No matter what we believe, we seem to share a human inclination to speak to someone or something greater than ourselves--someone we like to think is in control of things. Prayers arrive like a spiritual emergency kit in times of need. "Oh, God, help them," we say when we pass an accident scene. Even if we haven't prayed for years.
Some of us feel lucky to know God. And we stay on regular speaking-terms with him--sometimes in ways that might seem petty to the creator of billions of solar systems. (What must he have thought of all my adolescent prayers for boyfriends and basketball victories?) But whether we pray every day, or only in times of need, where do we find the words? One surprising source is poetry.
Poets have always talked to God--and they're happy if we listen in. In fact, some prayer poems are best said out loud--like "O Sweet Irrational Worship" by Thomas Merton, with these beautiful lines: "By ceasing to question the sun / I have become light." Another to recite under the sky is "Eagle Poem" by Native American Joy Harjo, which begins: "To pray you open your whole self / To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon, / To one whole voice that is you / And know there is more."
While some of us are drawn to worship, others of us aren't so sure who or what God is. If so, we may be attracted to poems that wrestle with doubt, like Alicia Ostriker's "I Can't Speak" which tries to talk about God ("It's hopeless. Our heads are full of television"), and ends up talking to him. Or Czeslaw Milosz's "On Prayer," which begins: "You ask me how to pray to someone who is not." Milosz's answer is that prayer is a bridge that opens our eyes and gives us compassion--even if there isn't another shore.
But whether or not we’re on familiar terms with God, we’re apt to turn to him in times of trouble. Who of us (human or divine) wouldn’t be moved by the heartfelt cry of Jane Mead’s “Concerning That Prayer I Cannot Make”: “Jesus, I am cruelly lonely / and I do not know what I have done / nor do I suspect that you will answer me."
And in troubling times--when the world is caught in a chain of man-made horrors, and our leaders seem to be lost or letting us down, we're apt to call on God to rescue us. One prayer poem I find poignant now is the anonymous "A Soldier--His Prayer." Found in a bombarded trench in World War II, it begins: "Stay with me, God. The night is dark, / The night is cold: my little spark / Of courage dies."
These days I also find myself returning to "Psalm 5," by Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal, who calls on God to thwart the policies of those who speak peace but plan war: "For you are not a God friendly to dictators / neither are you a partisan of their politics / nor are you influenced by their propaganda."
I can’t say if God is especially fond of prayer poems--though there’s testimony he likes verses as well as chapters. But they give me clarity, comfort and courage. They make me feel part of a larger community of conscience. And they inspire me to work to make the world better.
In that spirit, I keep in mind D. H. Lawrence’s "Pax," which reminds us that what matters is: "to be a creature in the house of the God of Life. / Like a cat asleep on a chair / at peace, in peace."
I know some people say that prayer is just the expression of our hopes and fears. Yet, if you’re listening, God, won’t you give us the courage to make that vision of peace a reality for all of us?
All the poems cited (and others on courage, peace and more) are from Poems to Live By in Troubling Times and Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times, edited by Joan Murray and published by Beacon Press. Joan Murray is a poet and the author of five books of poetry, most recently Dancing on the Edge from Beacon.