A few years ago, I discovered how incredibly beautiful and moving religious poetry could be. I had already had intimations of this, from reading Kahlil Gibran as a student, but during Unitarian Summer School in 2010, I was introduced to the poetry of Hafiz, the 14th century Persian Sufi mystic, and to that of Rainer Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet, who wrote in the early 20th century.
They both absolutely blew me away. Only when reading the poetic prose of Gibran's The Prophet had I encountered anything like it. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of their words, which pointed to a new way of connecting with the divine, which had never occurred to me. Most of the religious poetry that I knew was by the metaphysical poets, such as John Donne and George Herbert, from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, or the grand and serious stanzas of Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of it is beautiful, but oh so very orthodox.
We are very fortunate in the 21st century, to have gifted translators and editors, who are able to convert the Persian of Hafiz, and the German of Rilke, into wonderfully lyrical English, without losing the sense of the original. Daniel Ladinsky in the case of Hafiz, and Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy for Rilke. Their translations are masterpieces, and contribute hugely to the enjoyment and pleasure I have received from reading them.
Although both authors may be described as religious / spiritual poets, their poetry is not the same. Apart from in the erotic Song of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, I had not come across the idea of God or the Divine (however you like to refer to Him/Her/It) as the Beloved, the object of the worshipper's love. It is a concept that is central in the poetry of both Hafiz and his fellow Persian mystic, Rumi, and I find it refreshing.
Hafiz's relationship with his God can only be described as intimate. His God is not some remote, cold, judgemental Being in Heaven, but a warm, loving, teasing Presence. The companionship of this Beloved God is a matter of joy and happiness - much of the poetry speaks of laughing and dancing and singing and playing music. Sometimes he is talking about his own relationship with god, and sometimes offering advice to the reader, in the guise of a guide, who can lead him or her to "the Beloved's tent." There is much gentle good advice in Hafiz's words. Reading his words has taught me that religious poetry does not have to be solemn and serious, and that loving yourself and others is the straightest way to God.
Rainer Maria Rilke is more overtly serious in his approach to God than Hafiz, but in my favourite book of his Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, there is the same intimacy, the same longing for union with the Divine, and the same belief that this is possible, for human beings, here and now. The edition I own has the German text on the left hand pages, and the English on the right, which is lovely for me. I have a little German, and having read the English first, can then turn to the original and savour it.
However, that is not the reason why I love this book so much. It is the warm connection between the poet and God which runs through all the poems - sometimes it is God speaking, sometimes the poet. But like Hafiz, there is a closeness, a familiarity with the Divine in Rilke's words, which is so delicious to read. Rilke has a personal and close relationship with god. There is no feeling that God is Up There, or Over There, or Somewhere Else. God is Here and Now and Everywhere. it is a relationship based on love, rather than judgement. I find it exhilarating.
Since that time, I have learned that these two are not as alone and singular as I first thought. I have come to know and love the poetry of people such as John O'Donohue, William Stafford, Mary Oliver, and Denise Levertov. But I will always be grateful to that Summer School, for introducing me to such wonderful poetry, which feeds my soul.