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Song Silence
By Madeleva Wolff, CSC
Yes, I shall take this quiet house and keep it
With kindled hearth and candle-lighted board,
In singing silence garnish it and sweep it
                For Christ, my Lord.
My heart is filled with little songs to sing Him—
I dream them into words with careful art—
But this I think a better gift to bring Him,
                Nearer his heart.
The foxes have their holes, the wise, the clever;
The birds have each a safe and secret nest;
But He, my lover, walks the world with never
A place to rest.
I found Him once upon a straw bed lying;
(Once on His mother’s heart He laid His head)
He had a bramble pillow for His dying,
A stone when dead.
I think to leave off singing for this reason,
Taking instead my Lord God’s house to keep,
Where He may find a home in every season
                To wake, to sleep.
Do you not think that in this holy sweetness
Of silence shared with God a whole life long
Both he and I shall find divine completeness
Of perfect song?
Sister Madeleva Wolff was a renowned educator and administrator, a poet, and a scholar who in her lifetime rubbed elbows with Edith Wharton, G. K. Chesterton, Helen Hayes, Thomas Merton, and many other luminaries. She was also a religious, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross for more than fifty years. She is a figure who deserves to be better known!
Eva Wolff was born in Cumberland, Wisconsin in 1887. She had a fairly conventional childhood—except for her exceptional intellect. Her gifts were so obvious that her older brother dropped out of college so the family could afford to send Eva to St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana.
Eva had been planning to study mathematics, but she soon switched to medieval literature, and discovered a love for poetry—both studying it and writing it. It took everyone by surprise, including Eva herself, when she decided to join the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She entered the novitiate in 1908, when she was nineteen years old. In religious life, she was given the name Madeleva, and soon embarked on a distinguished career of study and teaching. Sister Madeleva was among the first women religious to receive a Masters degree from Notre Dame; she went on to complete a doctoral degree at Berkeley. Later, she did post-doctoral study at Oxford with the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. All this time, she was a full-time teacher and administrator, eventually being appointed President of her own alma mater, St. Mary’s College, where her innovative leadership gained the college nationwide acclaim. She developed the first graduate study program in theology for women religious and laypeople in the country, and was instrumental in the Sister Formation movement, which advocated thorough and high-level education for women religious. She was a force to be reckoned with: “Moderation is a colorless, insipid thing,” she wrote. “I know its practice to be well-nigh impossible. To live less would not be living.”
Throughout her busy life, Madeleva wrote poetry, publishing a number of books, some of which were considered controversial for the passionate language she used in writing about God. Given the busy life of a sister, time was hard to come by; Madeleva came to be grateful for her chronic insomnia which gave her time to compose. “I love words because I love the Word,” she would say. “I know of no discipline more merciless, more demanding, than the writing of good verse—even if it doesn’t reach the levels of great poetry.” Madeleva died in 1962 at the age of 77.
Knowing a little of Madeleva’s story, I think we get a better sense of both the sweetness and the underlying tension of this poem, “Song Silence.” It’s a poem about poetry—and about renunciation. “My heart is filled with little songs to Him-- / I dream them into words with careful art,” she says in the second stanza. But, she wonders, would it not be a better gift to prepare “a quiet house” for the one who was laid in a manger as an infant, who had no place to lay his head as an adult. “I think to leave off singing,” she says, and dedicate herself instead to this quiet work of contemplation, which she compares to the traditional domestic (and typically feminine) task of housekeeping. In the last stanza, she asks a question: “Do you not think that in this holy sweetness / Of silence shared with God,” she and God both will find “perfect song”?
There is a sweetness in the poem, and an intimacy with God, whom she calls “my lover.” But there is also a certain tension here, one that many women felt at the time Madeleva was writing, in the 1940s and 1950s. She loves to “sing,” to write poetry, but wouldn’t silence be better, after all? Wouldn’t her life be better spent in contemplation, rather than in words—in keeping house, rather than singing? Madeleva tells herself that she will dedicate herself to this sweet domestic housekeeping for God. And yet, though the poem begins with a decisive “yes” it ends with a question mark. Renouncing poetry is something she is contemplating—but not doing, at least, not yet.
I think this poem illuminates what Madeleva’s biographer Gail Porter Mandell sees as a keynote in Madeleva’s approach to life—what Madeleva herself referred to as the “relaxed grasp.” Madeleva held on to what mattered—but, in keeping with her vow of poverty, she held even precious things like poetry with a certain lightness, a “relaxed grasp,” a “holy indifference,” always preparing herself to let them go if God willed it. For Madeleva, this “relaxed grasp” was true freedom. In speaking of her own vocation, she wrote: “Only when one has given not only all his actual self, but all his potential self, is he free.”

Read more about Madeleva here.



