Watching our words


14 May 2019

Poetry is a language ideally suited to a spiritual life.

Pope Paul VI once told an audience of Christians that they might be the only gospel that many people would read that day. All of us are teachers and witnesses, and the teacher always teaches himself or herself first. Leonardo da Vinci’s perspective on this was that ‘The painter always paints himself’ and this was picked up by Cardinal Basil Hume when he wrote: ‘Some people say that in the artist’s work you will see something of the artist… If you look at a work of art you will always see something of the artist. Some people can recognise composers: that is Mozart, for example, or that is Beethoven. We leave part of ourselves in what we create.’ (quoted in Cardinal Basil Hume, In My Own Words, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1999, p30)

One of the delights of my Christmas vacations on the NSW mid-North coast in recent times has been the company of Tony Doherty – Monsignor Tony Doherty I should add. Sydneysiders would know him as an urbane and gregarious priest of the Archdiocese, now retired from parish duties, but still in constant demand to celebrate the sacraments, often in the high end of town. An avid reader, Tony has a sharp eye and good judgment for what might interest me and massage my fancy, and this year I remain most grateful that he introduced me to Mark Oakley’s The Splash of Words – Believing in Poetry.


Oakley’s exquisite writing on the soul language of poetry provides a splendid window on the landscape of our religious beliefs. Having struggled to read and understand poetry at school and even later in life, some readers will no doubt find this idea unbelievable. How can something as complex and incomprehensible as poetry shed light on anything? Let Mark Oakley charm and convince you. Indeed, you might take a leaf out of his book and return to appreciate poetry as he did when hearing Wendy Cope read a poem about her grandmother titled Names.

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby –
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs. Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now she was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did – friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil’ we said, or ‘Nanna.’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

This is such a simple poem, is it not? Just 107 words, as Mark Oakley writes, ‘that capture the fragile life cycle of a woman and that make you feel tender towards her.’

In his beautifully written introduction to the book, Oakley’s claim that ‘poetry is the language that most truly reflects the life of the soul’ is an important principle for all of us engaged in the spiritual life. This leads him to reflect on his role as a spiritual director, asking himself a wonderful question from time to time: ‘Who do people become in my presence? When they are with me, who do they become? It is a question we can ask in the presence of a poem too.’

This is a question for all of us, whatever our ministry: Who do people become in our presence?


What a pity that the new Liturgy, such a dull and incomprehensible transliteration from the Latin in many places, did not incorporate some inspiring poetry. After all, as Mark Oakley reminds us, the Bible contains some beautiful poetry in its collage of writings that focus on the fact that ‘God is not to be the easy object of our knowledge but the deepest cause of our wonder.’

One Mother’s Day a woman rang the ABC with the following message: ‘I want to say ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ to all those mothers whose disabled children are unable to say this greeting to them.’ It was a moment of grace, when the heart is moved by words that reveal God’s abiding presence among us.

Words are so powerful, but they do have a double edge. They have the capacity to build people up or put them down. Poetry teaches us to be careful with our words – both those we write and those we say.

Emailed words are like the speeding arrow; you can never get them back. Some of the words inside us are destructive and should remain there. Words of put-down, for example, should be kept down deep inside us. Others, such as those of praise, love and gratitude are so constructive and positive that they should be released and given wings. They are life-giving and life-enlarging words. They are moments of grace. After all, we do refer to Jesus as God’s Word, do we not?

If we are not careful, some words become tired with over use and need to be rehabilitated. Those masters of the weary cliché, sports commentators, remind us of this in the media every day. They are not alone, however. Some of our own Church language in the new liturgy, official documents and homilies can be criticised for the same deficiency.


Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican order, has written in his book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? ‘If we cherish the Word of God, then we should reverence all words, knowing their power to hurt or heal… So Christians should be recognisable in how we use words, attentive to their exact meaning, careful with them because they can be like knives that cut.’ It is little wonder, therefore, that St Augustine could say that words are ‘precious cups of meaning’.

I can remember reading in my Theology studies many moons ago that ‘Theology is the art of watching one’s language in the presence of God’. Poetry helps us do just that. Art and faith are constant companions.


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