Catholic Distance University

The Blessed Mutter of the Muse

Bruce Guernsey

“I’m curious: how many others of you were brought up Catholic?” I asked, and to my surprise, ten of the fourteen students in my class at a small Methodist college in Virginia raised their hands.

We’d been discussing a poem submitted by one of them early in the semester, a poem that seemed to this lapsed Catholic to have come out of a similar religious background. There were no obvious references to the Pope or Holy Communion, but the writing had a certain kind of sensibility that struck a chord with me. The young poet had looked at the same scenes I had as a kid, at the Stations of the Cross, no doubt, at its scenes of Jesus’ suffering, his writhing face and muscles wrenched in ecstasy and pain. How could anyone forget those images, especially a child looking up at them in fear and wonder from a hard wooden pew down below? And of equal enduring power were the smells—the indelible, sensual smells of candle-flame, of “Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!” as Robert Browning’s dying Bishop utters in his dramatic monologue, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church.”

This deeply imbedded Catholic sensibility arose spectre-like again and again in the four years I worked with young poets at that very Methodist college, Virginia Wesleyan. It was repeated in the many years after at a variety of schools ranging from large, secular public universities to private colleges like VWC. More recently, as the editor of The Spoon River Poetry Review, in the thousands of poems that I read in my four-year stint, I could hear Browning’s “blessed mutter of the mass” far more often than I thought I might, given contemporary taste.

Sometimes the allusions were obvious, as in these opening lines from “The Calling” by Denise Preston: “Those hands, they make me shy / cupping the chalice, aloft / in the stained-glass air. / Does he know their beauty, or were they his crosses— / too calm for stickball, marbles, war?” Or the lines might be more subtle like this section from Deirdre Hare Jacobson’s “Other Woods”: “I breathe in leaf rot and snowmelt, / savor it as I will the air liquored / with hyacinth, the lilac and peony; / the rose, blooded or pale, / scented with citrus or redolent of wine.” And this troubling, provocative conclusion of “Root and Peril” by Gina Pulciani: “Drought-weary, I’ll scrape from my skin / a raw beige for her bone, and I’ll bleed her; / you will meet with our marrow right here / on this plain, lengthen in shame along the earth’s / mad girth, our common root and peril.”

Whether these three poets, or the hundred or more others I published in Spoon River grew up Catholic, I have no idea, but given the images, sound patterns, and sense of mystery so many of them share, I’ll bet they did. Could it be then that the muse isn’t Greek after all? That Mt. Parnassus is really St. Peter’s?

My earliest memories have to do with the rituals of a Sunday morning, the first of which was getting dressed up to go to Church: shoes shined and slacks or dresses ironed, all laid out the night before so we six kids could be ready for the 8 o’clock Mass, a “low” Mass compared to the baroque but lengthy “high” one of 9:30 with its organ music, incense, and the priest’s procession down the nave in his golden robe.

Low Mass was shorter and simpler but still replete with mystery. Where else could an ordinary American kid go and hear a foreign language spoken at least once a week, and a dead language at that? Years later in college I chose to spend my junior year in Italy which made no sense because I had studied French since seventh grade. I realize now, however, that Latin was really what I grew up hearing—no, inhaling—acted out and chanted as I kneeled in prayer those Sunday mornings and every Holy Day.

But Sundays really began on Saturdays, in the haze of late afternoon. At seven years old, the age of reason according to the Church, I would be called in from playing catch with my Protestant friends on the block to go to Confession. From being actually outside, I not only came into the house but had to turn inward as well, to search my soul for my transgressions which weren’t that many, at that age anyway. Mostly I made stuff up—saying I’d stolen a water pistol perhaps, or had used a bad word—but I was careful to mention “lying” at the end of my list, figuring that was going to clear my record and make me pure enough for Communion the next morning.

I got quite creative with my sins as I got a little older and started growing hair in odd places. By ten or so, I had myself making out with Patricia Biggins who was the most popular girl in our class, but who, of course, had no interest in me. She was also a foot taller, but that didn’t stop me from putting my imaginary lips to hers, though I would have needed a box to stand on to do it. By ending with lying as the last of my sins, I could get away with anything, the way I can with the poems I write.

With their content, at least. I can be most anybody in a poem, the way Robert Browning became a dying Bishop or the murderous Duke of Ferrara in “My Last Duchess.” But the patterning and shaping, the writing in syllables, in sounds—these I can’t get away from. The rise and fall of the priest’s chanting, the repetitions of prayer, the standing, the kneeling, the sitting down: going to Church was a physical experience, visceral and enduring.

It was also scary. I feigned a kind of smart-aleck way of going to Confession because it scared the crap out of me. Waiting there in the pew for others ahead of me, I could feel my pulse in my throat, pounding away. What’s taking her so long, my grandmother, a pious old Catholic woman who’d take me with her those Saturdays once in a while. She’d be in there forever, it seemed, though I couldn’t imagine what she was confessing. What had she done that week anyway except finish all the ice cream, scoop after scoop of it? I’d close my eyes and try to pray but saw her spooning away instead, creamy with joy, indulgently fat, asking God for forgiveness.

Then it would be my turn and all sugar-plums vanished as I’d draw back the velvety curtain and, trembling, kneel in the purple light of my side of the confessional, alone now but for the faint, whispering voice of someone else on the other side, a grown-up, no doubt, unburdening genuine grown-up sins. How eternal it was, that wait for the sliding sound of the little window opening and the shadowy profile of the priest muttering in mysterious syllables, then suddenly silent.

“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” and so I began to recite the words I’d memorized in Sunday school, words tap-tap-tapped into me by the nuns, those angels on broom-sticks . . . “My last confession was a week ago,” its perfect iambic pentameter a subtle mnemonic device, like a line from Shakespeare, the rise and fall of the beating heart, mine then in my spondaic throat.