Light Shining out of Darkness
God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works his sov'reign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
Cowper’s poem is so well-known as a hymn text that it can be easy to dismiss. It’s a poem about God’s Providence, which guides everything that happens to us, and about God’s designs, which are far beyond our ability to understand, but always for our good. “Behind a frowning Providence / he hides a smiling face” has entered the language and become a cliché. To be honest, it can all sound a bit pat. But this poem is the fruit of Cowper’s painful experience in a lifetime of intense suffering and religious struggle.
William Cowper was born in 1731 into a quite distinguished family—his mother was a Donne, related to John Donne, and his father was connected to the Earl Cowper, the lord chancellor of England. His life was marked by early tragedy—his mother died when he was just six years old, and he then went to boarding school, where he was systematically bullied. These two experiences are thought to have contributed to Cowper’s many, serious, and extended bouts with mental illness. The first of these came in 1763, when Cowper was 32 years old. He had been nominated for a significant post in the House of Lords, which would require a public examination. The thought of this examination before the entire House of Lords brought on a psychotic episode. Cowper became convinced that he was damned and attempted suicide.
Cowper spent many months in an asylum and during his recovery, he had a profound conversion experience in which he felt in a profound way God’s mercy for him and for all sinners. He was one of the “fearful saints” he talks about in the poem. Cowper became a parishioner of John Newton—the famous slave trader turned minister--who invited him to contribute hymns to a new hymnal he was preparing. Newton wrote “Amazing Grace”; Cowper wrote “O for a closer walk with God” and the poem we just heard, among others.
Cowper continued to struggle with mental illness after his conversion. All his life, he considered himself an outsider, both socially and spiritually: a “stricken deer, that left the herd / Long since,” as he wrote in one of his poems.
Knowing a little of Cowper’s story, “Light Shining Out of Darkness” takes on new meaning. The darkness of which Cowper speaks was something he knew from experience; the fear he mentions, he felt; the hope he expresses, was what he longed for.
The first stanza of the poem draws on Biblical language. “He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” The language recalls the psalms, especially Psalm 104: “You make the clouds your chariot, traveling on the wings of the wind.” The imagery also evokes the story of Christ, walking on the water and stilling the storm. This language speaks of the power of God, but also reminds us of the desperation of the Apostles in the boat, crying out for the Lord’s help. 
In the stanzas that follow, Cowper uses a series of images and comparisons to highlight the hidden quality of God’s Providence. It is like treasure hidden in a mine; like storms of rain pent in a dark cloud; like a smile concealed by a frown; like a sweet flower hidden within a bitter bud. God is present, but hidden.
I think the key word of this poem is found in this first stanza: “mysterious.” God’s ways are not clear or even intelligible to us most of the time. Providence—that sense of God’s guiding hand in history and in our own lives—is also mystery.
Cowper offers no key to understanding God’s provident care. Rather, he insists that only God can do that: “God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.” Only God can reveal to us how his Providence is governing our lives, and our world. God’s ways are a profound mystery--but our faith tells us there is always mercy and there is always hope.

Christina Rossetti, “Up-Hill”
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
   Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
   From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
   A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
   You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
   Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
   They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
   Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
   Yea, beds for all who come.

Every Christian lives their faith in their own way. For some, faith is tranquil; for others, stormy. Rossetti was definitely one of the latter. Her faith story brings to mind St. Paul’s words to the Philippians, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)
Faith did not come easy to Rossetti. She was hyper-conscious of her own flaws and exerted a rigid control over herself even with close friends. A biographer has written that her self-control was so extreme that she “retreated behind a mask of excessive and sometimes offensive politeness,” in an effort to offset what she saw as her besetting flaws of pride and anger.
This poem, written in 1858 when Rossetti was 28 years old, takes the form of a dialogue, questions and answers, between two voices. We don’t really know who either the questioner or the respondent is. But we soon recognize that much lies beneath the surface.
The first questions are simple, almost childlike. Is it all uphill? And how long will it take? We are reminded of the proverbial child’s question, “are we there yet?” The answers to these questions are affirmative. Yes – this journey is uphill all the way, and it’s not short: it will last from morning until night – a lifetime.
The questioner goes on to other questions about the end of the journey. How is one to know the place? What if you get lost? And the answers come, reassuringly. There will be a place to stay – “a roof for when the slow dark hours begin.” And there is no getting lost – “you cannot miss that inn.” Others have done this before, and there will be no waiting: there is room for all, “beds for all who come.”
This poem is full of hope. To every question, there is a reassuring “yes.” And yet, I find the poem quite challenging as well. The responses are certainly hopeful, but they are also vague and sometimes even a bit ominous. When the questioner asks, “shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak,” the response comes: “Of labour you shall find the sum.” Whose labor is being referred to here? It sounds like the “sum” of comfort will depend on the labor of the individual.
In this poem, the uphill journey is, of course, a metaphor for life itself, with all its challenges; and the inn where we rest at the end of the day can be read in a variety of ways. On one level, it speaks of heaven—“in my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.” The inn can also be read as the grave that awaits us all, the “roof” under which we shelter during the “slow dark hours.”
At another level, we can read “Up Hill” as a poem about anything that is really worth doing. Think of all the uphill journeys in our lives – and in our society. As Rossetti’s poem makes clear, these journeys will take everything we have. The answers to our questions will not come clear and absolute. Little signs of hope are all we are going to get.
In 1865, Rossetti wrote another poem, which is a companion to “Up Hill.” Entitled “Amor Mundi,” or “Love of the World,” it also features two speakers in a dialogue. One invites the other on a journey, this time, a downhill journey: “The downhill path is easy, come with me an it please ye, / We shall escape the uphill by never turning back.” At the end of that poem, we realize where that this downhill path is “hell’s own track.” And the consequences are bleak: “too late for cost-counting: This downhill path is easy, but there’s no turning back.” If it’s easy, Rossetti says, be suspicious of it: everything worth doing is difficult.



