by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D.
Jessica Powers was small in physical stature. If you had met her without knowing of her renown as a poet, your impression would be of a Carmelite nun remarkably unassuming. You would go away not knowing that she was a poet worthy of acclaim. Nor would she care much for the praise I am going to heap upon her.
When asked to speak about Jessica Powers, my first thought was will there be enough material in her poetry? What I discovered is that in one talk, I can only skim the surface of all the treasures lying there both hidden and in plain sight.
Most of you know, I am sure, that when Jessica Powers entered Carmel in Milwaukee, WI, she received the name Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, although she continued to publish her poetry under the name Jessica Powers. Since we are gathered here as a part of the family of Carmel, I have decided to refer to Jessica Powers throughout this talk as Sr. Miriam.
In the biography Winter Music by Dolores Leckey we learn about Sr. Miriam’s training and experience as a poet before she entered Carmel. She thoroughly learned what anyone aspiring to write poetry should know about the technical requirements.
She then gained proficiency through the practice of her craft and the critique of other poets in New York City. I think that, in addition to the technical requirements and the properties of beauty, two other elements play an important role in a work of art. They are simplicity and elegance. Were you to ask me what two qualities I find striking in the lyric poetry of St. John of the Cross, I would say simplicity and elegance. Were you to ask the same about Sr. Miriam’s poetry, I would give the same answer. Another quality important for bestowing on a composition an unfading value is depth of content. Surely we find this in St. John of the Cross; just as surely we find it in Sr. Miriam.
I do not plan to discuss the technique, beauty and literary merits of Sr. Miriam’s poetry. My focus will be its content, chiefly the spiritual content, the depth of insight into our human nature and our relationship with God. Of course, Sr. Miriam has been notably and deeply influenced by our Carmelite saints, especially St. Teresa, St. John of the Cross, and St. Thérèse. Nonetheless, at the end of her life, as we read in the introduction to the Selected Poetry, by Bishop Morneau, she wrote: “My poetry department hasn’t been tended to in years and is in disorder; I haven’t found time to straighten it out, nor the ambition right now. My only purpose in writing is that these are things I would like to say to everyone, especially those who are turning from God” (p. xxi). The intended audience is clear, not for Carmelites but for “everyone, especially those who are turning from God.” Be that as it may, you will find, in fact, all of Carmelite spirituality expressed in her poems.
Outside The Castle
Where shall we begin? Let’s begin where St. Teresa did. And then follow the journey of a soul to God as presented to us by Sr. Miriam. To provide a framework, I will link her thought with the thought of our saints in their outlines of the spiritual journey.
St. Teresa, we know well, began her Interior Castle with those outside the castle, all who don’t know what a precious treasure they bear within. She says of them: “They are now so used to dealing always with the insects and vermin that are in the wall surrounding the castle that they have become almost like them.” The condition of sinners in need of conversion is not apparent either to the sinners themselves or to other sinners. Of course, there are degrees in this, and we are all sinners in need of ongoing conversion. We can all be blind in one way or other to our faults. The point is that there are those who have decided to enter the Castle. They have taken the initial steps and are on their way. They have begun their spiritual journey.
Does Jessica Powers speak of those outside the Castle? If she does, what image does she use? I think she has a stirring little poem in which we find the answers to these two questions. The title of the poem is “Cabaret.” Today you might be inclined to think in terms of a disco, but Cabaret suits Sr. Miriam’s age and poetry better. And, incidentally, the date of publication shows that the poem was written long before a well known musical by that name. Anyway, in the poem she brings us into the world of the Cabaret:
I shall spend a penny … for song, wine that is red, wines that are purple and white; I shall find a place in the dazzling room of life, and sit on a chair and sip my wine all night.
We observe that the cabaret here is a place of escape. The escape consists in trying to get a feeling of life, to find a place in the “dazzling room of life.” All the other sights and sounds and tastes contribute to this false feeling of life: the song, the colors of the wine, and the sipping of the wine. The feeling of life increases when the dancers come “like red and gold leaves blown over a crystal floor.” There is a lot of laughter and flattery going on and kisses. They are all comforting for the time you sat in the cabaret. But there is something terrifying about all of this! We begin to see it in the last stanza when the time is over. No means we use for escape really lasts long. The end comes, and then what? Something so unpleasant that we at once have to look for some other escape.
