Lent is a season for slowing down. Many of us like to choose a Lenten practice that will draw us, for at least a brief time each day, away from our usual hurried preoccupations and into a deeper awareness of God’s presence in and among us.
Poetry is a perfect resource for this Lenten practice of prayerful attentiveness. One of poetry’s great gifts is to slow us down. We’re used to racing ahead as we read, whether it’s a newspaper report or an e-mail memo or even a magazine article: Language in these forms propels us forward, urging us to grab up its main points. But poetry doesn’t press ahead so much as give us pause—in the wonder of words crafted to open into another dimension.
Poets’ art is to invite us into this wondrous openness of language: to welcome us to let our imaginations and spirits expand beyond ordinary associations and meanings.
For me, reading a poem meditatively is like taking a Sunday stroll along a woodland path. The lines of the poem are the pathway, with all its intriguing byways, unexpected vistas and mossy banks to rest and reflect on where I’ve been and where I am. The poet is my walking companion and guide, inviting me to join in the refreshment of following images wherever my experience or imagination might take them.
When the poem I’ve chosen for meditation is itself a reflection on a Gospel story, my stroll is all the richer. It’s as if I’ve joined a friend who is already in conversation with the Gospel and who welcomes me to saunter along with them both, sharing in their exchange.
I’m especially appreciative of the opportunity when the Gospel story is one of those favorites that have become so familiar that its deep truths have lost their startling effect and even become a bit stale. Poetry offers me a fresh way to enter these Gospel readings and pray with them more fully.
This year for the Third Sunday of Lent (March 3), for instance, we hear the marvelous account from John’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well (4:4-42). Here is how I might use a poem to enter this beloved Gospel story anew.
First, I recall the story’s essentials. This woman of Samaria has come to the village well to draw water for her daily needs. There by the well she finds a Jewish stranger resting from his journey. He is thirsty but doesn’t have a bucket to reach down to the water, which lies deep in the well. “Give me a drink,” he requests of her, breaking Jewish custom not only by speaking with a woman but also by asking to share utensils with a non-Jewish person.
The woman, bright and spunky, challenges him on both points. Thus begins the lively dialogue that is the heart of the Gospel episode. He offers her a water that quenches one’s thirst forever, the “living water” of “eternal life”; yes, please give it to me, she replies, so I don’t have to keep coming to the well each day.
Jesus shifts ground, leaping into the core of her soul: You’ve had five husbands (had a life, that is, perhaps lacking restraint) and are now living with a man you’re not married to. She sees that he has seen right into her. But instead of fearing his insight, she honors him as a prophet; and instead of judging her sinfulness, he honors her by revealing to her his identity as Christ.
The Gospel of John is poetry in a sense. It works through parallel and contrasting images, through wordplay and through drawing language from a literal to a symbolic meaning.
In this encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, their mutual requests for a drink are parallel, mirroring images.
Then, from the literal thirst with which they both begin, the Gospel writer draws out the symbolic meaning of the “living water” that only Jesus can offer, which quenches the thirst not of our bodies but of our souls. Into Gospel writing like this, any poem enters as into a congenial medium.
Introducing a Poet
Karol Wojtyla, now known as Pope John Paul II, studied literature in college and was soon writing poems that appeared in Polish magazines. After his ordination to the priesthood in his 20s, he continued publishing poetry.
It is a quiet, contemplative poetry, often meditating on biblical moments. The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well particularly attracted him, so much so that he composed a sequence of eight poems reflecting on the scene.
“Song of the Brightness of Water” is the last in the sequence, which was published when Wojtyla was 30 years old. So as I enter the poem, I’m joining not a pope but a young poet-priest.
And almost immediately—by the end of the first line—I see that I’m joining him in his persona as the Samaritan woman of the Gospel. She is evidently musing some time after the incident; her encounter with Jesus was “so long ago,” she says. Yet she is still living it: The depth she experienced is “this” depth, very present to her now. And its brightness—”this brightness”—”still clings to my eyes.”
Let’s pause and sit with the poem before going further; reread it more slowly, let it sink in.
Song of the Brightness of Water
Let’s enter the scene with the poet.
From the poem’s title I can tell that “this brightness” is the water’s. Not until the end of the poem do I know for sure that the water’s brightness is Christ’s, his transforming light mirrored in the well as the woman gazed into the water.
In a condensed, meditative poem like this one, my stroll through the poem can’t follow a single straight path. It’s more like the passage of my eye through a painting: All the images are before me at once, and I let my eye meander through their interrelations as the artist suggests them.
What the poet suggests here is that the woman had met Jesus not only at the well but also in the well: that throughout their dialogue, both were looking not directly at one another but into the well, meeting by means of their reflections mirrored in the water. His reflected depth had penetrated her being to become “the perception I found” as he revealed himself to her, and revealed her to herself in him.
The poet has deeply absorbed every word of the Gospel account, and assumes that we have, too, so that we’ll know what this double revelation of Jesus consists in: Jesus revealing himself to the Samaritan woman as the Messiah who offers the water of eternal life, and revealing her to herself as a sinner who nevertheless is worthy of eternal life in him.