Holy Sonnets: Death, be not proud by JOHN DONNE

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne was born in 1572 into a staunchly Catholic family. His uncle was a Jesuit priest, Jasper Heywood, who spent his life in exile. While a student at Cambridge, Donne refused to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging the authority of England’s monarch over matters of religion, and was denied his degree as a result. He studied law, traveled widely, and even joined the fight against the Spanish Armada. He had a chequered life story, and is as well known for his remarkable love poems as he is for his sacred poetry and his sermons! He eventually joined the Church of England, and in 1615 became a priest, serving as the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was a renowned preacher. He preached his most famous sermon, “Death’s Duel” before the court of King Charles I in February, 1631, just a few weeks before his own death.
Death was a constant in Donne’s life. He and his wife, Anne, had twelve children—two of them were stillborn, and another three died before the age of ten. Anne died just five days after giving birth to their last child. In 1623, Donne had a near-fatal illness about which he wrote in his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, which include the famous passage, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” 
All of these experiences shaped Donne’s attitudes, and his later works are deeply religious—and sometimes quite dark. In “Death’s Duel,” his famous “last” sermon, Donne writes that we are doomed from our very birth: “This deliverance, from the death of the womb, is an entrance, a delivering over to another death, the manifold deaths of this world; we have a winding-sheet in our mother’s womb which grows with us from our conception, and we come into the world wound up in that winding sheet, for we come to seek a grave.”
In the Renaissance convention, death is a fearsome opponent, who pursues us and inevitably triumphs. But in this famous sonnet, “Death be not proud,” Donne approaches death in a very different way. Addressing death directly, Donne mocks death’s power. “Death, be not proud,” he says. “Some have called thee mighty and dreadful, but thou art not so.” No, death in this poem is not strong, but weak. Donne builds his case as the sonnet unfolds. Rest and sleep are common images for death and these are pleasant things; then death must be, too. The best among us die young, and what do they find but “rest of their bones, and soules delivery.” Both good things.
In the second half of the sonnet, Donne hammers home his point. Death is a slave to so many powers--fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, poison, war, and sickness, all of which control death’s power.  So what reason does death have to be proud?  Death is not in charge.
Donne’s final stroke is at the end of the poem. The real reason death can’t win—is that we can’t die. After the sleep of death, “we wake eternally.” Donne is evoking St. Paul in I Corinthians, and the fundamental Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead. “If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable people of all. But now Christ has been raised from the dead.” As Christians, the Resurrection isn’t something that happened once to Jesus – the Resurrection is our destiny too. “Just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ… For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
This sonnet wonderfully and dramatically reaffirms this basic Christian belief. Because Christ is risen, death has no dominion over him—or over us. Because Christ is risen, we will rise. The liturgy says this so well in the Easter Sequence: “Death and life have contended in that combat stupendous. The prince of life who died, reigns immortal.”



And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

William Blake

Corinna Laughlin's commentary

William Blake has been called the greatest artist England ever produced. He was an extraordinary figure—a genius in the visual arts as well as one of England’s greatest poets. Born in 1757, he had a vision of God at the age of four, and saw a tree full of angels. These early spiritual experiences shaped him for life. He was profoundly Christian, but also deeply eccentric, to the point that he was considered mad by many of his contemporaries.
Blake was a craftsman, an engraver by trade. At night, he worked on his own projects, in which image and text are married as they never had been before. Blake never achieved much commercial success. His works are not only utterly unconventional; they can also be quite cryptic. And he was extremely opinionated, which probably did not help: “To generalize is to be an idiot,” is one of his famous statements. Only long after his death, well into the twentieth century, did Blake come into his own as one of the great Romantic voices. “And did those feet,” which we just heard, has become an unofficial anthem of England, and was even heard at the royal wedding of Kate and William.
Blake’s poem is at one level very simple. Blake imagines a time when Christ himself, the Lamb of God, walked the “mountains green” and the “clouded hills” of England, now marred by “dark Satanic Mills.” It is a poem of resolve, as the speaker decides to fight with every weapon at his command until England is the new Jerusalem, “green & pleasant” again.
In this poem, as with all things Blake, there is more than meets the eye. Blake’s poem is rich in literary allusions.  Blake is drawing on a Grail legend, the stories of King Arthur. As the story goes, when a young boy, Jesus traveled with his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea (the figure mentioned in the Gospel as giving his new tomb for Christ to be buried). They came all the way to England, to Glastonbury, to be specific.. After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is said to have returned to England to become the first to preach the Gospel to the English. Blake is playing on that legend. Notice how it’s all in the form of a question—“did those feet,” “was the Lamb,” “did the Countenance.” He knows it’s legend, but that doesn’t take away the amazement of Christ’s presence right in his own world, in his own surroundings. “Was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills” Blake asks.  When Blake wrote this poem (about 1804) the kind of mills we associate with England’s industrial revolution did not yet exist, but they were on their way. For Blake, the mill stands in for any rigid, dehumanizing, and evil influence. In contrast, Christ is associated with the natural world – light and green, and with all that is “pleasant.” The word sounds banal to us, but it is a word that speaks of relationship to humanity.  (Notice the word is used twice in this short poem).
Blake is also deeply versed in the Bible, and that comes through here. The poem recalls the language of the prophets. Blake refers to Christ as “the holy Lamb of God,” a title for Jesus especially associated with St. John the Baptist, who pointed out Jesus as “Lamb of God” and who also ended up dead for speaking truth to power. 
The third and fourth stanzas of the poem recall Old Testament prophets, particularly Elijah. In the second Book of Kings, Elijah asks Elisha what he wants from him. And Elisha answers that he wants “a double portion of your spirit.” In other words, he wants to be twice the prophet Elijah was! And the prayer is granted. Elijah is taken to heaven in “a fiery chariot and fiery horses,” and young Elisha takes up the prophet’s mantle. Here Blake is playing Elisha—taking up the prophetic task. The last stanza recalls the book of the prophet Nehemiah, and the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.
It seems appropriate to read this poem right after Pentecost. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to rest on all the disciples in wind and flame. In our Christian tradition, the Spirit dwells within every member of the baptized. We are all called to be prophets. Where are the prophetic voices of our own time? And what are the “dark Satanic mills” in our day that need to be broken so that our own land can be “green and pleasant” once again, revealed as the very dwelling place of the Lamb of God? 


