Reading poetry is one of the ways some of us nourish our faith, a way we set or reset our inner compass and stay focused on the big picture, on the spiritual journey. I know that is true for me. In this monthly column, Setting the Inner Compass, I share some of the poems I find nourishing to the soul. My theme in this column is Advent. I’ll have a special Christmas column next week.

The poets I read respond to the Christian season of Advent in a variety of ways. Some pick up on the themes of the four Sundays in the season (Hope, Peace, Joy, Love). Others work with the theme of incarnation. Some pick up on the themes of pregnancy, birth, and new realities. Others don’t deal with the spiritual or liturgical rather they respond to the changes in the natural world, the coming of winter.

I have a long list of my favorite advent poems. The list includes:
Lisel Mueller’s poem, “Hope” and Emily Dickinson’s poem that shares the same name, Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries Yes,” “I looked up” and “Oxygen,” Madeline L’Engle’s “The Risk of Birth,” Linda Pasten’s “Noel,” Todd Outcalt’s “Advent,” “She Said Yeah” by Kathleen Norris and “The Mosaic of the Nativity” by Jane Kenyon. That is just a few.

Advent is a season of anticipation. Waiting for a birth, waiting for something new to be born. Personally, Advent 2020 finds me with a mix of anxiety and anticipation. I feel anxious and uneasy about what is happening in our polarized and potentially violent nation. I am anxious as well about what our community and church will be like in a post pandemic world. Yet, along with my anxiety, I have a deep sense of anticipation. I feel like something new is waiting to be born within my own life. And I feel like something new is going to emerge in the Christian household. Advent: a season of anxiety and anticipation. On to the poems.

The first poem by Edwina Gateley, captures that sense of anticipation, something new ready to emerge. Ms. Gateley is a remarkable woman. Check out her website. Edwina is currently writing, leading retreats for abused and marginalized women, and serving as “Mother Spirit” for Exodus, a program in Chicago for women in the second phase of recovery from prostitution.

In Mary Howe’s “Annunciation,” I wonder if the poet is writing in Mary’s voice, or as someone who has had her own mystical encounter with the sacred? Or both? Could it be anyone’s words? Finally, “On the Mystery of the Incarnation” by Denise Levertov captures mystery of the Christian affirmation that in Jesus, the Word was made flesh.



Beginnings by Edwina Gateley

just tiny stirrings
which disturb our even surface,
prodding us into new and different shapes…
claiming their place

on our horizons—
stretching us

where we would not go—
yet we must.
Driven by life forces
deeper than our dreams,
we dare to rise
and grasp towards
the new young thing—

not yet born—

but insistent—
like a tight seed bursting
for life,
carrying within it
all the power
of a woman’s
birthing thrust.

Annunciation by Marie Howe

Even if I don’t see it again — nor ever feel it
I know it is — and that if once it hailed me
it ever does–

And so it is myself I want to turn in that direction
not as toward a place, but it was a tilting
within myself,

as one turns a mirror to flash the light to where
it isn’t — I was blinded like that — and swam
in what shone at me

only able to endure it by being no one and so
specifically myself I thought I’d die
from being loved like that.

On The Mystery of the Incarnation by Denise Levertov

It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
the Word.

“Beginnings” by Edwina Gateley from her book, There Was No Path So I Trod One (1996, 2013). Used by the author’s permission.

“Annunciation” from Kingdom of Ordinary Time by Marie Howe. Copyright © 2008 by Marie Howe. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

”On the Mystery of the Incarnation” by Denise Levertov, from A DOOR IN THE HIVE, copyright ©1989 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 

Rev. Dave Brown is a writer, creator/host of Blues Vespers, one of the PNW Interfaith Amigos and former pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Tacoma WA. He serves on the PCUSA Education Roundtable. ( [email protected]).

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