The Keeper comes to say that my hour is done, and be drowns each glaring light in endless black … and the dancers go away … and I stumble out alone into the night.
That’s a powerful expression of the pitiful condition of someone who has not entered the castle where true, endless light and life are given to us. Outside the dazzling cabaret, which has its closing hour, we are alone and it is night.
Sr. Miriam expresses a similar thought in another poem called “Vision” Here the image is a dark city but the people don’t know they’re in the dark:
I came to a dark city where nobody knew that there was darkness, … People moved to the loveless embrace of folly. They ate her gourmet foods; they drank her wine, danced to her music that was crazed with rhythm, were themselves discord though they knew it not, or if they knew cared less (p. 2).
She leaves the city and wanders through a desert and finds a little sage bush “where a fire was burning.” “There was no darkness that could put it out. Again we have the false feeling of life and light that sin can give us preventing us from knowing or finding true life and light.
All Things Are Passing
The poet though catches on to this deception, sees the quickly passing vanity of all this escape and renounces it. We find this in the poem “No One Can Stay”:
Your invitation is with fraud extended … No one can stay in any golden moment, and no more will I let any trick of light betray me to a house that is nothing but a door (p. 98)
St. Teresa understood well the trick of the door behind which stood no house. When she was a little girl, she and her brother used to repeat over and over the words forever and ever and ever, so impressed were they with the thought that the glory of heaven would last forever. Teresa says: “The Lord was pleased to impress upon me in childhood the way of truth.” Throughout her writings, Teresa urges us to consider how quickly all things come to an end and that only the things that last forever should really stir us.
Christ The First Lover
In Carmelite spirituality it is Christ who takes the initiative. Our saints understood deeply the truth that Christ has loved us first. Those who live in the Cabaret will meet Christ begging them to come and enter into the true light. Sr. Miriam pictured this moving truth for us in her poem “The Master Beggar.”
Worse than the poorest mendicant alive, the pencil man, the blind man with his breath of music shaming all who do not give, are You to me, Jesus of Nazareth.
She saw in her vocation as a poet a sharing in the work of the Master Beggar:
I too would be a beggar. Long tormented, I dream to grant You all and stand apart with You on some bleak corner, tear frequented, and trouble mankind for its human heart.
The Journey Must Begin
The shaming music reminds us that shame is the experience of being exposed first and foremost to self; it is an experience of selfknowledge. If we then respond to the Master Beggar’s plea of love, the journey must begin and Sr. Miriam exhorts with these words:
Turn from the earth as stranger and begin … O Little One, believe that earth is alien. Let its concerns all unremembered lie. Say to the storm or sweetness passing by: My soul is out on paths that have no ending God speaks to me. Earth has no more to say (p. 84).
Both St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross found it necessary to temper the enthusiasm of beginners. Beginners, as you all know from experience, are apt to do foolish things because of the consolations of the new wine. The real motivation, without their realizing it, is their desire for the taste of fervent love. This kind of love prompts the beginner to service and good works and prayer; but also toward overdoing it, with unhappy consequences. Such fervor cannot remain because it is too superficial, or as John would say, the love is of the sense and not of the spirit. And when the fervor goes so may go the prayer and good works. Teresa advises beginners that they shouldn’t fear that their devotion will be taken away if they become a little distracted, that it is necessary to have some recreation.
In Sr. Miriam’s technique we often find that the poem builds in crescendo toward the final line. And in that line she socks it to us; she hits us between the eyes.
But there is a poem of Sr. Miriam’s that does not deliver this punch at the end; it raises us up and then leaves us there without resolution. It is about the beginner’s dreams and enthusiasm for magnificent heights, all of which flow from the heady effects of the new wine. The dreams go nowhere really; they just leave us there, up in the air. These verses come at the end of “This Paltry Love.”
