By Amber VanVickle
There are certain poems that I’ve read over the years that have become an indispensible part of my prayer life. I have come to rely on them as a sure way to express my heart to God or to understand a road I’m traveling on by reading from one who has traveled it before. Sometimes a short poem has the power to say things concisely that can't be said in a thousand words. Many times, the poetry of the greats contains the answers or the praise my heart seeks to utter. Here a few of my favorite poems and musings I have taken over and over to prayer.
1. John Donne: Holy Sonnets: "Batter my Heart, Three-Person’d God"
This poem I have loved the longest. Back in my college days, I had it hanging on my wall. Donne here uses the powerful metaphor of man as a besieged town, enslaved and betrothed to the enemy, sin. The captive makes a desperate plea to God to forcibly free him, to break down the doors and rescue him from sin. It bespeaks the physical and spiritual battle within our souls, and the physical and spiritual love of our Victor.
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you, As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; That I may rise and stand, overthrow me, and bend Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town to another due, Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain, But am betrothed unto your enemy; Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, Take me to you, imprison me, for I, Unless you enthrall me, never shall be free, Nor ever chaste, unless you ravish me.
2. St. Augustine: "Ever Ancient, Ever New"
This poem was a turning point on my faith journey. To read it is to discover what our relationship with God is supposed to be. As Peter Kreeft says, “Would you describe your relationship with God as “panting”? No? Than something is missing.” And indeed it was. This poem showed me in words, as only Augustine can, the very nature of God’s passionate love: burning, panting, breathing, touching. It is alive and physical. It is on fire for us.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
3. Robert Browning: “God, Thou Art Love!”
This poem is a beautiful combination of Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, and Psalm 27, The Lord is my Light and my Salvation. Browning’s poem, as in the Psalms, speaks of the certainty of God’s love, his protection, and a life lived without fear because of these realities. Here, God is beautifully depicted as a lover clinging to us, reading our hearts, and anticipating our every need. A sure resting place.
If I forget, Yet God remembers! If these hands of mine Cease from their clinging, yet the hands divine Hold me so firmly that I cannot fall; And if sometimes I am too tired to call For Him to help me, then He reads the prayer Unspoken in my heart, and lifts my care.
I dare not fear, since certainly I know That I am in God’s keeping, shielded so From all that else would harm, and in His power; I tread no path in life to Him unknown; Lift no burden, bear no pain, alone. My soul a calm, sure hiding place has found: The arms my life surround.
God, Thou art love! I build my faith on that. I know Thee who has kept my path and made Light for me in the darkness, tempering sorrow So that it reached me like a solemn joy; It were too strange that I should doubt Thy love.
4. John Milton: “On His Blindness”
I come back to this poem often, and often hear the words “those who bear his mild yoke, serve him best.” Many times life doesn’t go as expected, and sometimes it seems that God gives us something only to take it away. John Milton, author of the epic poem Paradise Lost is lamenting the loss of his sight, and that his one talent as a writer, is now lodged within him, useless. Through this beautiful dialogue, Milton reminds us that God doesn’t need our talents…they serve also who stand and wait.
When I consider how my light is spent, Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, And that one Talent which is death to hide Lodged within me useless, though my Soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest: They also serve who only stand and wait.”
5. Flannery O’Conner: "My Dear God"
I love this letter to God because of its honesty. It is a prayer and a dialogue, honestly accessing what keeps her from God and what God wants of her. It is half confession and half longing, confessing that many (most? all?) times it is ourselves and our plans that get in our way to God and longing to be what he has created us to be, and what he has created us for: to love him.
Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.
I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.
I want very much to succeed in the world with what I want to do. I have prayed to You about this with my mind and my nerves on it and strung my nerves into a tension over it and said, “oh God, please,” and “I must,” and “please, please.” I have not asked You, I feel, in the right way. Let me henceforth ask You with resignation—that not being or meant to be a slacking up in prayer but a less frenzied kind, realizing that the frenzy is caused by an eagerness for what I want and not a spiritual trust. I do not wish to presume. I want to love.
Oh God, please make my mind clear. Please make it clean.
I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You.
Please help me to get down under things and find where You are.