Mankind has glorified God from the beginning of his existence, although he has done so incompletely from the moment our first parents committed the Original Sin. Despite the Fall, and because we are his people, God promises in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Then again in Hebrews 10:16, God says, “I will give my laws in their hearts, and on their minds I will write them.” God’s laws are given as a means to draw us closer to him, and he aids us by bestowing graces upon us in the sacraments, the first being that of baptism. “Through the sacrament of Baptism, we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1213). We are joined to him when we receive him in Holy Communion, for “the principal fruit of receiving the Eucharist in Holy Communion is union with him” (CCC, 1391).
God loves us so fiercely that he gave himself in the Holy Eucharist, so we are constantly seeking to glorify him in thought, word, and deed. Since we are created in the image and likeness of God, the written word is especially powerful in bringing us closer to him. For instance, we take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, during which we pray and meditate on the scriptural readings for the day, and in our private devotions as well we pray and meditate on such prayers as the Our Father and Hail Mary. These prayers, both public and private, unite us to God by lifting our hearts up to him. The words of the Mass and of private prayers also captivate us because they teach us about his mercy and love and other attributes.
But it is not only the words we find in prayers given to us by the Church that help us in honoring God. Poetry, which is sometimes interchangeable with prayer (such as the Psalms or Song of Songs), is also a medium by which we can give glory to God. Through the writing of poetry, men and women attempt to imitate the Creator by sharing the beauty of God with their audience in order to unite our minds as closely to God as possible. As Dana Gioia notes in his recent article presenting the important role of poetry in the Christian faith, “To stir faith in things unseen, poetry evokes a deeper response than do abstract ideas. Angels may be content to speak in prose, but incarnate beings like us require the physicality of poetry.” By appealing to the senses through use of poetic devices such as simile, metaphor, rhyme, and meter, a well-written poem can grab the reader’s attention and evoke emotions, a sense of delight, and an appreciation for beauty. In fact, a poem has much in common with the liturgy. For, just as a poem progresses from beginning word to climatic resolution, so too does sacred liturgy progress from beginning word to climax with the greatest action of all—the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament. Likewise, just as the author of a poem pens a succession of words for a particular intention or purpose, so the Author of all that is orchestrates the sacred liturgy through the intentional words of the priest. Gioia attests that there is more than what meets the eye when we are immersed in the divine liturgy. “Words have more than mundane meaning in a faith that celebrates the Word-made-flesh.”
But if poetry and the liturgy have these affinities, how much more so does a poem and the Eucharist? Gioia further points out that “all of the sacraments engage the body and imagination with physical symbols that represent spiritual transformation. They communicate, as poems do, to the full human intelligence—body, mind, and soul—without asking the recipients to divide themselves into anything less than their total identity.” Poetry uses imagery and other linguistic devices that appeal to our senses, but through these devices it also embodies deeper meanings, capturing that same “total identity.” In this way, poetry is similar to the sacraments which are “perceptible signs (words or actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, they make present the efficacious grace that they signify” (CCC, 1084). Poetry on the Blessed Sacrament in particular calls to the reader’s entire being and elevates the soul to experience God through a joy similar to that which we may experience in receiving the Eucharist. As God, the Divine Poet, draws us closer to him through the beauty of his Word that is made Flesh, so the poet draws us closer to God by sharing his beauty through poetry. Indeed, a well written poem about the Eucharist affects us on a natural level, imitating the supernatural way in which the Eucharist itself affects us.
The Divine Poet
To better understand why this is so, we must understand why God can be considered the exemplary poet. Let us examine the two forms of the Creed—the Nicene and the Apostles’ Creed. When we say the Nicene Creed at Mass, we state our belief in God, “the maker of heaven and earth.” Yet, when we pray the Apostles’ Creed, we proclaim that God is the “creator of heaven and earth.” There is an important distinction between these two terms: “creator” refers to one who fashions something out of nothing, while a “maker” fashions something out of a thing or things that have already been created. Both terms aid us in understanding what God does and what a poet does. We know God is our Creator; he put everything into place by his Word alone. Why, then, does the Nicene Creed call him “maker”?
Looking at the Greek text, the original language of the Nicene Creed, we see the word used is poiētēs, which has multiple definitions. According to Merriam-Webster’s etymology of poietes, two of these definitions are “maker and poet.”  Thus, when the word, “maker” is used in the Nicene Creed, it can be inferred that its deeper meaning alludes to God as the Divine Poet, not as someone having fashioned something out of things already created. Thus, God is the ultimate poet—he is the Word and the creator of everything. Everything he created is beautiful, and the source of a poet’s musings. When considering the correlation between the Divine Poet and the poets he created, it is no wonder that many who have studied poetry see in it something of God. Thus, RoseMary C. Johnson tells us in The Secret Code of Poetry and the Art of Understanding It that “God is the Supreme Poet. All human poems are imitations of God’s poem of Creation.”