This puny spark I scorn, I who had dreamed of fire that would race to land’s end, shouting your worth, of sun that would fall to earth with a mortal wound and rise and run, streaming with light like blood, splattering the sky soaking the ocean itself, and all the earth (p. 48).
Where To Begin
The question then is, how or where do we begin? St. Teresa was convinced that she and her nuns should begin by trying to live the life they had committed themselves to as faithfully as they could; not by new undertakings. As for the laity, Vatican Council II transposes the substance of this thought of Teresa’s for them, saying that lay people while meeting their human obligations in the ordinary conditions of life, should not separate their union with Christ from their ordinary life; that through the very performance of their tasks, which are God’s will for them, they should actually promote the growth of their union with him (Apostolate of Lay People, no. 4).
In “My Heart Ran Forth”, Sr. Miriam reflecting on this question (how must we begin?) discovers her response in what is “near-at-hand.” The enthusiastic beginner tends to run forth, singing and proclaiming and going far afield. Wisdom must come to the rescue:
But wisdom halted it, out far a field, asked: did you sow this seed around your house, or in the neighbor’s garden or any nearby acreage of need? No? Then it will not grow in outer places. Love has its proper soil, its native land; its first roots fasten on the near-at-hand.
In the seventh dwelling place of her Interior Castle, Teresa cautions “Sometimes the devil gives us great desires so that we will avoid setting ourselves to the task at hand.” Teresa, again, expresses the same truth with her often quoted and charming words: “Well, come now, my daughters, don’t be sad when obedience draws you to involvement in exterior matters. Know that if it is in the kitchen, the Lord walks among the pots and pans helping you both interiorly and exteriorly.”
Sr. Miriam uses the words “ubiquity” and “everywhere” to assert a similar discovery. What happens in the poem, “The Hidden Christ” is that she goes into the Christmas cave, and to her shock does not find Christ there.
Filled with my Father’s words, I cried “Where have You hid Yourself?” and all The living answered to my call. I found Him (and the world is wide) dear in His warm ubiquity. Where heart beat, there was Christ for me. I went back to the Christmas cave, glad with the gain of everywhere. And lo! the blessed Child was there (p. 80).
Who Is God?
Sr. Miriam, as we’ve seen, has Christ out on the street corners begging for our love. Although we start to respond to this love, set out on our journey, and seek to express our love through the near-at-hand, we remain human and never break free of the human tendency to commit countless foibles. St. Augustine once asked a heart-stirring question. “What do I love when I love my God?” Sr. Miriam answers the question although it can never really be answered adequately. Whereas Christ stood before the sinner begging for love, now in “Repairer of Fences” God walks behind the converted sinner picking up after him, or as she puts it repairing the fences.
I am alone in the dark, and I am thinking what darkness would be mine if I could see the ruin I wrought in everyplace I wandered and if I could not be aware of One who follows after me. Whom do I love, 0 God, when I love Thee? The great Undoer who has torn apart the walls I built against a human heart, the Mender who has sewn together the hedges through which I broke when I went seeking ill, the Love who follows and forgives me still. … I sing to the east; I sing to the west. God is my repairer offences, turning my paths into rest (p. 14).
There is another way in which Sr. Miriam answers Augustine’s question. Her answer reflects what every Carmelite comes to realize sooner or later: God is a desert. St. Thérèse of Lisieux came to understand this truth sooner. So soon that she was no more than 9 years old. In her Story of a Soul she tells of her feelings about Carmel at that age, after her sister Pauline had decided to enter the Lisieux Carmel:
“I shall always remember, dear Mother, with what tenderness you consoled me. Then you explained the life of Carmel to me and it seemed so beautiful! When thinking over all you had said, I felt that Carmel was the desert where God wanted me to go also to hide myself. I felt this with so much force that there wasn’t the least doubt in my heart; it was not the dream of a child led astray but the certitude of a divine call; I wanted to go to Carmel not for Pauline’s sake but for Jesus alone.”
