"Lectio divina is like reading poetry: We need to slow down, to savor what we read, and to allow the text to trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness." - Michael Casey in "Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina"
Michael Casey compares poetry to meditation in his book on sacred reading. We might not normally consider poetry as something sacred or spiritual, but I think he is on to something. Poetry, like meditation, can quiet us. Slow us down. Create a calming effect on our normally rushed way of being.
A good poem is, you might say, magical. No matter where we are, it transports us and opens a window through which we see and experience tastes, sounds, feelings and more. It opens us to what is around us, and what is within us.
In that sense, reading a poem, or even better -- hearing a poem being read -- is a spiritual practice.
The great spiritual practices encourage us to pay attention. A poem, at a different level from other types of writing, also invites us to pay attention. To be aware. To allow the flow of words to wash over us, the images to flicker on the screen of our mind, the senses evoked to become engaged. And yet, poetry can go even deeper than that. Casey reminds us that poetry can "trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness." It comes at us sideways instead of straight on. It catches us by surprise. It sneaks up on us from behind and suddenly we become aware of a presence, sense or idea that we hadn't seen coming.
Consider this poem from writer and spiritual guide Mark Nepo:
I was at the window
when a fly near the latch
was on its back spinning --
legs furious, going nowhere.
I thought to swat it
but something in its struggle
was too much my own.
It kept spinning and began to tire.
Without moving closer, I exhaled
steadily, my breath a sudden wind
and the fly found its legs,
rubbed its face
and flew away.
I continued to stare at the latch
hoping that someday, the breath
of something incomprehensible
would right me and
enable me to fly.
A simple, mundane encounter. Something we wouldn't think twice about. Yet the music of a poem can create a deep awareness of even the simplest things. A house fly. Nothing interesting or meaningful about it. Probably mostly a nuisance or distraction. Yet Nepo manages to cultivate a deep and profound sense of connection and empathy in this moment that allows us to see, not only the fly, but ourselves.
Reading such a poem slowly, repeatedly, a line or phrase at a time, can evoke in us such a deep and profound experience that opens our eyes, widens our perspective, deepens our own moment-to-moment experience. Such reading is a spiritual practice that we could all use more of. As Henri Nouwen put it: "Spiritual reading is food for our souls. We receive the word, ruminate on it, digest it and let it become flesh in us."
Imagine if such empathy and awareness could be kindled in every encounter. With every person one meets, every blade of grass one steps on and every object one touches or lays eyes on. Our world would be transformed. And such is the goal of any worthy spiritual practice. I'm all in favor of more of it.
By the way, if you're in the Washington, DC area, come join me to hear Mark Nepo speak and read his poetry at the Shalem Institute's Gerald May Seminar, March 21-22. If you live elsewhere, check with local poetry organizations and community listings for readings happening near you. You'll be glad you did.