The Power of the Word – Poetry and Prayer


I read about the Poetry and Prayer Conference held at Heythrop College after co-authoring an article about the Catholic Church banning the musical note known as “The Devil’s Interval” in the 16th century.  Black Sabbath used the note effectively to create their demonic and nihilistic image But I digress.

The conference at Heythrop was attended by theologians, philosophers, literary scholars and creative writers and they debated the following questions:

  • What do poetry and prayer share?
  • How do they differ?
  • In what ways do they relate to each other?

Just as you would not think of linking the Church and Black Sabbath in the same sentence I had never thought of poetry and prayer in terms of each other and the effect they had on the person.

Whilst the conference discussed specific religious texts and works from particular authors and poets. I am more interested in the effect both have on your wellbeing and inner spiritual strength.  That spiritual strength does not necessarily need to come from religion. “W.H. Auden wrote: ‘to pray is to pay attention to something or someone other than oneself. Whenever a man so concentrates his attention – on a landscape, a poem, a geometrical problem, an idol, or the True God – that he completely forgets his own ego and desires, he is praying.’”

Atheists may not agree with the viewpoint that they are praying when reading poetry which reinforces the point that we have no shared understanding of the terms ‘prayer’ and ‘poetry’. Yet as tourists many of them will attend a service at one of our historic cathedrals such as York or Wells and come away with a feeling of inner peace, tranquility or a feeling of spirituality if you like.  If you’re an atheist and you’ve had that feeling I’d be interested in knowing how you would describe it.

Poetry is obviously not prayer but I and many others have experienced the same feeling of elation, joy and of spirituality from both. So they differ but can elicit the same feeling in people of a religious and non religious nature. Does that mean they are related? Looking at a wider context Music, Art and the wonders of nature and the natural world can produce those same feelings in us all.

So is it the words rather than what they represent that is the connection between the two?

The Next Poetry and Prayer Conference : Continuities & Discontinuities takes place at Heythrop College 29-30 June 2012

Thanks to Heythrop College and Charlotte Henson for the inspiration in my writing this piece

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4 thoughts on “The Power of the Word – Poetry and Prayer

  1. Poetry and prayer combine a spiritual quality. That quality is often missing from our memos and e-mails at work. We should not be surprised when company mission statements are forgotten or ignored if they lack inherent ‘beauty’ or a ‘higher purpose’. Great post Thomas – I look forward to more.

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