Actually the word Carmel does not mean desert in it origins but garden. In “Not a Garden Anymore” Sr. Miriam has this to say:
God is not garden any more, to satiate the sense with this luxuriance of full exotic wilderness. Now multiple is magnified to less. God has become a desert now, a vast unknown Sahara voicing its desert cry. My soul has been arrested by the soundof a divine tremendous loneliness.
I write anathema on pool, on streams of racing water. I bid the shoot, the leaf, the bloom no longer to intrude. Beyond green growth I find this greater good, a motionless immensity of oneness. And Him I praise Who lured me to this edge of uncreation where His secrets brood, Who seared the earth that I might hear in silence this infinite outcry of His solitude (p. 18).
Prayer and Silence
“To hear in silence the infinite outcry of His solitude.” Isn’t this prayer? Prayer is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is a time for opening up and listening, it is a secret place. This is a beautiful time, this last age, the age of the Holy Spirit.
He is crying to every soul that is walled: Open to Me, My spouse. My sister. And once inside. He is calling again: Come to me here in this secret place (p. 27).
Or in another poem about the Paraclete and the soul as the Spirita Sancta along these same lines:
Nor do you know your dwelling for dark is your retreat, and who would guess that darkness could hold the Paraclete? … Measure your love by stillness. He waits; do you as well give to His infinite patience your finite parallel.
God Himself is a silence, seeking a soundless will. 0 Spirita Sancta, be very still.
When quiet has possessed you, and dark has fled with dim, you on a mount of morning will be aware of Him (p. 29).
These are the important elements of the life of prayer in Carmel: to be silent, to be still, to listen:
To live with the Spirit of God is to be a listener.It is to keep the vigil of mystery, earthless and still. One leans to catch the stirring of the Spirit, strange as the wind’s will.
The soul is all activity, all silence; and though it surges Godward to its goal, it holds, as moving earth holds sleeping noonday, the peace that is the listening of the soul (p. 38).
In saying that this silent stillness is all activity, Sr. Miriam had gotten a profound insight into what some theologians are now discussing in the wake of the thought of Hans Urs Von Balthasar that receptivity contrary to what was the common belief is actually a perfection of being. Thus a contemplative in the posture of receiving expresses act rather than potency. The philosopher W. Norris Clarke writes: “. . . the open, welcoming, grateful attitude involved in receptivity is at its best not simply a mere passive potency enabling one to receive, but is an active positive disposition. This is a part of the wonder and splendor of being, revealed in the unique gift of women in their ability to be actively open, welcoming, and grateful in the receptivity that is so deeply inscribed in their natural being” (Communio, Spring 1994, pp. 167-68).
Prayer as Place
When St. Teresa chose the image of a castle, with its many rooms or dwelling places, to present her teaching on prayer, she was viewing prayer in terms of place. “Let us consider that this castle has … many dwelling places: some up above, others down below, others to the sides; and in the center and middle is the main dwelling place where the very secret exchanges between God and the soul take place.”
At the end of this work, looking back over the material she had covered, Teresa suggests to her sisters that in view of their strict enclosure and their limited chances for entertainment, they should find their consolation in the inner life with its spiritual expanses, where they can walk whenever they choose.
It seems that Sr. Miriam at times found the strict enclosure a burden, and she had to come to grips with it.
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?
The poem continues by her telling about her discovery in which she came upon the clue and learned the secret to outwit enclosure. Instead of using, as Teresa did the image of a castle, she finds within herself Mount Carmel.
Its trails outrun the most adept explorer, outweigh the gypsy’s moat inordinate need. Its heights cry out to mystic and adorer Oh, here are space and distances indeed (p. 128).
In the “Trackless Solitude” she refers again to the large expanse she finds within herself and through which the Spirit leads:
Deep in the soul the acres lie of virgin lands, of sacred wood where waits the Spirit. Each soul bears this trackless solitude (p. 6).
The truth is that she encountered, as Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, heaven within her soul. There she had whatever relief she needed.
All day and when you wake at night think of that place of living light, yours and within you and aglow where only God and you can go. … But there are days when watching eyes could guess that you hold Paradise. Sometimes the shining overflows and everyone around you knows.