Some keep the Sabbath going to Church (236)
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.


Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here with the poem of the week.
For this week, I have chosen a classic by American poet Emily Dickinson. Jackie O’Ryan will read the poem, then I will be back to offer a brief commentary.
Thank you, Jackie!
You can see why we need this Emily Dickinson poem right now! Emily Dickinson is one of the greatest American poets; indeed, she is one of the greatest poets in the English language. Born in 1830 in western Massachusetts, her childhood was quite a normal one. Her father was a prominent attorney who even served in the US House of Representatives. He was an imposing figure. Dickinson admitted to a friend that she did not learn to tell time until she was fifteen because she was too intimidated to tell her father she didn’t understand his explanation.
As a young woman, Dickinson went off to school—Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now Mount Holyoke College, in nearby South Hadley. Established in 1837 by Mary Lyon, an extraordinary figure, it was one of the first and best colleges for women in the United States. It was an intensely religious environment, and the school proudly displayed the names of graduates who had gone on to Christian missionary work around the world.
During Emily Dickinson’s year at Mt Holyoke, the students would be regularly questioned about whether they were “saved” or not, and categorized as “professors,” “hopers,” and “no hopers.” Emily Dickinson landed among the “no hopers.” The preaching and the emphasis on an emotional conversion experience was constant. This is a sample of one of Mary Lyon’s addresses to the students: “Do you not know that you are now exposed to God’s wrath, that a miserable eternity awaits you?” This religious language was not unusual; in fact, it was typical of New England religious experience at the time.
The emphasis on conversion may have been part of the reason she left Mt Holyoke after just one year, still classed among the no-hopers. Back home in Amherst, a religious revival was underway. Over the years, many members of the Dickinson family had conversion experiences and became active members of local congregations, but Dickinson did not. She gradually became a recluse, living in self-imposed isolation from her community and even from much of her family. There were many reasons for this, but her sense of religious isolation surely played its part.
So was Dickinson a “no hoper”? I think her poetry gives us the clear answer to that—no! She was nourished by the Bible, and her writing is profoundly imbued with Christian themes. In one poem, she wrote simply, “I know that he exists.” God is ever-present and a number of her poems are addressed directed to Christ.
But when it came to church, Dickinson remained profoundly skeptical. That is clearly evident in this short, playful poem. While others go to church, Dickinson stays home and keeps the sabbath in her own way. She has everything she needs—a chorister, a dome, and even a noted clergyman - God.
I have always loved this poem, but I have always mentally argued with Dickinson at the same time. What about community? We need each other! We need our shared worship. During this lockdown, however, I have found this poem to take on a whole new meaning. Now, when we cannot gather as community, “keeping the sabbath” in our accustomed way, we can learn from Dickinson other ways to keep the sabbath. In particular, we learn that God speaks to us through the beauty of the natural world, with birds as our choristers, trees for a dome, even a little sexton or sacristan—and of course, God, the most noted clergyman of all, doing the preaching. Most of us hopefully have had a chance to do a little more walking, a little more looking around, and have been able to sense in new ways God’s presence in creation.
In the final lines of the poem, Dickinson says, “instead of getting to heaven at last, I’m going, all along.” This attitude is so different from the theology she heard from the religious leaders of her day. Heaven is not a reward for the few, bestowed by a judging and reluctant God. Heaven is quite simply being in God’s presence.
I am reminded of the words of the French Carmelite mystic, St Elizabeth of the Trinity: “It seems to me that I have found my heaven on earth, because my heaven is you, my God, and you are in my soul.”
I think Elizabeth and Emily might have a lot to say to each other!




