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The Way of BeautyThe Beauty of Catholic Poetry

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April has been set aside as National Poetry Month, and this Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth.  

In an essay entitled “Poetry:  Who Needs It?” the author William Logan observes:  “… The way we live now is not poetic.  We live in prose.  . . . But to live continually in a natter of ill-written and ill-spoken prose is to become deaf to what language can do.  . . . Poetry has long been a major art with a minor audience.”  

The dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one. Is this the silent majority?” (New York Times Sunday Review, June 14, 2014). 

Catholic Poetry

Catholic poetry refers to a body of literature whose content is derived from the Old and New Testaments and patristic corpus, whether dogmatic, contemplative, biblical, or creative paraphrases of them, for example,

The Song of Songs (8:6)

Love

is a fire

no waters avail to quench,

no floods to drown;

for love

a man will give up all

that he has in the world,

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and think nothing

of his loss

Alfred Barrett, S.J. (1906-55) 

There Must Be Tears” (And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: Rev. 7:17)

More in The Way of Beauty

The fog of why men suffer only clears

When Revelation lances down its ray

If Heaven be the banishing of tears,

There must be tears for God to wipe away.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82)

Let nothing trouble you. 

Let nothing frighten you. 

(Story continues below)

Everything passes.  

God never changes. 

Patience obtains all.

Whoever has God wants for nothing.

God alone is enough.

Out of the poet’s linguistic thesaurus, words, figures of speech, and imagery illuminate our faith, make it shine, make it come alive with beauty.  It attracts first the senses and the imagination, then the heart and intellect. Some poems are characterized by simplicity; others overflow with rich imagery; still others use paradox or parallelisms. Consider the poem about the Mother of God:

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Mary, the Dawn

Mary the Dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;

Mary the Gate, Christ the Perfect Way!

Mary the Root, Christ the Mystic Vine;

Mary the Grape, Christ the Sacred Wine.

Mary the Wheat Sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;

Mary the Rose Tree, Christ the Rose blood-red.

Mary the Font, Christ, the Cleansing Flood;

Mary the Chalice, Christ, the Saving Blood!

Mary the Temple, Christ the Temple’s Lord;

Mary the Shrine, Christ the God adored.

Mary the Beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;

Mary the Mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!

Mary the Mother, Christ the Mother’s Son.

Both ever blest while endless ages run. Amen.

Catholic poetry invites the musical element both in its vital rhythmic beauty and its melodic sonority.  These elements are exemplified in the first two lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem and then in Joseph Mary Plunkett’s poem, made famous by Fulton J. Sheen’s dramatic recitation of it.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.

Joseph Mary Plunkett (1887-1916)

I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.

All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree. 

Poetry from the Old Testament

Certain books of the Hebrew Scriptures are replete with sacred and religious poetry.  

Ps 17: “I call upon you; answer me, O God

Turn your ear to me; hear my prayer”

Ps 47: “All you peoples, clap your hands;

Shout to God with cries of gladness.”

In creative repetition, parallelism is key to appreciating the conviction of the Psalmist. In parallelism, the second part of a verse rephrases what the first part has already expressed. In the psalm below, there is parallelism in the first two verse-lines, and parallelism in the final three verse-lines.

Ps. 28: 1-2 Give to the Lord, you sons of God,

Give to the Lord glory and praise.

Give to the Lord the glory due his name

Adore the Lord in holy attire.

Ps. 90  Give us joy to balance our affliction

For the years when we knew misfortune.

Let the favor of the Lord be upon us:

Give success to the work of our hands, 

give success to the work of our hands.

The poetry that follows is centered on God, whether in praise, gratitude, mercy or other sentiments. It lifts the spirit and the entire person facing the daily grind of the human condition. 

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) 

The Beauty of Creation Bears Witness to God

Question the beauty of the earth,
the beauty of the sea,
the beauty of the wide air around you,
the beauty of the sky;

question the order of the stars,
the sun whose brightness lights the day,
the moon whose splendor softens
the gloom of night;

question the living creatures
that move in the waters,
that roam upon the earth,
that fly through the air;
the spirit that lies hidden,
the matter that is manifest;
the visible things that are ruled,
the invisible that rule them;
question all these.

They will answer you:
“Behold and see, we are beautiful.”

Their beauty is their confession of God.

Who made these beautiful changing things,
if not one who is beautiful and changeth not?

Late Have I loved Thee 

Late have I loved Thee. O Beauty, ever ancient, ever new,

Late have I loved Thee.

And see, you were within and I was in the external world 

and sought you there, 

and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. 

You were with me, and I was not with you. 

The lovely things kept me far from you, 

though if they did not have their existence in you, 

they had no existence at all. 

You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. 

You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. 

You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. 

I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. 

You touched me, and I am set on fire 

to attain the peace which is yours.” (Confessions, bk 10, chap 27, par. 38)

St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

The Canticle of the Sun

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing. 

To You alone, Most High, do they belong,
and no man is worthy to mention Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and you give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. 

Praise be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong. 

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs. 