She misses walking in the woods and listening to the song of the hermit thrush, but then:
Yet past all loss, heaven leans down to argue: ah, in love’s denser wood and far more fair sings the more hidden soul its purer music. Enter, it says, oh, go and listen there.
The Need For Christ In Payer
She is authentically a daughter of St. Teresa in her contemplation of Christ in his sufferings, how his lovers must desire a life like his.
The lovers of Christ lift out their hands to the great gift of suffering. For how could they seek to be warmed and clothed and delicately fed, to wallow in praise and to drink deep draughts of an undeserved affection, have castle for home and a silken couch for bed, when He the worthy went forth, wounded and hated, and grudged of even a place to lay His head?
You all know it well! St. Teresa for a period in her life thought wrongly that to grow in union with God, you must give up the presence to Christ in prayer. In regretting her mistake she insists that the Lord is the way and the light: “If they lose the guide, who is the good Jesus, they will not hit upon the right road.” Sr. Miriam says:
Late, late the mind confessed: wisdom has not sufficed. I cannot take one step into the light without the Christ (p. 162).
In January 1993 the Carmelite nuns in Concord, New Hampshire, went through a frightful, desolating experience. While they were at Mass in the morning a fire got started in the monastery and advanced to a dangerous degree by the time Mass was over and it was noticed. The monastery had to be evacuated at once. None of the sisters was burned, but their beautiful monastery was a wreck. What was not destroyed by fire was ruined by the smoke that poured through all the corridors and into every room. They experienced collectively a dark night of the soul. When I heard about this, I could not help thinking of Sr. Miriam’s poem:
Nobody lives in this shining house but God, though shadowy figures tremble to and fro. Over these cool grey stones that suffering made only the pierced feet of the Master go. Afire went through this place and gutted it; over the ruins a jog of silence spread. Nobody comes here but the pale young Christ Who loves a shelter uninhabited (p. 24).
This is what all purification is about. A fire goes through and guts us so that Christ may find his home in us, a shelter uninhabited. Even more, as Sr. Miriam puts it, so that Christ may be our identity. In one of her poems she speaks of purification as death worked in us and leading us to new life, which is Christ; she addresses death:
Eat your cold way into my self-esteem till even the deep subtle root has died. Wrest from my mind the crowns of which I dream … Tear out impatience by the handfuls-so. Grab, if you can, my pride … Come death, my friend, my friend. I know the good your coming works in me. Shape me to Christ before my journey’s end;
Hack me and hew me till Christ comes to be my dear identity
With you as guest beside me all is gain You slay me, death, but then I rise to live and you yourself are slain (p. 105).
The work of purification uncovers faults and selfish tendencies never before noticed, which were obstructing a life of full union with God. In one poem Sr. Miriam uses the cowbird’s egg to tell about the revelation of a dark force within. In our Desert in West Virginia I had a bird feeder outside my hermitage window and I watched the many kinds of birds feeding there throughout the winter, but when spring came, a new force of birds arrived which I learned were cowbirds. The male is all black with a brown head and the female is grey. In the May, 1994 issue of Wonderful West Virginia, there was an article entitled “Nature’s Freeloader.” The reason for such a title is that cowbird females do not build their own nests but lay their eggs in the nests of other perching songbirds. These other birds do not seem to know the difference and incubate and raise the cowbird’s young. The cowbird’s incubation period is usually shorter than a host species and its larger, more aggressive and faster growing. It often starves members of the host’s brood by consuming their share of food. Learning this, helped me to understand the meaning of Sr. Miriam’s poem “Wanderer” in which the spiritual wanderer was in error and feeding something that was destructive within her:
Two nestlings vied for life in me. I fed the greedy one whose talent was to beg (no one had warned me of the cowbird’s egg) I let the little one grow thin and pale and put a blame on life that she was frail (p. 124)
Although the lives of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross come through to us as lives of great drama and spectacular experience of God, their teaching demands humility and love for one another. The humility arises out of the purifications. Sr. Miriam continues in this same poem:
How did I ever come then to the light? How did I ever, blind with self, discover the small strict pathway to this shining place, I who betrayed the truth over and over, and let a tangle of dark woods surround me? Simple the answer lies: down cliffs of pain, through swamps and desert, thicket and terrain, oh. Someone came and found me (p. 124).