We think of a poet as someone who writes words in a special way to capture beauty difficult to express in other forms of discourse such as lectures or homilies. Therefore, the poet works with what has already been created—the things of this world—to bring into being something new. This is especially true when the poet is writing about God, who will always be more than what words convey on their surface. This is nowhere more true than when the poet is writing about the Eucharist because there is an affinity between the poet as “maker” and God as Divine Poet, both transforming what already exists into something new. For, just as poetry has a hidden meaning, so too does that which appears as bread on the altar. On the surface of poetry, we see the beauty of words arranged in a particular way, but when we delve deeper, we see something even more profoundly beautiful—some aspect of God’s creation or even God himself.
Some of the ways in which the poet makes beauty out of words are image, meter, and rhyme. In the example below, I draw the reader in with a lyrical-sounding meter. The smooth flow of the words and the music of the rhymes allude to the beauty of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. These elements of poetry instill in the reader a delight and wonder for what lies beyond the images—there is a parallel between the doors, for example, in the same way we see the bread on the altar upon Consecration as something more than bread. It requires faith to know what is truly there—the Body and Blood of Christ:
There’s something more
Beyond the door
Than what meets the eye
We adore the most
On th’altar there abide
Poetry and the Real Presence
What greater honor is it then for poets to use these words to directly glorify Christ in the Eucharist! We are created in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27), and when the poet writes about God, it is because of the knowledge infused in the poet by the Holy Spirit. As Gioia notes, “God is poetry caught in any religion, caught, not imprisoned.” With joy, the poet captures in words what God has imparted to the poet, who shares the fruits of this joy (the poem) with others. The psalmist says as much: “I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify him with thanksgiving” (Psalms 69:30). God’s joys are never-ending, and so the poet’s pen may never run dry so long as he lives, but he continually shares God’s works and adores him, taking the talents he has been given, he multiplies them in song after song (Matthew 24:14-30).
But let’s take a closer look at the Eucharist as a subject of poetry. Just as a deeper meaning is present in poetry, so, too, is there something deeper present in the form of bread—God is truly present in the Holy Eucharist. The poet, so in love with God, channels this love, this communion with him, through poetry. Thus, Gioia notes, “language itself became a channel of divine communion, not just an instrument of human communication.” A short poem I wrote based on part of a homily given by my pastor speaks to the power of God, which like God is beyond our full comprehension. Yet since he created us with an ability to apprehend everything that surrounding us, there can be no doubt of his ability to make elements of this earth into signs and symbols we can comprehend:
This which looks like bread and wine
Hath been wholly changed into the Divine!
This is His creation,
This wheat and product of the vine!
In his own way, the poet captures the incomprehensible omnipotence of God in words. We look with wonder on how God, the omnipotent one, changes bread and wine to his own Body and Blood. This is so great a mystery, and to understand the Real Presence better, one can meditate on how the Divine Poet fashioned our own bodies to convert food and drink into our own bodies and blood. Likewise, in humble imitation of the Divine Poet, man converts the mystery of the Eucharist into what humans alone can digest—words. The second and final stanza of my short poem on my pastor’s homily appeals to the reader in images easily grasped, so that, through metaphor, imagery, and likeness, one can understand—and therefore delight in—the reality of the Real Presence of God in the Eucharist:
So to our feeble minds understood
Think on conversion of our food
To aid our bodies, and earthly drink
‘Tis no longer beyond what we can think.
Out of love for us and his desire to always be with us in a very tangible way, Christ gave us himself as eternal food, which we read about in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6:31-35. Likewise, in Psalm 78:24, we see that just as “God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the bread of Heaven” in the Old Testament, God comes to us now in this very form and calls us to receive him, our hearts running to him!
It is important to understand what the human poet is doing in imitating the Divine Poet. When poets share their love in poetic form for Christ truly present in the Holy Eucharist, they reflect his love back to him. This is not to say that we can all write as the great doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, does in “Tantum Ergo,” for example, but poets who know their craft can create beautiful works of poetry to raise the reader’s soul to the height of the worshiping God, whose image we bear.
