Prayer and Poets

Bryan Wandel: In the Anglican spiritual tradition, poetry has been a fervent language of the soul. Consider trying it this Lent.

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Lex orandi, lex credendi. The law of prayer is the law of belief, the old saying goes. In other words, the prayers of the Church have often been better guides to faith than theological treatises. The phrase is originally Roman Catholic, but the Anglicans have always laid their own peculiar claim to it. The law of prayer is the law of belief, and the prayers of the Anglicans have sometimes been dearer to them than creeds themselves.

In this spirit, the Anglican spiritual tradition might be found most distinctly in her poetry. The shaping power of prayerful words, and not just words in prayers, lifts poetry to cloudy heights; among Anglicans, this is often an integral form of spirituality.

Come, come, what do I here?
Since he is gone
Each day is grown a dozen year …

It’s evident that words, like prayers, come from people. Poets may spend days, or years, crafting pregnant iambs, but the best ones always read like they just exploded from a burdened breast. Every time you read them.

Like the verse above from Henry Vaughan, a 17th century Anglican spiritual poet. He and his comrades are called the Metaphysical Poets – but has there ever been a more redundant title? Isn’t the greatest argument against materialism the fact that we talk to each other? (And that we think as if we are talking to someone.) Words come from people, but so do thoughts that cannot quite be expressed in words. This fact has long been a core argument for the existence of spirit within the Anglican tradition. Spirit speaks, deep calls unto deep, and, in particular among the Anglicans, prayers rhyme.

Prayer, the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age;
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth …

These lines are from a George Herbert poem, the only sonnet I know of that doesn’t contain a single complete sentence. Fitting, I think, for the topic of prayer.

In Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer is higher than any book other than Scripture. Though it is not much lower, since it is called “Scripture rearranged for prayer.” The prayer book has been one of the few unifying forces among Anglican Christians, both for its poetic quality and for its internal inertia toward prayer itself.

And yet, prayer supplies its own drive back to words. Maybe that is why the Church is always singing. Choruses, responses, orchestra, a cappella, rote prayer, extemporaneous. For a lover of poetry, too, that has to be the drive – personally, it is a search for just the right words.

Batter my heart, three personned God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
– John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV

I have tastes in poems like tastes in food. As much as you might separate fine and low dining – Boeuf Bourguignon and Chef Boyardee – it’s hard not to admit having love affairs on both sides of the aisle. You know, poetry is one of those arts where criticism can drown the loveliest of birds. If it’s good, it just, well, tastes good. Robert Farrar Capon, an Episcopal priest, said, “At the end of each of the six days of creation, God says, ‘Tov!’ – which is Hebrew for ‘Mmm, good!’”

Me, I separate poets (as I do with philosophers) into two groups: those with souls, and those without souls. My wife’s face goes long whenever I say that, because she’s indiscriminate in her love of all goodness. But I only have time for the kind with souls. Really, I don’t even know what that phrase means, if you press me on it – it’s just the name of the pile in which I put the good verses.

There are plenty of both in the Anglican spiritual tradition, but the good ones have always been central to Anglican spiritual experience. Words, I repeat, always come from humans, but spirituality recognizes in practice that there is something inside of homo sapiens that sees, wants, and maybe even says things divine. Is it too much to say that no poet is an atheist? That all good poetry is a prayer?

This has always been the Christian belief about prayer. Be we Calvinists, Catholics, Pentecostals, or Orthodox, we stand on the firmest conviction that the most awkward, embarrassing, heart-breaking, disappointing, outrageously maddening words of prayer are a real connection between me and God. Mmm, good!

I am all at once what Christ is | since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire, And the Comfort of the Resurrection

For a poem a day during Lent, please visit

Graphic from Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, Binghamton, U.K.


  • February 10, 2013

    Lauri Drosendahl

    Would you please allow me to use this LENT image for our two little churches’ websites? I’d like to be able to give someone credit…

  • September 18, 2014


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