How to use contemplative poetry as spiritual practice

Expressing your questions, inspirations and doubts through poetry can help center you
By Stephanie Harper    Published on 04/18/2018 at 12:00 PM EDT

I have always written poetry. In fact, I think I began writing poetry before I even fully understood what poetry was (if poetry can be defined in any certain way). For me, it has always been a process for responding to what I see and experience in the world. The playfulness with language, the brevity, of using as few words as possible to get to the heart of something helps me understand things more deeply. In this regard, I think it was a natural progression for my poetry to become a tool of contemplation, an essential part of my spiritual practice.

What is Contemplation?

Contemplative practice is a cornerstone in all major religious traditions, as well as non-religious spiritual practice. Some call it meditation; some call it prayer. Whatever you call it, contemplation is an opportunity to put the ego aside, to live in a moment where barriers are broken down and everything is connected, is whole.

In Christian contemplation, this often takes the form of finding God within ourselves and our lives. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and ecumenical teacher, explains that “a mystic is one who recognizes God’s image and likeness in this human being, in this creature, in this moment, and comes to see God everywhere and always.”

Contemplative Poetry as Spiritual Practice

There isn’t a firm “definition” for contemplative poetry (and to some degree, all poetry is contemplative in nature)—but I can tell you what contemplative poetry has been to me and how creating these poems have become a spiritual practice in my life.

For me, contemplative poetry is a way to tap into this mystic understanding, to grapple with the mystery of God, the benevolent love energy that connects us all, and to train myself to live with a heart of love, with open eyes for the wonder and beauty that is all around me.

My contemplative poetry is often born out of responses to sermons, worship experiences, and other spiritual readings and practices. I’ll often hear a word, phrase, or image that I connect with and then craft a lyrical response to this. I rely on concrete images of the natural world to help me relate to whatever idea I might be exploring. There are often questions, and sometimes there are answers. I write a lot about love and grace and wonder because these are the things that matter most to me, that I am always trying to turn my whole self toward.

Take, for instance, this poem called “Shrubs,” from my poetry collection Sermon Series published in 2017:

In my heart
you planted a seed.

I thought
you had given me a tree
but it grew outward,
the twigs spread wide,

This was the gift you gave me—
not branches, but shrubs.

I remember the genesis of this poem: I was listening to a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed. I immediately connected to this image of the mustard plant, a shrub which spreads outward as opposed to upward. I thought about how I longed for this kind of outward trajectory in my own heart, how I might live a life of love and compassion. And so, I wrote this poem.

How to Start Writing Contemplative Poetry

My journey into contemplative poetry has provided me with a space to synthesize spiritual teachings into something that is both concrete and evocative. It has also helped me ask questions, wrestle with doubt, and continually center myself to live with a heart of love.

Regardless if you consider yourself a poet or not, this practice is for everyone. The great joy and transformative power of contemplative poetry is that there’s no right way of doing it. You just have to do. But here are some tips to help guide you:

  1. Ask questions. Explore your burning questions, the ones that keep you up at night, the ones that make you feel lost and lonely. Write them down and see what happens. You might find some answers. You might not, but if you’re always searching, you’ll discover something new and vital to your living.
  2. Look to the natural world for inspiration. We are all connected. This world is connected. And, there is no better way to lean into the marvel of this connectedness then to explore the miracles of evolution, creation and resurrection that are constantly in motion in the natural world around us.
  3. Don’t be afraid to doubt. Sometimes we are told that doubt is the antithesis of faith. This is simply not true. Doubt is essential to living into the mystery and ambiguity of the unseen forces, God, love or whatever you want to call it, constantly at work in our lives. So, let your wonder, even your doubt, manifest in your words.
  4. Be vulnerable. It’s okay. Write about what scares you, what you don’t want anyone to know. Let yourself question, worry, doubt. But also let yourself love and hope. Let yourself experience grace. Find your way into this vulnerability and open a door within yourself full of endless possibility for transformation.
  5. Don’t shy away from mystery and what you don’t understand. Sometimes the hardest thing we can do is admit that we don’t understand something, anything, and that it’s okay to not know. Who you are, what you are doing and feeling in any given moment, is enough, because in every moment you have the capacity to love.  

Poet and philosopher Mark Nepo said, “To walk quietly until the miracle in everything speaks is poetry, whether we write it down or not.” May you find the poetry in your daily living and may it begin to make you new.  

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