The Virgin at Noon | Paul Claudel

It is noon. I see the church, open. I must go in.
Mother of Jesus Christ, I do not come to pray.
I have nothing to offer and nothing to ask.
I come, Mother, only to look at you.
To look at you, to weep for happiness, knowing that
I am your son, and that you are there.
Just one moment while everything stops.
To be with you, Mary, in this place where you are.
Not to say anything, but only to sing
Because the heart is too full;
Like the blackbird that pursues its idea
In impromptu couplets like these.
Because you are beautiful, because you are immaculate,
The woman at last restored in Grace,
The creature in her first dignity
And in her final glory,
Just as she came forth from God in the morning
Of her original splendor.
Ineffably intact because you are
the Mother of Jesus Christ,
Who is the Truth carried in your arms, and the only hope
And the only fruit.
Because you are the woman,
The Eden of the old forgotten tenderness,
Whose glance finds the heart suddenly
And makes the pent-up tears overflow.
Because it is noon,
Because we are in this moment, today,
Because you are there, always,
Simply because you are Mary,
Simply because you exist,
Mother of Jesus Christ, thanks be to you!
Translation by Corinna Laughlin

Corinna Laughlin's reflection:

Paul Claudel was born in 1868 into a typical bourgeois French household. Though baptized a Catholic, religion was not really part of his life and by his teens he was a non-believer. At the age of 18, he went on a whim to Notre Dame in Paris for Mass on Christmas Day.  As he later wrote, he thought the ceremonies might give him some good material for a few decadent poems. Later that afternoon, he returned for Christmas Vespers. And something happened.
“I was towards the front of the crowd, close to the second pillar at the entrance to the choir, to the right on the sacristy side. It was then that the event happened which has dominated my entire life. In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed, with such strength… that ever since, no books, no reasonings, none of the vicissitudes of a restless life, have been able to shake my faith, nor, truth to tell, even to touch it.” Claudel tried to join the Benedictines, but was turned down. He entered the diplomatic service instead, and served all over the world, including the US, where he made the cover of Time magazine! His prolific writing—poetry, prose, and drama—was deeply imbued with his Catholic faith. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize six times.
For Claudel, that transforming moment of conversion was closely associated with Mary. Though he did not know it at the time, he later realized that his conversion had taken place as the choir began to sing Mary’s song, the Magnificat.
Claudel wrote, tongue in cheek, “After all, woman, it was you who made the first move…. Everything that has happened since, I can’t help it, you are responsible!”
Something of that same loving and playful tone comes through in today’s poem Claudel describes entering a church at Noon, which is of course the hour of the Angelus, a traditional Catholic prayer to Mary. But Claudel says, surprisingly, “I do not come to pray. I have nothing to offer and nothing to ask.” So why is he there? “not to say anything, but only to sing.” He simply wants to be in Mary’s presence, as in the presence of a mother.
In the second half of the poem, Claudel meditates on the uniqueness of Mary. Mary is the New Eve, giving us a glimpse of God’s creation in its “first dignity,” before the fall; and she is also God’s creature “in her final glory,” for in Mary’s Assumption, we glimpse the dignity of each human person, destined to share in the Resurrection of the Body.
At the end of the poem, Claudel steps back from the grandeur of this theologically rich imagery about Mary, and returns to the simplicity with which he began. He gives thanks, simply because Mary is there—simply because Mary is.

Denise Levertov: “Annunciation” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.

Denise Levertov, “Annuciation”

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.
But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:
to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.
This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.
A breath unbreathed,

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Corinna Laughlin's reflection
During this month of May, we are exploring poems about Mary. This week, we’ll explore “Annunciation” by 20th century poet Denise Levertov. We have a special guest reader this week, Cathedral parishioner Jackie O’Ryan. Jackie will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.

Denise Levertov was born in 1923 in Essex, England, and died in 1997 in Seattle, Washington. Her mother was Welsh and her father was a Russian Jew, who converted to Christianity and became a minister of the Church of England. It was a very artistic household.   [ QUOTE FROM LEVERTOV ]
As a young woman, Levertov moved to the United States and considered herself an American poet. She was always very engaged with justice issues, and served as the poetry editor for the magazine The Nation for a number of years. She wrote about spiritual themes all her life, though it was not until she was teaching at Stanford in the 1980s that she began her own journey from agnostic to Christian. In 1989, she moved to Seattle, where she lived near Seward Park and fell in love with Mount Rainier. The mountain became a symbol of God for her, always present, whether “out” or not.  [QUOTE FROM LEVERTOV]
Levertov entered the Catholic Church at St. Edward’s Parish in Seattle in 1990. She died in 1997 at the age of 74, and is buried in Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery.
In this poem, Levertov evokes familiar paintings of the Annunciation—“we know the scene,” she says – the room, the book, the lily, the angel. But then she delves into the part of the story we may not focus on. This is not a story about “meek obedience,” she says, but “courage.” God did not require anything of Mary—she was free to accept or to reject. That choice, Levertov says, is “integral to humanness.”
In the central part of the poem, Levertov asks whether there are annunciations in everyone’s life—but not everyone responds as Mary did. “Some unwillingly /undertake great destinies, / enact them in sullen pride, / uncomprehending.” Others simply turn away when a difficult path opens in front of them – “in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair / and with relief. Ordinary lives continue.” When we refuse, Levertov says in a wonderful insight, “God does not smite” us. But nevertheless, something is lost. “The gates close, the pathway vanishes.”
At the end of the poem, Levertov comes back to that room where the angel is awaiting Mary’s answer. Levertov gives us a unique and very relatable idea of what it meant for Mary to be free from original sin: “she had been a child… like any other child—but unlike others, wept only for pity, laughed in joy, not triumph. Compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible.” It was this freedom which allowed Mary to consent to God’s plan, not reluctantly, but with total openness and trust. At the end of the poem, Levertov imagines what happens next, after Mary’s consent, and the light and transformation it brings: “The room filled with its light, / the lily glowed in it, /                                and the iridescent wings. / Consent, /               courage unparalleled, / opened her utterly.”  Mary’s “Yes” to God is not passive: consenting to God’s will is, rather “courage unparalleled.”

