Last Advent season the pastor of my church asked me to write poems based on Bible passages. The challenge came in reimagining ancient texts in new ways while remaining true to the original message. The reward came in the study, the preparation, and the meditation required to face a blank screen and dare to write new words about old themes.
I wrote four of these and each had it’s own reward and since then I’ve thought of creating a larger project and writing more of these poems – both as an exercise in poetry and as a spiritual study.
The new concept is to take selections from one book in the Bible and respond to the selection with a poem. Responding to a story doesn’t mean retelling, but rather providing a reaction to, or an alternative view of the story.
That is my intent, to look at the text and try to understand what else is being said to me. I want to emphasize that this is a personal exercise, and while I hope others might benefit from my musing, the conversation about the text I am reading is between me, the text, and my God.
While poetry can often take us in unexpected directions, I want this project to have some discipline around it as I am convinced that methodical study, prayer, and meditation, give the best results. It is possible that the result might be more freeform, but it starts with consistency. My choices go like this:
I chose the Gospel of Matthew. Why? Honestly, a bit of a random choice, but it’s the first book in the modern Bible. It’s not the first book that was written, but as the canon of the Bible came together over the centuries, it has been placed first. First is a good place to start. Also it lacks some of more poetic language and imagines of John. I don’t want to be distracted by John’s language as I want to find my own images as I explore.
There is a lot in Matthew. Twenty-eight chapters of stuff and some of it dead boring. The question then is what to read and what to focus on. I have a cheat here – the common lectionary.
The common lectionary is a weekly listing of Bible passages that covers a three year cycle. Each week lists a passage from the old testament, a Psalm, a Gospel, and a letter. If you read each week’s listings over the whole three years, you will have read nearly all the Bible. The lectionary lists 49 passages from Matthew. Those will form the basis of my study.
One trap I want to avoid is reading to respond. That is a problem many have today. We read to respond, rather than to understand. I want to understand these passages and try to figure out what they mean to me. I wish to remain open to change through understanding, and respond with my existing beliefs and biases.
The reading tool is the ancient method of Lectio Divina, or Divine Reading. This method of reading dates back to at least the third century and was widely practiced in monastic communities. The Rule of Saint Benedict had specific daily times set aside for Lectio Divina and formed one of the basic rhythms of daily life in a Benedictine monastery.
The method consists of four parts: Lectio (read), Meditatio (meditate), Oratio (pray) and Contemplatio (contemplate)
While the method has its roots in antiquity, it’s going through a modern revival. Many modern methods are shorter versions of the method and involve three readings of the text with a time of silence after which you’re asked to share what words, or imagines stood out for you. This then becomes the basis of a conversation. That always seemed a bit forced to me.
I recently have read two books that have more in depth discussions of Lectio. Tony Jones’ book, The Sacred Way: Spiritual Practices for Everyday Life, is his journey through various practices such as meditation, pilgrimage, The Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divina and others. A more in depth book, is Michael Casey’s, Sacred Reading – The Ancient Art of Lectio Divnia. Casey’s book offers history and suggestions for practicing the method.
For the purposes of my project I’ve decided on modified version of Lectio. These changes fit my purpose and life. I don’t have hours a day to spend on this and in some ways feel inadequate to the task as my knowledge of the Bible isn’t that deep. I know a bunch, but I’ve purchased a copy of the Interpreter’s Bible that I’ll read in addition to the Biblical text. The Interpreter’s Bible provides additional commentary, historical and language notes that I hope will be helpful. Here’s my plan:
Read – Biblical text selection three times on three different days.
Read the commentary.
Contemplate the meaning of the text, reviewing the readings as needed.
Pray over the reading.
Meditate – quiet the mind and live with the text for a time.
Respond – write about the text and distill my thoughts to a poem
Change if a better way is found.
If it works, after some time I’ll end up with a stack of poems and hopefully a better understanding of the text, of the Spirit, of me and of the connection between them.
I may share some of the better poems on this blog with the rest going into a file on my computer. It the project is fruitful, it might be the basis of a book.