Summer/Fall  2000
Volume 5 Number 1

Poetry, Visual Arts, and Pastoral Care

by Donald Capps, William Harte Felmeth Professor of Pastoral Theology and author of both The Poet’s Gift: Toward the Renewal of Pastoral Care (Westminster, 1993) and "The Lessons of Art Theory for Pastoral Theology" (Pastoral Psychology 47 [1999]: 321–346)

Something occurred several years ago that my mother would have called a "blessing in disguise." Following detached retina surgery I had trouble reading prose. The letters wouldn’t line up right. So I tried poetry, which I had read (and written) in college. Fewer words per page, more space between lines, and nice wide margins. I also began "reading" art books, which, like children’s books, have lots of pictures. For self-therapy, I struggled through The World through Blunted Sight by Patrick Trevor-Roper (an eye surgeon) on the visual problems of artists. This "reading program" taught me that poets create visual images—word pictures on a page. Later, as my vision improved, I read James Heffernan’s Museum of Words, a study of the poetics of ekphrasis, the long-standing practice of poets writing about visual images. Suppose a statue or the figures in a painting could talk? What would they say?

I’ve been asked to write "a brief article" on how poetry and the visual arts may be important components of pastoral care. That’s not enough space for one subject, much less two. Yet, oddly enough, this restriction helps convey the point I make when introducing my course "Poetry and the Care of Souls." I inform students of recent books in my field that explore pastoral care issues through novels. Then I suggest that poetry may be closer to what pastoral care feels like to those who practice it, mainly because both tend toward the episodic (or occurrences, the dictionary Miles Quote says, that are "often not closely related or well integrated"). Where novels are narratives with a plot or pattern of events, poems center on episodes, usually incidents in a poet’s life. Similarly, whatever type ministry one enters today (parish, chaplaincy, social work, teaching, etc.), its pastoral care aspects seem rather "episodic." The clergyman in nineteenth-century novels who dines in homes and knows the family secrets has been replaced by the minister who discusses a parishioner’s family problems over lunch, during coffee hour, or through a series of email messages.

But "episodic" needn’t mean "trivial," "superficial," or "insignificant." As poets and painters show, brief, transient episodes are replete with foreseeable—and unforeseeable—consequences and possibilities. My Children’s Illustrated Bible, with stories and pictures of Jesus in passionate conversation with the woman at Jacob’s well or gazing with affection on his young male inquirer, taught me this. Now, contemporary poets continue the lesson.

I would have liked to comment on what poets may teach us pastors about embodied language. These lines from William Stafford’s testimonial to his mother shortly before his death must suffice: "All my life I’ve tapped out our kind of truth. For nine months I studied what your heart was saying."

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