From left, Richard L. Koral of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, the Rev. Kate Salisbury of the Cathedral of the Incarnation, and Rabbi Joel M. Levenson of Midway Jewish Center. Credit: Richard Koral; Kate Salisbury; Alex M. Wolff

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the art form’s important place in our lives launched in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets. This week’s clergy discuss how poetry, ancient and modern, inspires their sermons year round.  

Richard L. Koral

Clergy leader, Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island, Garden City

At our weekly meetings on Sunday morning, I speak about how, from a Humanist and nontheistic perspective, we can reach for the best in ourselves, both morally and spiritually, with ethics as our guide. I often turn to the works of poets to help me communicate.

Who can better express complex thoughts than a master at the craft? Who can express the meaning of a lifetime with efficiency, power and poignancy better than Matthew Arnold, who wrote in “Empedocles on Etna”: “Is it so small a thing / To have enjoy’d the sun, / To have lived light in the spring, / To have loved, to have thought, to have done .  .  .”

Who better to explain how the brief life we experience is, in fact, a rich and precious sample of whole universes than William Blake, who wrote in “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”

I rely on poets for their insight, clarity and delight. I certainly appreciate the help of the masters when conveying my message to my community.  

Rabbi Joel M. Levenson

Midway Jewish Center, Syosset

Yizkor, a moving, poetic prayer for the deceased, is recited four times during the Jewish calendar year — on Yom Kippur and on the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Yizkor reminds us that life invariably demands of us the most difficult of all surrenders — the surrender of loved ones. It is said on major Jewish holidays because when we celebrate, we recognize those who are no longer with us.

Some come to the synagogue and hear Yizkor for the first time shortly after losing a loved one — the most painful time of all. Others have grown familiar with the prayer and the pain. To all of us, the moment for Yizkor prayers drives home the sad truth of the ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus’ admonition to “Remind thyself that he whom thou lovest is mortal — that what thou lovest is not thine own; it is given thee for the present, not irrevocably nor for ever .  .  .”

And yet, Yizkor is Hebrew for “memory” and through it we cling desperately to those we have lost and to moments gone by. That is the tension we encounter and one which pervades life: We are instructed to hold life precious — every ray of sunlight, every moment with parents, spouses, children and friends. And then, we must let go. Though there may be pain, there is also a profound sense of blessing.  

The Rev. Kate Salisbury

Canon for Christian Education,
Cathedral of the Incarnation, Garden City

There’s lots of poetry in the Bible — just think of the Psalms. And preachers have long relied on the magic of poetry to evoke the mystery of faith.

I keep the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) close, and on one Easter included her poem “The Gardener” in a sermon. I chose it because there’s a moment in the Easter story when Mary Magdalene, bending down outside the tomb, looks up to see Jesus standing there. Jesus asks why she is crying, and she wonders if he might be the gardener (John 20:15).

“I probably think too much,” Mary Oliver writes in the poem. “Then I step out into the garden, / where the gardener, who is said to be a simple man, / is tending his children, the roses.”

Mary Magdalene is on to something in the Easter story. God, the good gardener, is at work this and every spring as small duties, handled with care, make way for the mystery of life to unfold. Easter promises that even death is fertile ground for this work; an unknown plot, for us, but well within the reach of God in whom hope, love and life spring eternal.

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