William Wordsworth “The Virgin”
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied.
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast;
Thy image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in thee
Of mother's love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!

Corinna Laughlin's reflection

May is Mary’s Month, so this month we’ll be reading poems about Mary, from classic and contemporary poets. For this first week of May, I’ve chosen William Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The Virgin.”
William Wordsworth was born in 1770 and died in 1850. There was a lot of sadness in Wordsworth’s life, starting with the death of his parents – he was orphaned by the age of 13. Three of his five children predeceased him. He found his joy in the glorious landscape of the Lake District, where he spent most of his life. That landscape filled his poetry. Wordsworth, with his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge, became one of the great English Romantic poets. They were pioneers of a new approach to poetry, characterized by close observation of the natural world, simpler language, and an emphasis on subjectivity—the interior life of the poet.
“The Virgin” is a later poem, part of a sequence of 47 sonnets written in 1821 and 1822, when Wordsworth was in his early fifties. The sonnets tell the whole story of the Christian faith in England. Wordsworth was a staunch Anglican—who would, he said, shed his blood for the Church of England.
In this sonnet, Wordsworth expresses great sympathy for Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The poem is addressed directly to Mary. Wordsworth uses ideas and images that recall Catholic beliefs about Mary: she is the Immaculate Conception – in the poem’s most famous line, Wordsworth says she is “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—the one person free from original sin. The imagery he uses to highlight Mary’s purity—comparisons to the ocean, daybreak, the moon –all resonate with Catholic prayers about Mary, whom we invoke as “Morning Star” and “Star of the Sea.”
All of this makes the turn the poem takes halfway through more shocking:  “Thy Image falls to earth.” Wordsworth is talking here about the English Reformation, what has been called “the stripping of the altars,” when statues of Mary and the saints were destroyed in an effort to purify the faith of English Christianity. While later, images of Mary and the saints, and tabernacles, would return to Anglican worship, at the time Wordsworth is writing, that had not yet become common.
At the end of the poem, Wordsworth expresses his gentle sympathy with those who turn to Mary in prayer. His language is quite tentative—“some… not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,” he says—notice the double negative. Wordsworth understands why we Catholics are drawn to Mary, and perhaps wishes that he, too, could turn to her in prayer. For Wordsworth, Mary is the best of both worlds—she combines a “mother’s love” and “maiden’s purity,” high and low, earthly and heavenly—“our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”

Poem of the Week: R. S. Thomas’ “Folk Tale” from St. James Cathedral, Seattle on Vimeo.

R. S. Thomas, “Folktale” (1986)
Prayers like gravel
flung at the sky’s
window, hoping to attract
the loved one’s
attention. But without
visible plaits to let
down for the believer
to climb up,
to what purpose open
that far casement?
I would
have refrained long since
but that peering once
through my locked fingers
I thought that I detected
the movement of a curtain.
Corinna Laughlin's commentary:
Today, we’re going to explore a poem by 20th century Welsh poet R. S. Thomas. Scott will read Thomas’s short poem “Folk Tale” and then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
R. S. Thomas is probably the most renowned 20th century poet no one has ever heard of. He was born in Wales in 1913 and died there in 2000. Ordained a priest of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1936, he spent much of his life as a priest in small parishes in rural Wales.
In 1940, he married Mildred “Elsi” Eldridge, a gifted artist. Her renown as a painter inspired him to “wish to be recognized as a poet.”  His first collection of poems appeared in 1946, and many more followed. In 1996, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Thomas was a bit of a Luddite, and his son Gwydion later recalled sermons in which he railed against refrigerators and other modern appliances. The only modern convenience the family ever owned was a vacuum which they never used because it was too noisy.
The primary themes of Thomas’s poetry are the landscape and seascape of Wales, the country people with whom he ministered, and the elusive nature of faith and prayer.
In “Folk Tale,” Thomas evokes the familiar story of Rapunzel, who lived in a tower, and let down her hair to admit her mother—and, later, her prince. In Thomas’s poem, God is Rapunzel, hidden from view. Unlike Rapunzel, there are no “visible plaits to let down for the believer to climb up”—so why open the window at all?  “I would have refrained long since,” the poet says, “but that peering once through my locked fingers I thought that I detected the movement of a curtain.” Looking through “locked fingers”—through hands folded in prayer—he sensed movement in that far off window, and this glimpse was enough to keep him tossing gravel at the window, to keep him praying.
In this poem, Thomas playfully evokes the hard work that prayer is sometimes, and how elusive God can seem. Only by recalling that “movement of a curtain,” that sense of God’s presence, do we keep going, keep tossing gravel at the window, like Rapunzel’s prince, and longing for union.

