The Prayer a Poem Can Make

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The Prayer a Poem Can Make

All Creation Wept

As we slip with ashen foreheads into the season of Lent we will undoubtedly hear the forty days ahead of us described as “a journey.” As with any journey, we would be wise to ask before departing: “Where are we going?” The replies could range from something as vague as “towards an improved spiritual self” to the properly catechetical, “towards the paschal mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection.” Both responses, however, may seem abstract to us as we stand in the wearisome late winter days of “ordinary time.” We may wish to place our lives in sync with the liturgical calendar. We may ponder what sacrifices we can undertake in the weeks ahead that will make this time more meaningful. Our failure to do so may result from our failure to really see where we are going.

This is where a good poem can help. It is the determined work of poetry to pull us from the abstract to the concrete; to help us experience as if for the first time stories and images that have grown too familiar; to draw our imaginations towards understanding by making us see, hear, taste, touch, and smell what is true.

With this in mind, let’s start again.
“It’s time for our Lenten journey.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the cross.”
“To the cross?”
“Yes, the cross. Come and see—and hear, and smell, and touch, and taste.”

Our guide on this journey is Melissa Range, a contemporary poet who teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Raised in the Appalachian region of east Tennessee, Melissa was surrounded by and steeped in nature and bible stories from an early age. She has spent her life discovering the powerful intersection of lived experience with the spoken and written word. She earned an MFA in writing, forming as she did a special affinity for the poetry of the nineteenth century Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. She studied in divinity school, worked with refugee children as an AmeriCorps volunteer, and ultimately earned a PhD in Literature from the University of Missouri.

Along the way Melissa published two collections of poetry. Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press), which won the 2010 Walt McDonald Prize and Scriptorium. Some of her poetry is more explicitly religious than others; all depict the wounds of violence and the paradoxical tension between worldly power and human frailty. One of my favorites is “The Conversion of Saul Imagined as a Scene in a Western.” The law-enforcing Saul, wearing a “white ten-gallon” hat, is “shot from the saddle” in the “high noon light” by a stranger he cannot see. The stranger’s voice sinks “into Saul like blood into the dust” when he tells his persecutor: “Best hand in your badge . . . Ain’t room for the two of us in any town.” Saul awakes “without a scratch, a black hat by his head — an outlaw, an apostle, a changed and wanted man.”

“I definitely think poems can be used as devotional tools,” Melissa has assured me, and I know that my own appreciation of St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus and his radical turn from enforcing the law of the land to becoming an outlaw for Christ has been permanently changed and reinvigorated by this poem. Let’s see if she can do the same for the seminal event of the Gospels that we have “heard” so many times that we may no longer see its significance.

One of the earliest Christian poems in the English language is the lengthy seventh century dream vision, Dream of the Rood in which the poet (likely the Benedictine Caedmon), describes a dream where the wooden cross of Christ appears to him and speaks of the suffering which it empathetically endured during the crucifixion of Jesus. With her eyes on this ancient poem and the devotional tradition from which it sprang, Professor Range offers the powerful meditation below. In doing so, she steers us towards the events of Good Friday with a renewed alertness:

“All Creation Wept”
By Melissa Range

And not just those disciples
whom he loved, and not just
his mother; for all creation

was his mother, if he shared
his cells with worms and ferns
and whales, silt and spiderweb,

with the very walls of his crypt
Of all creation, only he slept,
the rest awake and rapt with grief

when love’s captain leapt
onto the cross, into an abyss
the weather hadn’t dreamt.

Hero mine the beloved,
cried the snowflakes, cried the moons
of unknown planets, cried the thorns

in his garland, the nails bashed
through his bones, the spikes of dry grass
on the hillside, dotted with water

and with blood—real tears,
and not a trick of rain-light
blinked and blurred onto a tree

so that the tree seems wound
in gold. It was not wound
in gold or rain but in a rapture

of salt, the wood splintering
as he splintered when he wept
over Lazarus, over Jerusalem,

until his sorrow became his action,
his grief his victory---
until his tears became a rupture

in nature, all creation
discipled to his suffering
on the gilded gallows-tree,

the wood which broke beneath the weight
of love, though it had no ears to hear
him cry out, and no eyes to see.

Remarkably, what the poet achieves here is the very thing that St. Francis did in his canticle to creation and his innovation of the manger crèches that we display in our homes and churches at Christmas. She reminds us that just as “all creation” (oxen, donkeys, sheep, stars) partook in Christ’s birth, so too “all creation” witnessed and was moved by his violent death. And “all creation” is not a mere abstraction since Christ “shared / his cells with worms and ferns / and whales, silt and spiderweb.”

Range would have us consider that “when love’s captain leapt / onto the cross” it was “the snowflakes”; “the moons / of unknown planets” far away and “the thorns” piercing his very head that cried out: “Hero mine the beloved.”

She would have us feel “the nails bashed / through his bones” and see “the spikes of dry grass / on the hillside, dotted with water / and with blood.” She would have us know that those tears were “real tears / of salt” just like ours. She would have us hear “the wood splintering” just as Jesus “splintered when he wept / over Lazarus, over Jerusalem.”

Like Hopkins before her, Range converts a too-familiar noun into a verb so that we might hear it again for the first time. “All creation” she tells us, was “discipled to his suffering / on the gilded gallows-tree.”

Our journeys are as personal and as individual as each of us. But Melissa Range reminds us that, like Christ, we share our destinies, our griefs, our victories, and our discipleship with “all creation.” I encourage you to carry this poem with you in the days and weeks ahead. Read it occasionally, even routinely. It holds so many ready Lenten prayers for us to make our own. Let us pray to be “discipled to his suffering.” Let us pray for our salt tears to be joined with Christ’s and “all creation.” And let us pray simply and frequently: “Hero mine the beloved.”