How haiku writing can enliven Scripture meditation

Written by Bonnie Beldan-Thomson

At one point, every Bible passage I read seemed like a paraphrase of something I’d read before. Perhaps you can relate to this feeling. We can become so used to stories in the Bible that they seem rote.

One antidote to this problem is the historical practice of praying Scriptures using lectio divina. This traditional method prescribes three readings, preferably spoken aloud, each followed by a period of silence to listen to the Holy Spirit. For several years, I have practised this way of praying Scripture with friends every week and am always amazed by what is available to us in even a short passage.

But recently, I’ve discovered a mini lectio divina practice in the form of writing haiku poetry. It has since become a regular part of my devotional time and a source of joy.

I find the discipline of writing three lines—the first with five syllables, then seven, then five again—keeps me focused on the passage. It prompts me to consider, reconsider, and then distill an aspect of Scripture in my own words.

Here is a recent example that came from reflecting on Psalm 34:1-2. In the ESV translation, the verse reads: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.”

Here’s what my first draft looked like, written at bedtime:

Bless the Lord always,
praise God continuously.
My boast is in You.

After writing this, I continued to mull over the Scripture. I pondered ways in which I could bless and praise the Lord. I persisted partly because it seemed lame to use several of the actual words from the translation and partly because I was asking, “What do blessing and praising God look like in my life?” After a while I concluded it has to be all about God, not about me. The second draft went like this:                                

Bless the Lord always.
Let go of ego, make space
for God who is there. 

The next morning, I woke up with a new understanding from the New Testament revelation of God’s power made visible in Jesus when He quieted a fierce storm with a word.

You keep me steady
when everything is too much,
as you stilled the sea. 

This third draft prompted me to think about rough seas and flooding and forest fires and war. So many things are out of my control! I also thought about quantum theory which explains that the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles can only be predicted in terms of probability, not certainty. I considered whether I was truly able to bless and praise God without my traditional understanding of a predictable physical world.

You give me focus
in a world of quantum bits
I float free to you

As writing haiku became part of my nightly routine, I found that this spiritual discipline has changed me.

As I review past haiku, I sometimes find new truth there. Tapping into my creative self in the context of prayer and Scripture opened a new corridor of communication with God.

If you’d like to give this a try, here are some tips to help you find your way. Begin by asking for the Spirit’s guidance. Choose a short Scripture passage. (Psalms, replete with human experience, emotion and images make a good starting point.) Read your passage several times, at least once aloud, with silence between readings.

Then, think about the concepts contained in the verses. Can you reword them or rethink them with alternate images? Use synonyms. Try a thesaurus to explore shades of meaning. Write your ideas as they come without judging their value. Play with words. As you arrange and rearrange them, you will find five and seven syllable lines that work together to reflect your thoughts. Make it personal. This is between you and God. And stay with it long enough to refine and deepen your understanding of the passage. 

Here are more two examples:

Inspired by Psalm 33:17-20:

Forget defences
wealth, health, influence, power,
God alone can save.

Inspired by Psalm 33:21:

Swaddle me with warmth
when I feel cold and bereft
whipped by vicious winds.

Remember not to put pressure on yourself to create something perfect. Writing haiku as part of your spiritual formation is not about creating fine literature. It is about slowing down, meditating on Scripture, and opening space for the Spirit to speak to your heart.

Bonnie Beldan-Thomson is a musician, writer and teacher who lives and gardens in Pickering, Ont.