Jesus sees into her soul and forgives what he sees, washing away her sin with his living water. For the poet, all of this astounding interchange of self-revelation and salvation is happening in the well itself. The well becomes the very image of the depths of self-perception that Jesus has drawn the woman into. This is “the perception” gratefully found by the poem’s woman at the well.
Along with this perception, she says she also found her own “empty space” reflected in the well. I might think that finding empty space in myself could be a joyful relief, if I’m emptied of whatever clogs God’s life in me.
But the woman is evidently seeing the opposite sort of inner emptiness: a space that is empty now of Jesus, as she comes to realize that “I can never take all of you/into me.”
Their lives had truly merged at that moment in the well, mirroring one another as he absorbed her sinful being and suffused it with his own saving light; but human life can’t contain Christ’s fullness. We can meet Christ in the well, but then our human life in time inevitably moves on.
The woman accepts this loss, this “sorrow” (accepts that “yet it is good”), because she knows that he will remain always available: “Stay then as a mirror in the well.” There in the well, in life’s depths, he will always be reflected when she comes to gaze on him. The light of Christ’s dazzling brightness will always, now that she has once perceived it, transfix her eyes and transform her soul when she comes “to draw water.”
Now I Wonder
I wonder about the “leaves and flowers” that remain above the poem’s well, brought down in the water’s reflection by “each astonished gaze.” Are they symbols of my new growth in Christ that is possible whenever I bring myself to gaze into his depths?
I wonder about the very word “reflection,” such a common word, reverberating through the poem. I’ve been reflecting on the Samaritan woman’s reflections on her meeting Jesus’ reflection in the well.
A reflection is literally rays of light bending back from an object. When referring to the mind, a reflection is my thoughts bending back over an object, over a subject. Poetry tends to be reflective: to bend language back over its subject, taking my thoughts along and then loosing them to bend and turn again as they will, over the subject, over themselves.
I wonder about the image of Jesus as “mirror.” For St. Clare of Assisi, “this image of the mirror is central,” writes Murray Bodo, O.F.M. He says, “As Francis was the mirror of Christ and Christ of the Father, so the life of the contemplative is to look into the mirror that is Christ and see there oneself, thereby learning who you are.
“By looking into the mirror who is Christ and recognizing yourself, you become a mirror of him whom you contemplate, and you in turn mirror, through Christ to the Father, all of creation. You see yourself both in a mirror and as a mirror. St. Clare writes to her sisters: ‘For the Lord Himself has not only placed us as example and mirror for others, but also for our own sisters whom the Lord has called to our way of life, so that they in their turn will be mirror and example to those living in the world'” (The Way of St. Francis: The Challenge of Franciscan Spirituality for Everyone, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1995).
The Samaritan woman of the Gospel, model contemplative in the poem, does become an example to those living in the world: “Many Samaritans…believed in [Jesus] because of the woman’s testimony,” the Gospel (4:39) says.
I wonder about poets as contemplatives. The American poet Sophie M. Starnes has said in “Writing a Poem”: “The poet lives in the contemplation of the individual moment. Such a contemplation requires…[that] the poet must become incarnate in one experience, distinct from all others. Through the isolation of one moment, the poet apprehends its heart and its edges, its thudding core and the fading wake of its sound. Only thus can the poet transfigure the experience, transient as it is, into a living thing—into a poem that tremors out of a page into the heart of the reader” (Christianity and the Arts, Winter 2000).
Merging and Memorizing
In “Song of the Brightness of Water,” the poet—in the persona of the Samaritan woman—becomes incarnate in the experience of merging, for a moment, with God.
Returning to read the poem one more time, do I find a line that I want to memorize, to make my own?
To Help You Pray With Poetry
Poetry as Prayer series (Pauline Books & Media). These small books suggest how to read poetry in a holy way. Each volume focuses on a single poet.
Some volumes I’ve enjoyed include:
Poetry as Prayer: Denise Levertov, by Murray Bodo, O.F.M. (2001).
Poetry as Prayer: Jessica Powers, by Bishop Robert F. Morneau (2000).
Poetry as Prayer: The Hound of Heaven, by Robert Waldron (1999).
Ashes to Easter: Lenten Meditations, by Robert F. Morneau (Crossroad Publishing Company). Bishop Morneau has a gift for opening up poetry for prayer. Any of his books is recommended. This one draws on a range of poets to lead the reader into meditation on the Lenten Gospel themes.
Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry, edited by David Impastato (Oxford University Press, 1997). Poems by 15 important English-language poets, organized by meditative subjects such as transformation, injustice, the Holy.
Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, edited by Robert Atwan, George Dardess and Peggy Rosenthal (Oxford University Press, 1998). Poems reflecting on particular Gospel passages, drawn from contemporary world cultures as well as major poets of the past 2,000 years.
Peggy Rosenthal, Ph.D., is the author of many books and articles on poetry and Christianity. This article first appeared in the March 2002 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.