A Year of Writing Liturgically: a project in the making

A few years ago, I found, selling for the grand price of about $1.00, a tattered old copy of a book by Christina Rossetti called Time Flies: A Reading Diary. I was doing my Honours thesis that year on Victorian literature and had, as a result, discovered the Rossetti family. Dante Gabriel had frightened me, William Michael had seemed a bit self-important, but Christina had, it seemed, written some truly lovely poems. And so I had eagerly snaffled the diary and taken it home like some wondrous treasure that no-one else had spotted.

The diary, it turned out, was a series of reflections and poems cycling through the Anglican liturgical year (Rossetti was a devout High Anglican, quite an unusual thing at a time when much of the English intellectual elite of the day was turning away from the state church towards Catholicism). I had recently become a fairly low Anglican myself but was starting, through a few church experiences I had at the time, to see the value in liturgy as a way of helping guide our devotional lives, and as something of an anchor through the passing of time.

I have to-ed and fro-ed in my thinking on the subject, staying in the years since in the low-to-Charismatic end of the Anglican church. But something happened to me this year that set me on a path towards the project that I have now embarked upon: I set myself the task during Lent 2012 of not giving something up, rather taking up writing a poem for each of the 40 days of the season. The exercise proved so valuable both spiritually and artistically that I decided I wanted to keep up the discipline. Shortly before Easter I reflected that I could always write a poem for each day of the Liturgical calendar. Very quickly, that idea, half-formed at a bus stop in Sydney during the Easter holidays, turned into a task that I was very publicly undertaking.

There are distinct challenges to this kind of task. One challenge – the least of them, I suspect – is the discipline required. This is more of a benefit than a challenge; regular writing is good for me, and having several “deadlines” per week helps ensure that I actually am writing, not just belly-aching about wanting to write. The more serious challenge lies in the nature of the Liturgical calendar. Among the many good and helpful nods to giants of the faith – the early church leaders, the key theologians and thinkers of the past, the reformers and prophets of recent history – and the all-too-important reminders of Jesus’ life and ministry, there are occasional curve-balls, the feast days for saints who, on closer inspection, may almost be better forgotten. There’s the challenge of regularly familiarising myself with figures who, perhaps a few days earlier, I had never heard of, the creative challenges of turning hurried research into something artistically meaningful and worthwhile.

There is also the knowledge that I am not doing something entirely new. Christina Rossetti set herself a remarkably similar task, as did John Keble, whose sequence of poems, The Christian Year, receives something of a nod in the title for my project, The Swelling Year (a reference to one of the first poems in the sequence). Will each poem that I write be any good? Will others benefit from what I am doing? These questions will, of course, fill my mind as I go.

There is also an issue of integrity: will I, at times, be testifying to things which, on the day I write them, may be far from my mind or heart? This last issue, however, is less problematic than it seems. If the Liturgical year is of any value, it is as that anchor I mentioned before, not so much to the past as to the core of Christian life. It holds us in the Word of God, by prompting us to look back each day at truths that we might prefer on that occasion to ignore. It also reminds us of the lives of those who have gone before us, fought the fight, run the race and are remembered for it. This, on days when I feel like doing anything other than fighting the fight or running the race, is a very good thing. If I find in my poetry truths which would otherwise be far from me, then I am not being dishonest; I am, in fact, being more truthful in my poetry that day than I am in my heart.

And so the year swells ahead, pregnant with challenges, truth and expectation. Let’s watch it fold and unfold, swell and unswell, before us, one poem at a time.

6 thoughts on “A Year of Writing Liturgically: a project in the making

  1. How cool! As a low-church Anglican myself, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of liturgy in marking the church seasons, and the emotional journey, of the Christian year. Have you read Kathleen Norris’ ‘A Cloister Walk’? I almost wanted to become an oblate for a while after reading it, until I stayed in a (Catholic) monastery and freaked out a bit when they sung to a painting of Mary each evening 🙂

  2. Thanks! Yes, there is definitely a lot of value in the church seasons, even just in ordering our emotional lives. I haven’t read Kathleen Norris but I’ll definitely look into it! I’ve also been struck lately by how some Catholic “contemplatives” (eg. Henri Nouwen, Oscar Romero) managed, through their contemplation, to then more active in their ministries than I could ever hope to be. But then there’s the problem of singing to paintings of Mary, which tends to cut into the feeling of kinship, doesn’t it?

  3. Hehe. Or different views about soteriology, evangelism, ecclesiology, eschatology…. In the times I’ve read bits of Nouwen, I sometimes found it hard difficult bridge the spiritual ‘gap’ between his understanding of Christian faith and mine. Perhaps that was a good thing, but as a Reformed-ish Evangelical I found myself questioning his assumptions about God. How did he arrive at his ways of understanding God, which as far as I could tell, were not rooted in the exegetical study of Scripture, yet at the same time, seemed deeply rooted in (true) human experience? How would I synthesise the two? As a friend of mine said, you don’t just learn about theology from the Bible. Not sure if I’m ready to explore all of the implications of this yet, though… 🙂

    1. True! I know what you mean about Nouwen. There’s something a bit uncomfortable or awkward about some of the things he says, and he isn’t mad keen on using the Bible much, is he? Still, he gets a lot of things about human experience that I wish more orthodox theologians would learn from. There’s a delicate balance somewhere and I’m not exactly sure how to tread it! I guess the best thing about the liturgical year is that it encourages very Bible-centred contemplation, rather than contemplation focused on the more subjective, though still important, stuff of our everyday experience. It helps us see the amazing breadth of scripture and root our day-to-day experience in that as our foundation. That seems pretty valuable, I reckon 🙂

  4. “This, on days when I feel like doing anything other than fighting the fight or running the race, is a very good thing. If I find in my poetry truths which would otherwise be far from me, then I am not being dishonest; I am, in fact, being more truthful in my poetry that day than I am in my heart.”

    I love this assertion of truth over feelings. We all fight this fight, and it’s encouraging to remember. Thank you!

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