When You Don’t Have Words to Pray Engaging the Psalms with poetry of our own June 10th, 2019 Alex Miller
When You Don’t Have Words to Pray
When You Don’t Have Words to Pray Engaging the Psalms with poetry of our own June 10th, 2019 Alex Miller
Bible Engager’s Blog

A striking pattern in the Gospels is the way Jesus’s disciples often seem jarred by his creative teaching style. They struggle to interpret him so much that when, late in his ministry, Jesus drops his metaphorical language and begins to tell them directly that he is going to die, they compliment him and beg for more of this kind of explicit language: “Then Jesus’s disciples said, 'Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech. Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God' ” (John 16:29-30).

We can sympathize with the disciples. We are busy people who want to know how to live godlier lives. But the Bible is a work of art, multifaceted and complex, and this complexity can make its meaning hard to grasp. For believers who want to use Scripture as a guide to life, literature can seem like an inconvenient medium for God’s revelation. Literature makes demands on its audience. It requires us to study its context, develop a baseline knowledge of stylistic devices, and think non-literally about what is written. What are some simple methods we might use to deepen our approach to the literature of the Bible?

Experiencing Scripture from the inside

A good first step might be to ask the question: why, along with the historical narratives and epistles, did God choose creative genres like poetry to communicate with his people? The Jewish scholar and translator Robert Alter writes extensively about the Bible as a fundamentally literary text. In his introduction to his new translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, he attacks what he calls “the heresy of interpretation,” that is, the longstanding tendency of biblical translators to “explain away the Bible” instead of presenting it for what it is: a complex work of art whose creative aspects are inseparable from its message.1

If God chose a creative medium to speak to his people, then it makes sense to creatively engage with his Word. One method of creative engagement comes from Ignatius of Loyola, co-founder of the Jesuit Order. Ignatius wrote that when it comes to Scripture “… it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”2 In other words, what we truly need from Scripture is not an abstracted set of principles that adds to our knowledge, but a story that compellingly tells the truth about us and about God. It is not just what the Scriptures say, but how they say it that matters.

Operating under this assumption, Ignatius developed a series of creative methods for engaging with Scripture, including the exercise now simply referred to as “Ignatian Contemplation.” To use this method, we take a scene from the Gospels and try to imaginatively “enter” it using all five of our senses. Different from exegesis, Ignatian Contemplation asks us to engage the story of Jesus, not on the level of principal but on the level of our gut, to experience Jesus as his active companion rather than as a passive observer.3

Become a psalmist

But what are we to do with the non-narrative parts of Scripture? If creatively “retelling” the stories included in the Gospels can help us approach them in fresh ways, then perhaps a poetic approach might be best when engaging the poetry of Scripture.

One of the most reliable ways to learn the ins and outs of something is to mimic it. In their own schools, the Greeks and Romans instructed their students to learn good writing by copying the style, language, and structure of better writers. They called this practice mimesis, and it has been a mainstay of western education ever since.

The reason mimesis works is that it gives us a practitioner’s view of what we’re copying. Once we have spent some time in a film studio, our experience at the movies becomes more nuanced. If we learn how to frame a roof or lay brick for a retaining wall, our eyes will notice new details when we walk into a house or a garden. We gain new appreciation for the labor and the expertise that went into the making of these things.

The Psalms, themselves masterworks of craftsmanship, are often referred to as a guide to the life of prayer. But, as readers, it can be easy to rehearse their sentiments without entering into them, to read them without stopping to linger. What if, instead, we responded to the poetry of the Psalms mimetically, with poetry? How would “retelling” the Psalms, either by writing about the same subjects from a different perspective, or simply by rephrasing them in our own words, allow us to savor them more deeply?

In your own words

The psalmists use metaphors to describe the soul’s thirst for God (Psalm 42:1-2). They use repetition to underscore the urgency of their requests (Psalm 13:1-2), or to remind themselves about God’s faithfulness (Psalm 136:10-16). Let’s look at how this might work as an aid to meditating on Psalm 42. The first two verses of the psalm read, “As the deer pants for streams of water, / so my soul pants for you, my God. / My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. / When can I go and meet my God?” 

Mimicking this passage, we might choose a different metaphor to express our longing for God. The first lines of our memetic poem might read: “As the flower needs both sun and water to survive, / so my soul needs you, Lord, and your Holy Spirit.” Employing both the metaphors of the psalmist and the device of repetition, we have mimicked some of the poem’s key aspects, but in our own words. Or, in a moment of personal frustration, we could look to Psalm 13 as a model for mimesis. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? / How long will you hide your face from me? / How long must I wrestle with my thoughts / and day after day have sorrow in my heart?” (verses 1-3a). Mimicking the structure and tone of these verses, we could write: “God, how long will you stay quiet? / How many times do you want me to repeat my requests to you? / How long must I struggle with confusion and depressing thoughts / before you answer me with relief?” Here again, we’ve entered into the experience of the psalm and made it a little more of our own. Perhaps more importantly, we’ve allowed Scripture to shape the content of our prayer.

Obviously, even Bible readers who have experience writing poetry will not achieve the mastery of the biblical psalmists. But the point of engaging biblical poetry with poetry is not primarily to create good art, but to achieve a deeper understanding of God and of the Bible. When we write poetry in mimicry of a biblical poet, we are forced to engage with the Scripture as fellow-creators. We are sitting down beside the psalmist and trying our hand at it. In doing so we are bound to see the Scripture, and the God to whom it is addressed, in a new light. Indeed, as we write our own psalms, we might realize that part of the reason God chose to include poetry in the Bible is that its rich, complex language expresses the longings of the human heart in a way that no other genre can.

Read more posts about: Spiritual FormationMeditation

Alex Miller
Alex Miller

Alex Miller is the co-author of A Bow From My Shadow, a collection of poems written in dialogue with work by Luke Irwin (Ecco Qua Press, 2013). His essays and poems have appeared, among other places, in The Millions, Transpositions, The Cortland Review, The Adirondack Review, The Cider Press Review. He is a Lecturer at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, and an English teacher.

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