Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience

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Prayer Is Poetry

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)

“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)

Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.

At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.

As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.

The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.

For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.

So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.

God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.  

Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.

Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”

Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.

Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”

Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.

That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”

If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”

Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.

The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”

America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.

No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.

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