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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.




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