I'm going to try to write a little more often on this blog in the next few months (will try for weekly posts) - right now I want to do some reflecting on the connections, for me, between writing and the practice of prayer.
I just recently led a 2-day workshop on “Prayer, Poetry and Spiritual practice” at the Northeast Guild for Spiritual Formation in Seal Cove, Maine. While there I enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of the Alcyon Center retreat house. It was wonderful - people were so very receptive and deeply prayerful. And I loved sharing what I have learned over the years about the connections between prayer and what Annie Dillard has called the "writing life."
A kind of “core text” for a lot of us who teach about poetry and spirituality has become Mary Oliver’s poem “Praying,” included in her 2006 volume Thirst and now used widely, I've noticed in workshops where people are exploring means to pray, and how poetry might help with this. It’s a good place to start as I reflect on the role of poetry and contemplative in my own spiritual practice, both as a poet and as a spiritual guide and companion. Oliver’s poem begins
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together, , , , , ,
Here are two things that are important both in the life of prayer and in the writing life. It doesn't matter so much what we choose to write or pray about: often it's a matter of letting the world give itself to us: “Just//pay attention”: that’s the hardest part. To slow down long enough to let what is happening around us claim and deepen our attention. To “wake up” to life, as the Sufi poets invite us to do. And then to “patch/ a few words together,” not for self-promotion, but as a prayerful response to what we are noticing.
Mary Oliver’s practice of paying attention is tied closely to her daily walks, and a reader of her poetry knows this, as she observes the birds, the flowers, the beach, the pond around her home in Provincetown, MA (and now as she writes from a new place in Florida). A longtime reader of her poetry, I now feel as if I’ve been to the places that recur in her work - the pine woods, Blackwater Pond, the meadows and vacant lots where wildflower grow. For me, for the past five or six summers, as long as the weather is warm enough, my daily practice has been to start the day on my patio, and gradually I’m discovering deeper ways to be “at home” in this place where I have lived for over 23 years. The birds, the many colors of green that there are in the world, the sounds of birdsong and beltway, the breeze, the colors of the flowers in the patio pots. All of these things have more and more drawn and deepend my attention, leading me to a very deep gratitude. And gradually, as I’ve patched words together, a body of work is emerging - so that at other times of the day I’m writing and crafting a collection that I call my “Patio Poems.”
The practice is simply to “pay attention, then patch/ a few words together” in a contemplative journal entry, or sometimes in a poem, where the white spaces on the page, and the shimmering of the words tell me something more about what I am seeing and experiencing. This kind of writing becomes for me a way of entering into dialogue with the place I am in.
Paying attention and patching words together. This can indeed become a spiritual practice, opening, as Oliver says later in her poem, “a doorway into thanks”.