EFFECTS OF PURIFICATION
Humility, the hidden life, and poverty of spirit, in addition to love for one another, are virtues characteristic of Carmel. In the midst of his discourse on extraordinary experiences, St. John of the Cross has some exceptional words about humility “…all heavenly visions, revelations, and feelings or whatever else one may desire to think on-are not worth as much as the least act of humility.”
St. John of the Cross also points out that where there is humility there is quiet and rest. Sr. Miriam, too, in her poem “Humility” sees humility as accompanied by stillness and union with God’s will.
Humility is to be still under the weathers of God’s will. … Humility is to have place deep in the secret of God’s face … It is to have a place to hide when all is hurricane outside (p. 92).
Another stirring little poem on humility is “This May Explain” in which Sr. Miriam describes the door to God as “very little, very ordinary.”
Those must remember who would gain the place This rule that does not vary: all truth, all love are by humiliation guarded, as One has testified before. This may explain why the serf finds salvation, and kings and scholars pass the little door (p. 95).
The Hidden Life
In humility the Carmelite embraces the hidden life, or at least always keeps alive a love for what is hidden. The thought of the hidden life is particularly attractive to the Carmelite nun who does have a special call to it. However, the world, also, is inhabited by people who largely live a hidden life, lost in the multitude. In heaven surely we shall come to know about most extraordinary saints who were completely hidden from our gaze, even after their deaths. Sr. Miriam sings of the hidden life in her poem “Obscurity.”
Obscurity becomes the final peace. The hidden then are the elect, the free. They leave our garish noon and find release in evening’s gift of anonymity.
Lost, not in loneness but in multitude, they serve unseen without the noise of name. Should you disdain them, ponder for your good: it was in this way that the angels came (p. 108).
The clue to the meaning of the last line, “it was in this way that the angels came” lies in the word multitude. At the birth of the Lord the shepherds saw a multitude of angels praising God.
An awakening that humility affords is an understanding that in fact we have nothing to give to God since every good we have belongs to him and has been given to us by him. Going though a humbling, purifying experience is like going through a war. Sr. Miriam paints it vividly for us in “Israel Again” where we behold the consequences experienced by Israel after a battle:
Here I am, Israel dragging home from battle with neither horse nor soldier at my side, Where are the troops with which I sallied forth and all the bright insignia of my pride? I did not call on the Lord God of Hosts but rushed forth in my strength to meet the foe.
Here I lag home, a spectacle of wounds, stripped of my armor, moaning as I go.
When will you learn, 0 witless Israel, that he who clings to God in his distress wins with the weapons of his nothingness? (p. 93)
St. Teresa was always very convinced that if we have any virtues they have been given by God and can be taken back by him. She writes in the Way of Perfection:
“Now since this is true, who will be able to say of them that they are virtuous or rich? For at the very moment when there is need of virtue one finds oneself poor. No, Sisters; but let us always think we are poor … if this poverty of spirit is not genuinely present at every step … the Lord will abandon us. And this abandonment by the Lord is one of His greatest favors, for He does it so that we might be humble and understand in truth that we have nothing we haven’t received.”
Poverty of Spirit
Being poor in this way, we have nothing of our own to give God and must live in abandonment to Him. St. John of the Cross in one of his Sayings also expresses this thought asserting that “The humble are those who hide in their own nothingness and know how to abandon themselves to God.”
St Thérèse in her classic “Act of Oblation to Merciful Love” poignantly summed up this profound insight of Carmel: “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before You with empty hands.”
In light of this spirituality of Carmel, with the results of purification in mind, we can understand a remarkable little poem of St. Miriam’s, which I will quote in full, so simple yet so deep and beautiful: “If You Have Nothing”
The gesture of a gift is adequate. If you have nothing: laurel leaf or bay, no flower, no seed, no apple gathered late, do not in desperation lay the beauty of your tears upon the clay. No gift is proper to a Deity; no fruit is worthy for such power to bless. If you have nothing, gather back your sigh, and with your hands held high, your heart held high,lift up your emptiness!” (p. 91).
