Finding the Art in Everything

06 June, 2009

Poetry and Prayer

Reading Yancey's book on the relevance of prayer, I spent time with his section on "The Grammar of Prayer," where he explains ways we can pray effective, theologically-sound prayers, even when we don't "feel like" praying.

One method is to use scriptural prayers or the fixed, liturgical prayers that are part of something like a Book of Hours. But then he made an interesting departure, and pointed to the 17th and 18th century English poets that can lead the heart into prayer much the same way--poets like John Donne and George Herbert, but also hymnodists like John Newton and William Cowper.

I also came across Cowper in the archives of some other blogs I read, where they reflect on the role of poetry and spirituality in dealing with insanity.

Pleased to see some of my favorite poets mentioned in unexpected places, I remembered I'd purchased a 1st-edition volume of Cowper's poetry at a bookshop in Paris for a Euro several years ago.

I'm familiar with Cowper's typically anthologized pieces like "Light Shining out of Darkness", but this collection offered gems outside his traditional devotional verse: "Lines Written During a Period of Insanity", "An Ode to Peace", "Human Frailty", and "Impromptu on Writing a Letter Without Having Anything to Say".

The critic in the introduction supposes that Cowper's poems are often overlooked because they're preoccupied with his defense against his own madness. Since all his efforts go to reconciliing what his mind and emotions tell him with the reality offered by Christianity, he never gets to extend his genius into the realm of creativity and imagination that would have brought him distinction.

It's these "Miscellaneous Poems," as they're categorized in the Table of Contents, in which we get a picture of the day-to-day life someone who was likely bi-polar and manic-depressive but still clung to God. We see someone actually in spiritual battle with forces of darkness in himself.

In my consideration of the role of spirituality and insanity, this makes me recall what Paul says in Ephesians about how we're not at war with flesh and blood but with forces of darkness that are not of this world.

I realize have a tendency toward these emtional extremes. I have been struggling with a relationship lately regarding its purpose and my prayers for it. Sometimes I am seized by this heart-sickening darkness and frustration that seems to be, in scale, unmerited by the context and situation. The darkness I feel seems utterly irrelevant, sometimes, to both the specific problem and the truth and power of the gospel.

Much of Cowper's reconciliation between madness and the Gospel is tempering his passions and self-condemnation with the reality of Grace and Mercy and Peace. When he does this, he composes the evocative devotional poems for which he is famous. In these, the poetic turns and movements that make them clever, crafted poems also reveal the power and purpose of prayer. Instead of tracing the movement of an idea, we see the movement of the Holy Spirit in a conversation with God.

Without the role played by the Holy Spirit, prayer is just a conversation a madman has with himself. And without the Holy Spirit, that conversation would not have the power to transform our torment into "Thy will be done" as we saw in Gethsemane.

Spending all morning with this volume, I can see the shame and hatred Cowper has with his own madness. But he illuminates the darkness in a way only he can. And I think the editor of the volume, who relegated Cowper's work as waste of genius has it wrong. Cowper joins the ranks of the other Hand-Picked saints with disabilities--the ones with thorns in their sides--who glorify God more because of their brokenness than anyone else could have without it.

In times of strain and darkness, I'm using Cowper's poems as the base for the prayers I don't "feel like" praying. In his struggle, I'm finding words for my own. Thank God for the poems of Cowper that can lead us through that process of transformation, grounding dark emotions in Truth.

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