About a month ago I did a post about my husband’s ancestor, Ralph Spaulding Cushman, whom we discovered through a friend at my mother’s funeral. After that our oldest son, Jonathan, sent his dad a book of poems by Ralph Cushman, the one I referred to in the post, Hilltop Verses and Prayers. Published in MCMXLV (it took us a little while to figure out that meant 1945), the book is out of print, so Bill received a lovely used copy, with the original owner’s name inside: Carol Nan Rester from Albany, Oregon. I think it’s fun to learn the history of a book’s ownership.
I love poetry, and some of my favorite poems have spiritual elements, like those of the Orthodox poet and writer Scott Cairns (whom I’m blogged about several times, especially his Compass of Affection and Idiot Psalms) as well as more ancient poets like Saint Ephraim the Syrian (A Spiritual Psalter) and Saint Nikolai Velimirovic (Prayers by the Lake).
So when my husband received this gift of verse by his ancestor—a Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church—I was immediately interested in reading more of his poetry. I started with his introduction, “Concerning Religious Verse.” I love what he says about poetry:
A poet can flash forth a truth in a few lines that would require pages of prose to express…. If it is true, as Shakespeare says, that ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’ then Poetry is crystallized thinking.
I immediately thought of the Psalms when I read this, and how they capture the heart of humanity—in all its sinfulness and its joy and emotional expressions—in verse rather than in prose. I think David (and others who wrote the Psalms) was very close to God. As Cushman says:
It seems evident also that there is a close relationship between poetry and religious experience. I do not mean that all poets are saints…. Emotionally and temperamentally they have the capacity for sainthood…. Religious experience—a growing nearness to God in Christ—tends to express itself in lofty and poetic language. Likewise the use of poetry will help one to cultivate the spiritual life…. Poetry is capable of catching and expressing the deeper emotions and conceptions of the human heart and mind….
I just spent the morning with a friend who is struggling with a form of early onset dementia. We had coffee and talked about birds—the birds she and her husband feed in their yard and often watch with their morning coffee. And then we worked a simple puzzle that revealed pictures of a dozen beautiful birds and tried to guess their names. I regret not having a bird feeder in the little patio outside my office. Last year I had a hummingbird feeder but the hummers didn’t come often and I found it “too much trouble” to keep the feeder clean and filled. After this morning I’m thinking of getting a new bird feeder, which I hope will encourage me to sit still and watch for the beauty of the birds that will hopefully visit me. I am inspired by Cushman’s poem:
I Will Not Hurry
I will not hurry through this day!
Lord, I will listen by the way,
To humming bees and singing birds,
To speaking trees and friendly words;
And for the moments in between
Seek glimpses of Thy great Unseen.
I will not hurry through this day;
I will take time to think and pray;
I will look up into the sky,
Where fleecy clouds and swallows fly;
And somewhere in the day, maybe
I will catch whispers, Lord, from Thee!
After working the puzzle this morning, my friend and I spent an hour playing a game that normally takes about 30 minutes to complete. It blessed me to have to slow down and help her to understand the mechanics of the game and to take time with each move. I hope that the morning will help me remember the wisdom of Cushman’s poetry and the joy of just being with a friend in the presence of a God who loves us.