Below, a poem I wrote delves into the joy of knowing God through my desire to continually develop my love for verse, a joy captured through tones and devices characteristic of poetry. As the Holy Eucharist encompasses the Paschal Mystery, Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, the poem below captures the seriousness of this mystery of the faith while also seeking to evoke a sense of joy in the reader as the poet sings about the moment of Consecration:
Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament (11/8/20)
The surge of joy within me
Cannot be contained
When Your holy priest, there
Holds the Host, now raised
The bells, then ringing,
Alert those who answer Your call
Your Son’s Sacrifice is finished
Perfect remedy for sinful Fall
Head bowed in happy surrender
Who I behold is completely You
Weary traveler finds rest and solace
Gazing upon all that’s Holy and True
Whether before this moment
I was attentive in full
Now am completely captivated
By Your beauty’s pull
The Sacred Host, in vict’ry raised
The battle, You have won
Chalice of Your Precious Blood, so praised
Oh Lord, God’s glorious Son!
Now, humbly I approach You
Unworthy sinner, though I be
Joy running through my every bone
As I kneel, gazing upon Thee
You enter under my unworthy roof
I excitedly invite You in
O Divine Physician,
You heal my every sin
You gather me in Your Arms
I pray rejoicing, my head bent
You bring me comfort and joy once more
Through the most Blessed Sacrament!
Poetry and the Liturgy
Since poetry directs author and reader towards heaven and heavenly things—as the above poem aims to do—poetry has rightly become an integral part of the Catholic liturgy. This is visible in the Gospel acclamations, the psalms, and many other parts of the Mass in which poetry is presented to honor God. But even in those parts extraneous to the liturgy, such as hymns, the whole purpose of the poetry inherent in these songs is to lift our eyes to heaven. In the hymn, “O Sacrament Most Holy,” the first three verses call the congregation to ponder and praise the Body and Blood of Christ, the fourth verse tells of his people calling upon him to dwell in them, and the final verse incorporates Psalm 78:24-25 (“God rained manna upon them for food; grain from heaven he gave them. Man ate the bread of the angels”), calling upon humans amid their sufferings to unite ourselves with him in the Blessed Sacrament:
O come all you who labor
In sorrow and in pain
Come eat the bread from heaven
Your peace and strength, regain
The third line of the refrain calls to mind again the fulfillment of Psalm 78:24 in Christ (John 6:35). But note that the poet who wrote this hymn isn’t attempting to primarily express a theology of the Eucharist through rhyme: he is appealing to our emotions and natural sense of delight in words as a way to help us lift our hearts by praising and acknowledging the sacrifice Christ made for us, calling him to dwell in us, and yearning for him to respond to our praise and petition, and call us in turn to be a part of him in a tangible way through the Eucharist. Yet there also remains a theological component to the hymn: more than beautiful words, it presents a great truth of the faith, serving as a reminder that this Sacrament of Sacraments is Christ truly with us in a way our senses can conceive.
O Sacrament most holy
O Sacrament divine
All praise and all thanksgiving
Be every moment Thine.
Words and the Word
Poets continue to strive to explain the truth by sharing what they can in words, though the glory of the Infinite God can only be captured to a certain degree in finite fashion. Hence, poets can continuously share God’s glories and never exhaust them (yet they may sometimes find their minds and pens exhausted!). The human mind cannot know the mysteries of the Catholic faith in their fullness—at least not on this side of heaven—for just as a word is finite, so are the capabilities of a human author and an earthly audience. Yet those poets who look deeper into the faith constantly growing deeper in love with him through reading and writing about him. His Word, whether read from the Bible or from poetry about him, brings us joy as he guides us while we climb the rungs of the rugged ladders that are our lives.
Throughout the Catholic Church’s existence, poets have written to share their love for and belief in the Catholic Faith—and the Blessed Sacrament has been an especially cherished subject of verse. The beauty of poetry is exemplified by the work of art that results from the author’s joy and belief in being invited by God through a talent for poetry to partake in this feast.
Danielle Erwin is a Catholic wife and homeschooling mother of five children. She enjoys writing poetry whenever the Holy Spirit inspires her. With little previous experience in writing verse, Erwin credits the Holy Spirit for helping to inspire all she has written. She has published a book of poetry she wrote following her miscarriages, Holding On: Poems on Coping With Loss After Miscarriage, and a book of poetry on the Catholic Faith, Something More: Poetic Moments With God. Some of her poetry has also appeared on the blog, Blessed is She. Erwin is currently working on compiling her poetry on the Eucharist into a book to serve as a Eucharistic Adoration and Mass companion.
Dana Gioia, “Christianity and Poetry,” First Things, August 2022. ↑
Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/the-history-of-the-word-poet. ↑
- RoseMary C. Johnson, The Secret Code of Poetry and the Art of Understanding It, Catholic Heritage Curricula, 2011. ↑
- Gioia. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
Image Source: AB/Wikimedia. Michelangelo, Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Planets