God’s Grandeur
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Corinna Laughlin's commentary:

On April 22, we observe the 50th annual Earth Day. So this week, our poem is one with a strong ecological theme:  Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844. In 1866, as an Oxford undergraduate, he was received into the Catholic Church by now St. John Henry Newman. This was a momentous decision, as Hopkins knew he would face significant opposition from his devoutly Anglican family, and indeed his entry into the Church cost Hopkins friendships and caused estrangements in his family which never fully healed.
Hopkins had always loved poetry, but he gave it up when he resolved to become a Jesuit. "By God's grace,” he wrote, “I resolved to give up all beauty until I had His leave for it." For seven years, he wrote almost nothing, until one of his Jesuit superiors asked him to write a poem. This opened the floodgates of his creativity, and Hopkins developed his unique voice and style in extraordinary poems for the rest of his short life—he died at age 44 in 1889.
In this sonnet, Hopkins describes the world being as being “charged” with the grandeur of God. The word “charged” can mean “full” or “loaded”; it can also suggest an electric “charge”—Hopkins is playing on both meanings here. It’s characteristic of Hopkins to use a wonderful variety of images to capture his meaning. The world is so full of God that divinity flashes out, like light on a shaken piece of foil; it oozes God, as a crushed olive oozes oil.
Why, then, Hopkins asks, do men not “reck his rod”—why do people not recognize God’s power in creation?  Instead, they keep at their destructive work, exploiting creation, making it less divine and more human—the earth has taken on our “smudge,” our smell. At the same time, ironically, we are becoming ever more alienated from nature—we no longer touch it directly, like a foot in a shoe.
In the second part of the sonnet, Hopkins gives a glimpse of hope. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” This idea of the deep, unique life that all living things have, is one of the hallmarks of Hopkins’ thought. No matter how dark things get, there is the hope of dawn, because God has not abandoned the world—the Holy Ghost broods over the earth like a dove on her nest.
Hopkins’ ecological vision resonates with that of another Jesuit—Pope Francis. In “Laudato Si,” his encyclical letter on Care for our common home, Pope Francis writes: “The ultimate destiny of the universe is in the fullness of God…. The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us. Rather, all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival, which is God, in that transcendent fullness where the risen Christ embraces and illumines all things.”


Easter Wings by George Herbert

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
      Though foolishly he lost the same,
            Decaying more and more,
                  Till he became
                        Most poore:
                        With thee
                  O let me rise
            As larks, harmoniously,
      And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne
      And still with sicknesses and shame.
            Thou didst so punish sinne,
                  That I became
                        Most thinne.
                        With thee
                  Let me combine,
            And feel thy victorie:
         For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.

Corinna Laughlin's commentary:

For this Easter week, I’ve chosen a classic—“Easter Wings” by the 17th-century poet George Herbert. Parishioner Scott Webster will read the poem, then I’ll be back to offer a brief commentary.
George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593. He was a superb scholar, and poems by him survive not only in English but in Latin and Greek! He had a brilliant academic career at Cambridge, holding significant posts at a very young age, and then went into Parliament. In 1629, at the age of 36, for a variety of reasons, he changed course. He sought ordination in the Anglican Church, and became rector at the tiny country church of Fugglestone St. Peter in Bemerton, England. It was here that Herbert wrote “Easter Wings,” part of a collection of poems called The Temple. His time as a country parson was brief—he died of tuberculosis in 1633, at the age of 39.
Herbert was one of the “metaphysical poets,” along with poets like John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Some of the characteristics of metaphysical poetry are evident in “Easter Wings.” There’s an intricacy to the meter and rhyme, and a strong central image or “conceit”: in this case, wings! Herbert uses images of rising and falling, flying and sinking. When you look at the printed text, you can see that wings isn’t just a dominant image—it’s the shape of the poem itself!
Why wings at Easter? In the first stanza, Herbert talks about the creation story – how God gave Adam (and Eve) everything, “though foolishly he lost the same,” becoming “most poor.” But, Herbert says, if we rise with Christ, that first fall will only “further the flight in me.”
The second stanza echoes that pattern, speaking this time not of Adam’s fall, but of his own. But, he says, addressing Christ, “if I imp my wing on thine, Affliction shall advance the flight in me.” “Imp” is a term from the art of falconry, and refers to repairing a damaged wing with feathers from a healthy one. In other words, sin is like a broken wing, preventing us from soaring--but through our Easter union with Christ, we can fly with his wings—we can rise.
Herbert’s poem is a very clever illustration of the Christian idea of the “felix culpa,” the “happy fault.” This is a phrase from the Easter proclamation, the Exsultet, which Father Ryan sang at the Easter Vigil. “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer.” Had Adam and Eve not eaten the fruit, there would have been no need for Christ’s redeeming action. God turns the fall into a blessing – giving us wings to rise all the way to him. Happy Easter!