Praised be You, my Lord,
through those who give pardon for Your love,
and bear infirmity and tribulation. 

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned. 

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape. 

Woe to those who die in mortal sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy willl,
for the second death shall do them no harm. 

Praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility. AMEN

Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi 

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love.

Where there is injury, pardon.

Where there is doubt, faith.

Where there is despair, hope.

Where there is darkness, light.

Where there is sadness, joy. 

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek 

to be consoled, as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning, that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

In the Romanza of St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Carmelite theologian (1542-91), the Incarnation is cast in lovely poetic language and makes the mystery of our salvation come alive in the reading of it. The saint wrote several Romanzas. Each is a gem of sparkling beauty. 

St. John of the Cross (1542-91)

Romance on the Gospel Text: The Incarnation

Now that the time had come

when it would be good 

 to ransom the bride

serving under the hard yoke

of that law

which Moses had given her,

the Father, with tender love,

spoke in this way:

“Now you see, Son, that your bride

was made in your image,

and so far as she is like you

she will suit you well;

yet she is different, in her flesh,

which your simple being does not have.

In perfect love

this law holds:

that the lover become

like the one he loves;

for the greater their likeness

the greater their delight.

Surely your bride’s delight 

would greatly increase

were she to see you like her,

in her own flesh.”

“My will is yours,”

the Son replied,

“and my glory is that you will be mine.

This is fitting, Father,

what you, the Most High, say;

for in this way

your goodness will be more 

evident,

your great power will be seen 

and your justice and wisdom.

I will go and tell the world,

spreading the word

of your beauty and sweetness

and of your sovereignty.

I will go seek my bride

and take upon myself 

her weariness and labors

in which she suffers so;

and that she may have life,

I will die for her,

and lifting her out of that deep,

I will restore her to you.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82)

Laughter Came from Every Brick

Just these two words He spoke

changed my life,

“Enjoy Me.”

What a burden I thought I was to carry -

a crucifix, as did He.

Love once said to me, “I know a song,

would you like to hear it?”

And laughter came from every brick in the street

and from every pore

in the sky.

After a night of prayer, He

changed my life when

He sang,

“Enjoy Me.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)

As king fishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves -- goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;

Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is --

Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces. 

Thomas Merton (1915-68)

The Flight into Egypt 

Through every precinct of the wintry city
Squadroned iron resounds upon the streets;
Herod's police
Make shudder the dark steps of the tenements
At the business about to be done. 

Neither look back upon Thy starry country,
Nor hear what rumors crowd across the dark
Where blood runs down those holy walls,
Nor frame a childish blessing with Thy hand
Towards that fiery spiral of exulting souls!

Go, Child of God, upon the singing desert,
Where, with eyes of flame,
The roaming lion keeps thy road from harm. 

Alfred Barrett, S.J. (1906-55)

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux

Not as a prima donna in a pose
Before the swaying curtain when the plays
Is clamorously ended, her bouquet
Loosed on the throng,— not even as a rose
Can I conceive of you. Let others, those
Whose lyric season is incessant May,
Cull similes to strew your “little way,”
With hothouse verse and honeysuckle prose.

You are too real, too actual, Therese,
To live in metaphor. The girl behind
The legend, could the legend fade, would be
The girl you were, sobbing upon your knees
In lowliness and love and anguish, blind
With the beauty of a stark Gethsemane. 

 Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

(Francis Thompson was raised in an affluent British home.  After unsuccessfully attempting to follow in his father’s footsteps as a medical doctor, he tried other professions but failed at them. Thompson succumbed to depression, became a drug addict, and lived as a derelict in the London slums and alleys. The monks of Storrington rehabilitated him, and after long years of purgation, he found himself and his vocation as a Catholic poet. Thompson published several volumes of poetry. “The Hound of Heaven” is considered his best poem, a long dramatic narrative about God’s constant concern for and pursuit of one individual soul.)

The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up, vistaed hopes I sped;

And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase 

And unpreturbèd pace

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat–and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet–

“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

I pleaded, outlaw-wise,

By many a hearted casement, curtained red,

Trellised with intertwining charities

(For though I knew His love who followèd,

Yet was I sore adread (20)

Lest having Him, I must have nought beside);

But, if one little casement parted wide,

The gust of His approach would clash it to.

Fear wise not to evade as Love wist to pursue,

Across the margent of the world I fled,

And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,

Fretted to dulcet jars

And silver chatters to the ports o’ the moon,

I said to Dawn: Be sudden; to Eve: Be soon– (30)

With thy young skyey blossoms heap me over

From this tremendous Lover!

Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!

I tempted all His servants, but to find

My own betrayal in their constancy,

In faith to Him their fickleness to me,

Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.

To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;

Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.

But whether they swept, smoothly fleet, (40)

The long savannahs of the blue;

Or whether, Thunder-driven,

They clanged His chariot ‘thwart a heaven,

Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:–

Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.

Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

Came on the following Feet,

And a Voice above their beat– (50)

“Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”

I sought no more that after which I strayed

In face of man or maid;

But still within the little children’s eyes

Seems something, something that replies,

They at least are for me, surely for me!