The state of spiritual poverty, the result of humbling purification, accompanies Sr. Miriam in her waver. It is what enables her to live in total trust in the Lord’s mercy rather than in herself. In God’s mercy she found rest. Her poem “The Garments of God” sketch a moving picture of her experience of contemplative prayer:
God sits on a chair of darkness in my soul. He is God alone, supreme in His majesty. I sit at His feet. a child in the dark beside Him: … He is clothed in the robes of His mercy. Voluminous garments not velvet or silk and affable to the touch, but fabric strong for a frantic hand to clutch, and I hold to it fast with the fingers of my will. Here is my cry of faith, my deep avowal to the Divinity that I am dust. Here is the loud profession of my trust. I need not go abroad to the hills of speech or the hinterlands of music for a crier to walk in my soul where all is still. I have this potent prayer through good or ill: here in the dark I clutch the garments of God (p. 21)
The Blessed Virgin Mary
We wouldn’t be true to Carmel without a word about the Blessed Virgin Mary who accompanies us on our journey. There’s not time to mine the treasures in Sr. Miriam’s poems on our Lady, so I’ve just chosen one. It is entitled “The Cloud of Carmel.” In this poem she selects different symbols that “image the immaculate” to her, but not so much as the little white cloud rising from the sea that Elijah saw; this little cloud in the Carmelite tradition images Mary.
I who bear God in the mysteries of grace beseech her: Cloud, encompass God and me. Nothing defiled can touch the cloud of Mary. God as a child willed to be safe in her, and the Divine Indweller sets His throne deep in a cloud in me. His sanctuary. I pray, 0 wrap me. Cloud, . . . light Cloud of Carmel
Say to my soul, the timorous and small house of a Presence, that it cannot see and frightened acre of a Deity; say in the fullness of your clemency: I have enclosed you all. You are in whiteness of a lighted lamb wool; you are in softness of a summer wind lull.0 but of God, deepen your faith anew. Enfolded in this motherhood of mine, all that is beautiful and all divine is safe in you (p. 56).
The attribute of God in the experience of union that Sr. Miriam highlights is mercy. St. Teresa wrote her Life mainly to set it forth as a dark backdrop to the glorious contrasting light of God’s mercy. For her mercy pervades the divine attitude, reaching out toward every soul; infinite divine mercy, persistent and inexhaustible. Our other saint who wrote for us the story of her soul, also viewed hers as a story of God’s mercies. We remember the tender, one line paragraph of Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse of Lisieux:
“It is to you, dear Mother, to you who are doubly my Mother, that I come to confide the story of my soul. The day you asked me to do this, it seemed to me it would distract my heart by too much concentration on myself, but since then Jesus has made me feel that in obeying simply, I would be pleasing Him: besides I’m going to be doing only one thing: I shall begin to sing what I must sing eternally: “The Mercies of the Lord.”
Sr. Miriam similarly looked at union in her contemplative life as an abiding in the mercy of God, which she saw as a wilderness we can never exhaust. To understand her poem on this subject, it helps to remember the former practice in Carmel of virtue beads by which you keep count of your daily practice of virtue. She
wanted her poem The Mercy of God to appear as the leading one in her Selected Poetry, but in the first printing the editors made a mistake and placed another poem first. This was corrected in later printings. Let us bring our reflections to an end now by listening to the poem Sr. Miriam wanted us to begin with. It is like a little summary of all the verses we have been pondering. I will quote it in full:
The Mercy of God
I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archives the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear. Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near? Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly that I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend. that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end. I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion and defended with flurries of pride; I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy, and here I abide. There is greenness and calmness and coolness, a soft leafy covering from the judgment of sun overhead, and the hush of His peace, and the moss of His mercy to tread. I have naught but my will seeking God; even love burning in me is a fragment of infinite loving and never my own. And I fear God no more; I go forward to wander forever in a wilderness made of His infinite mercy alone (p. 1).
All page references are from The Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, ICS Publications, 1999.