Poetry & sacred reading

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’s comparison of poetry and meditation (lectio divina being perhaps the most flexible and durable in the Christian tradition) in his book Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina got me to thinking. What else might poetry and devotional reading have in common besides the slower and more intuitive reading skills they demand?

Perhaps both poetry and meditation offer us the possibility of rediscovering our hearts. Sometimes, at a certain point in poetry reading or devotional reading, the rest of the mind is asked to stay in shallow waters while the heart – something both vague and vital – plays like a porpoise that has just rediscovered the open sea. The mind becomes aware of a certain distinction between it and the heart.

While we’re engaged in poetry or sacred reading, the uniqueness of a turn of phrase or the power of an image may have our attention for a while. At some point after these early motions, however, something strange may happen. We may move, however vaguely or imperceptibly, into a new realm. In the framework of lectio divina, we may move from lectio(reading) into the remaining three “moments”: meditatiooratio, and contemplatio. Our slow reading opens the door to a slow kingdom. Perhaps it is similar to becoming travelers to something like John Keats’s “realms of gold” – the world he discovers himself in while reading Homer.

I love Teju Cole’s occasional references to “the kingdom of poetry” along with the brief parables that accompany them at miracle speech, his poetry web site. Parables, koans, and failed analogies sometimes seem like the only kind of mental diplomacy possible between the realm we normally walk in and the kingdom of the heart.

Asked to disengage from the kingdom it normally functions in, the mind – the more efficient and confident (or confidently unconfident) part of us – may struggle. Perhaps this newly discovered kingdom that attracts our hearts might pose some kind of vague threat to something fundamental: our self-concept or our life’s work. If, as poet Billy Collins claims, poetry helps us discover who we are, then the part of us that doesn’t really exist may feel threatened. While our heart may herald a new kingdom’s arrival, another part of us may hang back like King Herod, sending the heart off for more particulars ostensibly so that we may later come and worship, too.

A comparison of poetry reading with meditation or sacred reading is limited, of course, and perhaps unhelpful to most. I haven’t done justice to either form of reading. For one thing, I’ve limited myself to one experience in reading poetry or devotional works. On the other hand, others may find a comparison unhelpful because there is nothing to compare. Someone inclined to either poetry or to devotional literature may find sufficient reading for any given moment spray-painted on an overpass.