I turned me to them very wistfully;

But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair

With dawning answers there, (59)

Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.

“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s–share

With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship;

Let me greet you lip to lip,

Let me twine you with caresses,

Wantoning

With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses

Banqueting

With her in her wind-walled palace,

Underneath her azured daïs,

Quaffing, as your taintless way is, (70)

From a chalice

Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”

So it was done:

I in their delicate fellowship was one–

Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies,

I knew all the swift importings

On the willful face of skies;

I knew how the clouds arise

Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;

All that’s born or dies (80)

Rose and drooped with; made them shapers

Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine–

With them joyed and was bereaven.

I was heavy with the even,

When she lit her glimmering tapers

Round the day’s dead sanctities.

I laughed in the morning’s eyes.

I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,

Heaven and I wept together,

And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine; (90)

Against the red throb of its sunset heart

I laid my own to beat,

And share commingling heat;

But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.

In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.

For ah! We know not what each other says,

These things and I; in sound I speak–

Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.

Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;

Let her, if she would owe me, (100)

Drop yon bue bosom-veil of sky, and show me

The breasts o’ her tenderness;

Never did any milk of her once bless

My thirsting mouth.

Nigh and nigh draws the chase,

With unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

And past those noisèd Feet

A Voice comes yet more fleet–

“Lo! Naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.”  (110)

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!

My harness, piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,

And smitten me to my knees;

I am defenceless utterly.

I slept, methinks, and woke,

And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.

In the rash lustihead of my young powers,

I shook the pillaring hours

And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,

I stand amid the dust o’ the moulded years–

My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.

My days have cracked and gone up in smoke,

Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.

Yea, faileth now even dream

The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;

Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist

I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,

Are yielding; cords of all too weak account

For earth, with heavy griefs so overplussed.

Ah! Is They love indeed (130)

A wee, albeit an amarinthine weed,

Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?

Ah! Must–

Designer infinite!–

Ah! Must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?

My freshness spent its wavering chower i’ the dust;

And now my heart is as a broken fount,

Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, split down ever

From the dank thoughs that shiver

Upon the sighful branches of my mind.   (140)

Such is; what is to be?

The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?

I dimly guess what Time is mists confounds;

Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds

From the his battlements of Eternity;

Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then,

Round te half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again;

But not ere seen, enwound (149)

With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;

His name I know, and what His trumpet saith.

Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields

Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields

Be dunged with rotten death?

Now of that long pursuit

Come on at hand of the bruit;

That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:

And is thy earth so marred

Shattered in shard on shard?

Lo, all things fly thee, for thou Fliest Me!  (160)

Strange, piteous, futile thing!

Wherefore should any set three love apart?

Seeing none but I makes much of naught”

(He said)

“And human love needs human meriting:

How hast thou merited–

Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?

Alack, thou knowest not

How little worthy of any love though art!

Whom wilt thou fund to love ignoble thee,

Save Me, save only Me?  (170)

All which I took from thee I did but take,

Not for they harms,

But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.

All which they child’s mistake

Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home;

Rise, clasp My and, and come!”

Halts by me that footfall:

Is my gloom, after all,

Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?

“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, (180)

I am He whom thou seekest!

Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”  [You who drove love from yourself, you who drove it from Me.]

Finally, a little serious fun about the great St. Teresa of Avila by Joseph Roccasalvo:

AT AVILA

Through all the agitation at the Convent of Incarnation

Where the spirit of the world was raising riot,

Knelt Teresa in her cell, contemplating rather well,

For she found herself beyond the Prayer of Quiet.

She loved her sister, Earth, with a gay Castilian mirth,

Which made her gifted nature sane and sound,

Yet Teresa de Ahumada was a devotée of nada,

And this raised her quite a distance from the ground.

One day, while she was kneeling, and began her prayer appealing,

“Lord, why must you treat me sternly as you do?”

This voice was heard append: “This is how I treat a friend,”

She replied, “Perhaps that’s why you have so few.”

When she met Juan de la Cruz, (five feet tall, to tell the truth),

First she turned away to stifle a loud laugh;

Then drew near him with another, while her quip she failed to smother,

“Now it’s time to meet my friar-and-a-half.”

So the smile upon her face for Teresa was a grace,

And to find a better kind’s a hopeless search;

Now there’s nothing left to vex or to minimize her sex,

For she’s ranked among the Doctors of the Church. 

For centuries, the Church, in the West as well as in the East, has created and preserved a treasure trove of religious poetry. We are this Church.  We bear a responsibility for transmitting this possession to others lest we succumb to religious amnesia.

Reading Catholic poetry and committing it to memory “is like constructing a magnificent library inside one’s head,” writes Kate Haas, “one that I can pore over at any time” (New York Times: “The Case for Bribing Kids to Memorize Poetry,” August 3, 2014).  Reading Catholic poetry to our children and committing it to memory keeps alive the Church’s literary heritage that will be passed on to other generations.  Such a cornucopia of religious poetry gives lasting enjoyment and lasting pleasure that inspire reflection and prayer.  

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