Writing the seasons of church calendar reveals a year swelling with hope and grace
Journeying through the church year, poet Matthew Pullar discovered that its rhythms helped him to make sense of the rhythms of his own life, and became a source of hope and guidance.
October 7 2019In my early twenties, after growing up fairly suspicious of anything that seemed restrictively “religious”, I began to find value in keeping some of the major church seasons. Lent, in particular, was a comfort to someone of a more melancholy bent like myself. For a number of years I found that observing Lent helped me have a time of focused, disciplined spiritual practice, and I began to look forward each year to Lent coming around.
So in 2012 I set myself the challenge of writing a poem for every day of Lent – forty in all. The discipline of writing daily was so helpful to both my craft and my spiritual life that, when Lent finished, I decided to keep going. I knew something of the church year from two second-hand books I’d found for a steal, Anglican poet Christina Rossetti’s devotional diary and a copy of the Australian prayer book. Surprised to find that the Anglican Church had its own calendar of saints, including figures as diverse as Oscar Romero and Hilary of Poitiers, I began to toy with the idea of looking into each of these people and writing a poem about them. I also wondered how it might help my devotional life to reflect on each of the Sundays and feast days, to consider the facet of Jesus’ life or the Christian story that was the focus of the day. So, armed with Rossetti as my reference volume and a fair dose of gung-ho determination, I announced the challenge of writing a poem a day on my blog and set off on a cycle through the church year.
One person, to my knowledge, had done what I was doing before me: John Keble, the friend of Cardinal Newman whose cycle of poems, The Church Year, covered the major days of the calendar but not all. I didn’t find Keble’s style to my liking, but I was struck by an image I found continually in his Advent poems: the image of the year swelling with Gospel hope and potential. This became the image I kept in my mind as I wrote my poems: a swelling year of grace. And so I set that as the title for the project: The Swelling Year.
I knew very little church history when I began, and wasn’t even a very good poet when I look back on it. But the challenge of writing every day, and of having something edifying to say even when I struggled with some of the more extreme fringes of sainthood that I encountered at times, made me both a better poet and a less reactionary believer. Only once did I refuse to write a poem for a day in the calendar, St Anne’s Day, judging Mary’s fictional mother to be a bridge too far for me. But every other topic the calendar threw at me, I took on and tackled until it taught me something of the life of the church or the person of Christ.
Not every poem was good. You can’t expect that when writing one a day. But when it was over I had been changed by the process. I could see now how the rhythms of the church year could lead us through the rhythms of our days, and how the cloud of witnesses surrounding us could encourage, comfort and guide.
Soon it became an embedded part of my spiritual life to follow the seasons and write my way through them. What I had first assumed to be spiritless religion had become living, breathing spirituality for me. When I realised, after seven years, that I had enough poems now to exercise some quality control and make a book, the rhythms of the church year had become my own, and I had a means of processing each season I lived through in the space made for me in God’s swelling grace.
The Swelling Year: Poems for Holy and Ordinary Days by Matthew Pullar is now available via lulu.com and Amazon. It will be launched at Christ Church Brunswick on 30 November.
Matthew Pullar worships at Epiphany Anglican Church, Hoppers Crossing and is an English teacher at a Christian school in the western suburbs. He won the 2013 Young Australian Christian Writer Award and was recently published in the poetry anthology Reaching For Mercy.