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How poetry can help us pray

The Bible is full of examples of poetry being used as prayer. Tearfund writer and poet Gideon Heugh explores how we can engage with this practice today.

Gideon Heugh | 19 Mar 2021

The Bible brims with the poetic. Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, the Song of Solomon, Job and most of the Old Testament prophets are written either entirely or in part as poetry.

Words create worlds

When the prophets are speaking out the voice of God, the text switches from prose to poetry. It’s as though the divine utterance is simply too holy, too awesome to be expressed in normal terms.

Words have immense power. In Genesis 1, God speaks creation into being. It isn’t forged or constructed or simply zapped into place. Words create worlds.

Poetry harnesses the creative potency of language. The fullness of words are brought to bear on a single idea, feeling or moment – helping open our eyes and hearts to the depths of life. It can also help us to see life from another person’s perspective, for example someone living in poverty. Poetry builds empathy.

Praying through a poem

You cannot rush when reading a poem; it forces you to slow down, to dwell, to be present. Because poetry so wonderfully and effectively focuses our attention, it can be a powerful medium through which we can pray. 

The following is a spiritual exercise that can help us to pray through poetry. 

Choose a poem – it could be a personal favorite or one that you haven't read before – that focuses on an issue that you think God might be placing on your heart. 

It could be a poem about the beauty of creation. A poem about a particular injustice. Or a poem about the experience of being a refugee. If you are unsure of what to choose, we have provided a list of suggestions at the end of this article.

The exercise has five simple steps. You don’t need to have read any poetry before to take part.

Spiritual exercise

Step one – once you have chosen your poem, say a brief and simple prayer inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through it.

Step two – read the poem, slowly, and out loud if you can. Once you have finished, note down a particular line or phrase that you find particularly moving or interesting.

Step three – read the poem a second time. Once you have, think of a story or a moment from your own life that this reminds you of. How can you relate the poem to your own experience?

Step four – read the poem for a third and final time. Think of an action that the Holy Spirit might be asking you to take, or change it is asking you to make through the poem.

Step five – pray. Thank God for the poem and for what it has been telling you. Ask God to help you take the action that you considered in the previous step.

Suggested poems

A song thrush makes the poet think of God By Gideon Heugh

After perhaps fifteen minutes or so I gave up looking for the song thrush. Not because I am impatient (though there is that), not because I didn't want my coffee to get cold (though there is that), no, it is because I realised that as long as I was searching I was not listening, as long as my mind was grasping my heart was not receiving, as long as my eyes were straining to see the source of the music I could not stop to revel in the fact that there should be music at all.

Home, Warsan Shire The Summer Day, Mary Oliver Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson Caged bird, Maya Angelou Go to the limits of your longing, Rainer Maria Rilke

Gideon Heugh


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