Good Friday by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.


Corinna Laughlin commentary: 
Christina Rossetti was born in London in 1830 and died in 1894.  She was from a remarkably talented family. Her siblings all did remarkable things – her brother Dante Gabriel was a renowned poet and painter; her sister wrote a book on Dante; her brother William a noted critic and editor. Through her brothers, she was closely linked with the PreRaphaelite movement, and she appears as the Virgin Mary in Dante Rossetti’s famous Annunciation, and as St. Elizabeth of Hungary in a painting by James Collinson, to whom she was briefly engaged.
Rossetti had a happy childhood, but in her teenage years she experienced the first of several serious bouts with depression, something she would struggle with all her life. Her Christian faith was at the center of her life and of her writing.
In her poem “Good Friday,” Rossetti asks herself a question. “Am I a stone,” she asks, that she can stand beneath the cross and yet not weep? She draws on details from the Gospel accounts of Christ’s Passion and notes that everyone reacted to Christ’s suffering—the women wept; Peter wept; the good thief was moved; even the sun and moon “hid their faces in a starless sky” in eclipse. She feels like she’s the only one who can’t seem to feel anything.  Why can’t she feel?
Rossetti isn’t just beating herself up here. She’s giving an accurate description of “acedia,” a spiritual torpor or apathy which we all experience sometimes. Rossetti responds in a healthy way to acedia: she acknowledges it and she prays about it. At the end of the poem, she addresses Christ, saying, “Greater than Moses, turn and look once more / And smite a rock.” Just as Moses, at God’s command, struck the rock so that water flowed out for the Israelites to drink, Rossetti prays that Christ will break her open, so that she can feel with him and for him in his Passion.
This year, as we celebrate Holy Week under unprecedented circumstances, let’s not beat ourselves up if we find it hard to feel through our distraction, busyness, or anxiety. Instead, let’s pray with Rossetti for the grace to be broken open, to see and to feel with Christ during these Holy Days. Have a blessed Holy Week.


Jessica Powers  (1905-1988)
Gypsy by nature, how can I endure it—
This small strict space, this meager patch of sky?
What madness once possessed me to procure it?
And deed it to myself until I die?
What could the wise Teresa have been thinking
to set these bounds on even my little love?
This walling, barring, minimizing, shrinking—
how could her great Castilian heart approve?
And yet I meet the morrow with composure.
Before I made my plaint I found the clue
and learned the secret to outwit enclosure
because of summits and a mountain view.
You question, then, the presence of a mountain?
Yet it is here past earth’s extravagant guess—
Mount Carmel with its famed Elian fountain,
and God encountered in its wilderness.
Its trails outrun the most adept explorer,
outweigh the gypsy’s most inordinate need.
Its heights cry out to mystic and adorer.
Oh, here are space and distances indeed.
Hello there! Corinna Laughlin here. I’m the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James. Over the years, parishioner Scott Webster and I have offered many literary evenings at the Cathedral, reading and discussing stories and poetry. Since we can’t do that right now, we’ve decided to offer a poem a week, virtually. Scott will read the poem, and then I’ll offer a short commentary. The first poem I’ve chosen is “Enclosure,” by Jessica Powers, also known as Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit, a Carmelite nun who lived from 1905 to 1988. I think her experience of “enclosure” will resonate at this time when so many of us are confined to our homes.  Here’s Scott reading Jessica powers’ “Enclosure.”
Thank you, Scott!
The poem begins with a question—“gypsy by nature, how can I endure it?” Jessica Powers was a bit of a gypsy. She grew up in an Irish Catholic household in rural Wisconsin but after studies at Marquette, she moved to Chicago and later to New York City at the age of 32. She spent five years in the New York literary scene – writing for the New York Times and publishing poetry. Then, in 1941, she moved back to Wisconsin and entered the Carmelite Monastery of the Mother of God in Milwaukee. Jessica Powers became Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit.
Carmelites are cloistered, which means they do not leave the monastery grounds, or “enclosure,” except for essentials, like doctors’ appointments. Visitors are traditionally seen at a distance, through a grille or screen. In these days of sheltering in place and social distancing, we are all getting a taste of Carmelite enclosure! 
Jessica Powers wrote “Enclosure” about seven years after her entrance into the monastery. In the first part of the poem, she humorously expresses the frustration that comes with being enclosed—“walling, barring, minimizing, shrinking.” What, she asks, could she have been thinking? What could St. Teresa have been thinking?
But in the second part of the poem, Powers answers her own question. How can she endure enclosure? Because God is present. She draws on the rich imagery of Carmelite spirituality—mountains, wilderness, flowing water—to point towards the rich interior landscape which is always accessible, even—or perhaps especially—when we are “enclosed.”

Corinna Laughlin



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