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 this month is Valentine’s Day, a celebration of romance, of love. For a lot of my life, I didn’t pay much attention to Valentine’s Day. It seemed to me to be phony, artificial, a “greeting card” holiday. My anti-establishment sixties instincts led me to not want anything to do with big red hearts and cute cupid laden greeting cards. Eventually I relaxed a bit and saw that any occasion to celebrate love, even one that is over commercialized, can be a good thing.
Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love: romantic, physical love. Christian faith is about the word made flesh. For many, loving our partners and spouses is one way we make the word flesh. My earliest experience of the church was filled with cautions and judgements about embodied love. It took me awhile to move beyond the negative messages about love and sexuality I heard in my home church and youth group. One book that helped was James Nelsons, Embodiment (1978). Today, when officiating at a marriage, I often choose to read a poem that celebrates the physical as well as spiritual dimensions of the relationship. The Steve Scafidi poem, “Prayer for a Marriage” helps me do that and usually brings a smile to the gathered community.
The first poem is about finding love in the midst of loneliness and how for some, even after we find love, we know a bit of loneliness. I first heard this poem on a Writers Almanac. Thank you, Joyce Kennedy, for allowing me to use it in this column. The second poem is light and reminds us how being in love can at times transform an ordinary day into something extraordinary. Wendy Cope lives in Cambridgeshire, England. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a fan of the poet’s work describing her as “the wittiest of contemporary English poets who says a lot of extremely serious things.” The third poem by Ellen Bass is simple and sensual. The last poem is a favorite wedding poem. When I read it at a service, after reading, I usually look at the couple and say, “My prayer is that your teapot wakes the neighbors.”
Happy Valentine’s Day. This column is dedicated to Ann.
Note: My poem, “The chorus of my Dead Friends “was be published February 9 on the Echoes of Panhala Facebook page. I invite you to check it out.
Lonely Lake by Joyce Kennedy
It was the name given it on our hiking map. Intrigued,
we followed a narrow, rising trail flecked with autumn,
aspen leaves beneath our feet, young trees leaning across
as if to guard the integrity of loneliness. At the end,
we found the lake, small jewel shining in space, not
obviously frequented, although there was a rickety
dock and on it, a battered rowboat and dented canoe.
No paddles. We sat, one in rowboat, one in canoe,
the loneliness of the lake pared down to bare essentials—
shore lined with thick, dark pine, intense and cloudless sky,
sun flaring on water’s changing surface. A hawk dipped
down to startle the peace while two ducks rode the ripples
unperturbed. Stunned by beauty, we reached across—
boat to canoe, canoe to boat—to touch hands,
our own lonely selves connecting as lightly and effortlessly
as the dragonfly wing that earlier brushed against my face.
The Orange by Wendy Cope
At lunchtime I bought a huge orange
The size of it made us all laugh.
I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave—
They got quarters and I had a half.
And that orange, it made me so happy,
As ordinary things often do
Just lately. The shopping. A walk in the park.
This is peace and contentment. It’s new.
The rest of the day was quite easy.
I did all the jobs on my list
And enjoyed them and had some time over.
I love you. I’m glad I exist.
Coming into Bed on a December Night by Ellen Bass
When I slip beneath the quilt and fold into
Her warmth, I think we are like the pages
of a love letter written thirty years ago
that some aging god still reads each day
and then tucks back into its envelope.
Prayer for a Marriage by Steve Scafidi
When we are old one night and the moon
arcs over the house like an antique
China saucer and the teacup sun
follows somewhere far behind
I hope the stars deepen to a shine
so bright you could read by it
if you liked and the sadness
we will have known go away
for awhile – in this hour or two
before sleep – and that we kiss
standing in the kitchen not fighting
gravity so much as embodying
its sweet force, and I hope we kiss
like we do today knowing so much
good is said in this primitive tongue
from the wild first surprising ones
to the lower dizzy ten thousand
infinitely slower ones—and I hope
while we stand there in the kitchen
making tea and kissing, the whistle
of the teapot wakes the neighbors.
“Lonely Lake” from Ghost Lamp by Joyce Kennedy © Laurel Poetry Collective, 2005. Used by permission of the author.
“The Orange” from Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope. ©1992 by Wendy Cope reprinted with permission of United Agents, London.
“Prayer for a Marriage” Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from Sparks from a Nine Pound Hammer: Poems by Steve Scafidi. Copyright © 2001 by Steve Scafidi.
“Getting into Bed on a December Night” from INDIGO by Ellen Bass © 2020 by Ellen Bass. Used with permission of The Permissions Company on behalf of Copper Canyon Press.
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. (firstname.lastname@example.org).