Poetry and Liturgy and Holy Week


“Poetry is when language attains a degree of opacity, and you can’t see right through it.”

This quote came from my pal, Scott Cairns when I asked him to talk about the intersection of poetry and liturgy. I was fortunate to have gathered a small posse of smart Orthodox poet-types and ask them questions at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids . Much wisdom came forth from Scott, Gaelan Gilbert (editor of St. Katherine Review) and poet Cameron Alexander Lawrence, but what stuck to me was this idea of opacity, not being able to see right through it.

And I find myself here as Great Lent draws me closer and closer to glorious Pascha. I feel as though I am wandering in a dark wood, even now, this bright light ahead. I know I’ll make it there. I’m pleased that I got this far without fretting too much about failing at the fast or falling down on focus. It happens, more than I care to admit. But I don’t feel stymied there, I’m not blinded in the falling down and that’s a good thing, but it is hard to see the road, hard to make out more than just simply light and dark shapes. I am floating here.

Last week, I managed to get to confession. I know there are people who don’t care much for confession but I kind of love it. Strangely enough, it’s the waiting that I love best. I sit on a bench that rests along the stone wall of the nave. I can see my priest and hear indistinct mumbling as my fellow parishioner unburdens, no real words, only smothered sounds, maybe a hard “r” or a soft “sh” as she finishes. Then, the rise of the priest’s voice–
“Now, having no further care
for the sins which you have
confessed, depart in peace;
knowing that your sins are as
far from you as the east is from
the west!”

I have in mind that perhaps I’m meant to be thinking, getting clear and detailed about the sin I’ll confess. It doesn’t come to me easy like that– no laundry list of transgressions, no firm and ready examples of my failing. I sit and wait and watch the light shift through the windows above until my gaze falls finally on the face of the Theotokos. “We both know already,” I say to her. It’s always some version of the same struggle– temper, attention, envy, language. I know where I’m coming from, I know where I’m sitting now, here, on this hard bench waiting. I breathe that a moment, last night’s incense still sweet in the air. Looking ahead is more difficult. The goal is clear, Pascha, right there on the horizon and yet, in this moment, this opacity creeps over me, not blindness and not clarity.

Not everyone likes poetry. That’s a fact. Some people tell me that they prefer things to be clear or, if they do enjoy poetry, they prefer “straightforward” poems. I guess I don’t know many poems like that. Most of the poetry I read and enjoy feels like those cloudy moments before confession or in the midst of Liturgy with words repeating and time slipping easily between my fingers like water, like air. I have to work a little harder in those moments, when the language attains that opacity, when the Great Lent begins to ebb on the edges of Holy Week and I have to let myself float there in it, allow the words to seep into me– have mercy on me O Lord, have mercy on me. Bright times ahead, O my people, yes but let’s float here a while yet.


Want to listen to the recording of this
Poetry and Liturgy panel from FFW 2016?
Listen here!


  1. You were in the nave not narthex. The poetry of our hymns draws back the veil to permit a vision of Heaven otherwise obscured by the humdrum of everyday life. “Open to me the doors of repentance, O Mother of God.”

  2. Thank you for this article. This year marks 5 years since my Chrismation into the Faith, but it will be my first year singing in choir at church during Holy Week and Pascha. It’s been a real treat to actually read the written words of the various odes at practices at my parish. I, too, am enthralled by the sense of ‘mystery’ that Holy Week brings. I thought that by year #5 I’d be somewhat jaded or even thoroughly bored by all this “holy week/pascha” stuff like I had been at Lent/Eastertide in other churches I’d gone to previously (after all we’ve all heard the “story” before, but I have to admit since becoming Orthodox, I’m very excited about it all, same as that very first year as a Catechumen! It is mysterious and new, despite each year that passes. ..and I consider that a real blessing. I definitely plan to enter into it all fully and joyfully because it really is special! There are times at practice when it’s all I can do not to get emotional and tearful reading the Great and Holy Saturday odes. I just hope I don’t start blubbering like a baby at the Matins.

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