there’s St. Francis, St. Robert Southwell and Blessed John Henry Newman, just to name a few.
If T.S. Eliot is right that poetry “purifies the dialect of the tribe,” then this is also a practical and profound function of the liturgy. The words of the liturgy, laden with Scripture and the Psalms, are crammed full of vital imagery, symbolism, allusion and mystical references.
One of the problems with the contemporary English translation of the liturgy is that it is spectacularly mundane. The language is often banal, too ordinary, pragmatic and utilitarian. The translators of the new English translation of the Mass were seeking not only to be more faithful to the original Latin, but also to give us language that is more formal, uplifting and poetical.
Just as poetry is a special kind of language that helps transpose our perceptions of reality, so the language of liturgy is meant to lift us above our everyday manners of speech into a different realm.
The language of the liturgy, like poetry, is supposed to take us beyond our mundane turns of phrase and elevate our experience. Imagine how an ordinary actor is transformed once he or she begins to recite the immortal words of Shakespeare. Imagine what it used to be like when children memorized passages of Scripture and classic poetry. As those noble and beautiful words came from their mouths, they were somehow exalted for a moment to a higher plane of existence and reality.
This is the power of poetry. And this is the power of the liturgy when it is celebrated at its most dignified and beautiful best. Priests should read poetry because it purifies their language, it transposes their ordinary perceptions and helps them minister the word, which points the faithful to eternity and grants them momentary glimpses of glory.
Father Dwight Longenecker’s book of verse, A Sudden Certainty — Priest Poems, can be obtained from his website, DwightLongenecker.com.