Poems and prayers look alike. The text nestled against the left margin, and those uneven, seemingly arbitrary line breaks on the right. Prayers and poems even act alike at moments, with the economy of words, the musicality, the occasional acclamation of “O” or “Moloch!” (Howl Ginsberg, Howl!)
Poems and prayer look alike, but that’s where the “two roads diverged” (to quote Robert Frost).
Prayers are more human. You witness tragic and magnificent humanness in prayers because prayers are supplications or appreciations to God. The intent of a prayer is to either seek or to acknowledge. They are expressions of wants or wants fulfilled. And nowhere is a human more human than when in want or when in gratitude.
Poems can be of wants or wants fulfilled too, and they often are. But poems are meant to be read and experienced and (dare I say it) enjoyed. When the poet composes about pain or tragedy, the poet isn’t writing as a call to action. The poet isn’t asking for the reader’s help. The poet doesn’t expect the poem to have an effect on the physical world, at least not in an immediate sense. The poet may aspire for influence on cultural attitudes, but not direct causality on his/her specific circumstance.
Prayers are asking for help from someone—or something—that can help. Many of us call that thing God. Prayers, unlike poems, are composed and read and recited with hope for action—direct, real action.
That very humanness and “hope for action” is often why prayers make for bad literature. The human petitioning in prayer is so universal that its expressions have become clichéd. Words like pain, love, faith, thanks, gratitude and hope are abominable clichés to the poet, but essential tools to the prayer.
It makes sense for the prayers to use simple, universal language because the audience (God) is in a position to help and join in our thankful joy. When seeking relief or expressing delight, the prayer doesn’t want to be obscure. Prayer, like medicine, desires clarity.
Imagine seeing a doctor because you’re in tremendous pain. When the physician enters the room and asks what’s wrong, you answer using nuanced metaphor, wordplay, and latent, subtle themes. That’s idiotic. You want the doctor to cure your pain, not be impressed by its artistic merit. Equally, you don’t thank someone for a gift unless you believe there is someone (thing) there to thank. That would be admiration of the gift, not appreciation of the giver.
When reading “Prayer to Saint Frances Cabrini,” (below) we find supplications and appreciation, but little poetry. The most poetic value is the phrase, “to preach in action.” Never has so perfect a phrase captured Mother Cabrini’s life than those words. For a woman not known for her words, those words are “knowing.”
The value of the prayer is the powerful universality. This applied nicely to Mother Cabrini, who was literally and figuratively a woman of the entire world. She thought big, did big, succeeded big. Her prayer then is as it should be—big and universal. Big words like “suffering,” and “sorrowful.” Bigger even: “Compassion” and “faith.” The biggest: “Love.”
For a Saint who served the entire world, this big-worded prayer is still not big enough. Yet, before the enormity of God, all words are small.
When all we have are the smallness of words, this prayer will have to suffice with its merely-human bigness. Yes, the big words are clichés. That’s okay. Clichés are God’s language of our shared humanness.
By Christopher Grosso, Senior Writer, Cabrini College
Prayer to Saint Frances Cabrini (author unknown)
May we see and serve you
in the sick, the suffering, and the sorrowful.
May we know you
in the poor, the uneducated, and the unloved.
May we love you
in the unwanted, the bereaved, the stranger, and the refugee.
May we find compassion
in the community of faith in time of our own need.
O God, you sent St. Frances Cabrini our into the wide world
to preach in action
the good news of your love for all people,
especially those in need.
May her generosity continue to spark in us
an outpouring of love for all who suffer want of any kind.
Saint Frances Cabrini, pray for us.