prompt 209 Liturgy
Any soul that drank the nectar of your passion was lifted. From that water of life he is in a state of elation. Death came, smelled me, and sensed your fragrance instead. From then on, death lost all hope of me. -Rumi
Throughout April, I’ve been offering prompts that touch upon the early origins of and uses for poetry. This week, we will go in a bit of a spiritual direction.
I titled this prompt “liturgy” to encompass a broad range of spiritual purposes for which poetry is written. Where I work, the term liturgy is used to refer to a collection of texts used for public, communal worship. What sorts of poetry might this call to mind? In Jewish and Christian traditions, one might think of the Book of Psalms, where parallelism, both synonymous and antithetic, is a common poetic device. Consider this excerpt from Psalm 27, usually attributed to King David (King James Version):
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
One might also think of our modern Christian hymns, and there is certainly crossover between hymns and poetry in that regard. One of the most prolific hymn writers of the 19th century, Fanny Crosby, began first as a poet. She wrote her hymns and poems mostly in four-line stanzas with an a-b-c-b rhyme scheme, as evidenced by the first verse of “Near the Cross” which I quote below:
Jesus, keep me near the cross, There a precious fountain, Free to all, a healing stream, Flows from Calvary's mountain.
Throughout human history in other religious traditions and faiths, poetry has been used for praise, thanksgiving, supplication, prayer, and expressions of sorrow to the deity or deities in question. The Rigveda, a Sanskrit collection of hymns written in verse form composed between 1700 and 1100 BC, is a great example of this. The hymns in the collection address several Hindu deities, including Ratri, or “night”. I’ll quote a portion of a hymn praising her from book 10 of the Rigveda:
1. WITH all her eyes the Goddess Night looks forth approaching many a spot: She hath put all her glories on. 2 Immortal. she hath filled the waste, the Goddess hath filled height and depth: She conquers darkness with her light. 3 The Goddess as she comes hath set the Dawn her Sister in her place: And then the darkness vanishes. 4 So favour us this night, O thou whose pathways we have visited As birds their nest upon the tree."
Spiritual poetry can also speak of more elevated themes, such as unity with the deity, the transcendence of one’s physical existence, and prophecy. The lines of Rumi’s poetry which began this post are a perfect example. Rumi, a Persian poet, theologian, and Sufi mystic, believed very much in the use of poetry, music, and dance to reach God. He spoke freely and frequently of seeking union with the Divine, as evidenced by this example:
I died as a mineral and became a plant, I died as plant and rose to animal, I died as animal and I was Man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying? Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar With angels bless'd; but even from angelhood I must pass on: all except God doth perish. When I have sacrificed my angel-soul, I shall become what no mind e'er conceived. Oh, let me not exist! for Non-existence Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.
Many of us are in the middle of religious observances right now. Some of you are observing Passover and the Easter season this week. You might use this prompt to ground yourself mentality, emotionally, and spiritually to prepare yourselves. Might you consider the stories of your faith as a starting point for this prompt? Perhaps you seek greater union with the Divine. Perhaps you are full of praise and thanksgiving, or like King David to whom authorship of Psalm 23 is attributed, you have walked through “the valley of the shadow of death” and you need to cry out in sorrow.
For the agnostics, atheists, and questioning folks among us: this prompt might be a great opportunity to think about belief (or lack of) and consider it further. Perhaps you might explore the moment you began to question what you were told about God. For the scientific or humanistic minded among us, what does creation say to you? How do you feel about faith as a general concept and other’s expressions of it? There are many directions in which you can go.
Meditate upon this, and write where your muse takes you. I’m looking forward to the results.