Poetry at St. Stephen's
A noted theologian, Karen Armstrong, has said that all good theology is really a species of poetry, attempts to express the inexpressible. And it just doesn’t work to try to read poetry or listen to a great piece of music when you are at a cocktail party. You need quiet and a still, open heart. And it could take several readings and listenings for the words or the music to enter that space where transformation can begin.
Perhaps we need to approach religious and spiritual musings in this way. It’s why silence, solitude, and contemplation have always been central to the enduring religions of the world. But today, our lives are so noisy and busy, we don’t have time or patience for these things. Many sometimes revert to more combative sloganeering or insistence on believing in certain doctrines, and we’ve see where that leads.
By contrast, theology can be more like poetry, a way of seeking to open oneself to the transcendent and inexpressible, deepest truths of our lives. Poetry itself is a kind of theology, inviting us to experience what cannot be fully spoken. So when we see how true theology is more like poetry, it starts to make sense that religious practice is at least as important as religious belief. Being disciplined about giving to the poor, practicing daily prayer, going on pilgrimage, caring for the sick and dying: “Religion is about doing things that change you,” in Karen Armstrong’s words.
You don’t have to be “into” poetry for it to be valuable. Just as you don’t have to be “into” Bach or Beethoven for that music to be valuable. The rewards of giving oneself to these things and allowing them to work on you can be life-changing.
St. Stephen's Church offers poetry and reflections on poetry in worship (as with the opening of each Sunday evening Celtic service), poetry readings (visiting poets are listed here), a weekly poetry guide, "Wellspring," offered during the program year (available here), and through our bookshop.
Allison Seay, St. Stephen’s associate for religion and the arts, says, “I think that poetry readings are vital to the emotional health of a community because they offer us new ways of thinking, they recharge the imagination, and they remind us of the value of listening.”
“The riches of poetry are universal and unifying and offer us a way to think about the unexplained, the difficult, and the otherwise unsayable. For me, poetry is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
It is blood, imagination, intellect running together...It bids us to touch and taste and hear and see the world, and shrink from all that is of the brain only.
Yeats on poetry