For penance, if I hadn’t been practicing hyperbole with my lies, I was usually given a light sentence—a couple of “Our Fathers” and a “Hail Mary” which, after decades without saying them, I can still recite without pause. Fear and trembling were part of my motivation for memorizing, no doubt, but the syllables were crafted so you almost couldn’t forget: “Our father who art in heaven / Hallowed be thy name. / Thy kingdom come / Thy will be done / On earth as it is in heaven.” With all that repetition, rhyme (both exact and slant), plus a basic iambic pattern, the words of my penance were a lot easier to memorize than any poem in today’s New Yorker (which I defy anyone to do). Plus, the prayers came with pictures like those of the “Stations of the Cross.” Little did I know it at the time, but I was learning to see in symbols, ones that would never leave me.

In The Art of Memory, Frances Yates explains how classical orators could deliver speeches hours long without any notes. They trained their minds to map ideas or facts onto virtual loci they created as mnemonic devices. The artificial place—such as a room in a house and the hall leading to it—became identified with the concept to be remembered. The more “active” the scene, the more memorable it was. Thus, blood stains, purple cloaks, and crowns helped the orator remember “by arousing emotional effects,” as Yates put it.

When I first discovered this book in graduate school, I was flabbergasted. So the Church fathers knew very well what they were doing when they created the “Stations” with specific locations along the north and south walls leading to the altar in the east. And as for blood stains and other emotional magnets, each of the loci was a sensual plethora of spirit and flesh.

And as for purple, I not only saw it in the “Stations” and trembled in its failing light in the Confessional, I lived it at Lent, that forty day period of Christ’s suffering when even my grandmother tried to give up “her cream,” as she liked to call it. She went to confession a lot, it seemed, during those days of sacrifice, a spooky time because all the statues were cloaked in twilight—even my favorite, St. Francis, who looked like my pious and gentle grandfather, though Grampy was the guy who smuggled in dear Nana’s frozen goodies.

But on Easter morning, the place was ablaze with color, the altar festooned in flowers, yellow, yellow, and the priest’s robe adazzle of gold—dark to light, mourning to joy: symbols so simple and profound. My earliest memories are of these purposeful moments that transcended language, whether living or dead.

And then to Holy Communion!—me with my slicked-down, schoolboy hair, all dressed up and sinless, going down the aisle through the wafting smoke of the candles to kneel at the altar: “Dominus vobiscum . . . cum spiritu tuo,” the priest coming near, cupping the chalice, the bread now body, the wine its blood, that wafer on my tongue a holy metaphor, the Son of God Himself.

Who wouldn’t write poems after all that?

In his essay, “Milktongue, Goatfoot, Twinbird,” Donald Hall reminds us of the primitive origins of poetry: the new-born’s babbling and kicking, and those two tiny hands in flight. Anyone who has raised a child or has been around an infant knows this world of the crib, an instinctual world where the primal elements of lyric poetry are rediscovered by each of us. “Milktongue”: the play with sounds and succulent pleasure in the mouth, the source of vowels and consonants; “Goatfoot”: the muscularity of fitful legs always in motion, the genesis of rhythm; “Twinbird,” the two lonely hands seeking each other, our bisymmetry the origin of pattern, of rhyme, of love.

Lying on his death-bed in St. Praxed’s Church, Browning’s old Bishop would seem a long way from the crib, but not so. Describing the marble he wants for his tomb, the tongue in his mouth is still lush with pleasure: “Peach-blossom marble all, the rare, the ripe / As fresh poured red wine of a mighty pulse.” His muscular energy, his “kicking” like Hall’s “Goatfoot,” is transformed by age to a rant at his “sons”: “There, leave me! / For ye have stabbed me with ingratitude / To death—ye wish it—God, ye wish it! Stone / —Gritstone, a crumble!” And all the while, hypocrite though he is, the dying Bishop longs to retrieve the part of him that’s missing, that “twinbird” hand of the infant, that longed-for “other”: “Nephews—sons mine . . . ah God, I know not! / Well—She, men, would have to be your mother once, /Old Gandolf envied me, so fair she was!”

No wonder Christmas and Easter are Catholicism’s greatest celebrations: from the sky-blue of the Madonna’s robe and sun-gold of her halo, to the blood-stained garments of Jesus and the purple shrouds on the saints at Lent, to the burst of silver and sunlight forty day later, Easter Sunday. Buried below the troubled institution of the Church lie archetypes as deeply human as those of the crib.

Although I haven’t been to Mass regularly in years, my senses remain tuned to its sounds and symbols when I read a poem or when I try to write one. The altar was bare back in the chapel of that Methodist college years ago, and its plaster statues prosaic, without a trace of anguish or joy, or as I came to realize, of both. Both at once, that is—the anguish, the joy, like the spirit and the flesh, inseparable—that profound truth made memorable by the colors that surrounded me as a boy in that huge pew, by those stupefying smells and that rhythmic chanting that haunt me still, and will forever, amen.

Comments

  1. Come back. We’ll wait for you.

    • Ryan Ellis says:

      Agreed. Come back. You get it more than most who never left. This was beautiful.

    • After reading this I doubt he will come back. Either he does not see a need, because he has it all figured out, or he fears coming back. In both cases it would be asking too much of him to humble himself.

      Of course one can always hope; one may be inspired…

  2. Ah, the Catholic imagination. I came into the Church after a lifetime in austere Mennonite surroundings, void of physical references in worship, and cold in emotions. The life of the Church is rich beyond measure, the source of beauty, because of course, Jesus, who is beauty itself, is there.

  3. Ah…to love her as you do, I hope too, one day you will return. That you have not forgotten is a gift and a blessing. Your story was wonderful indeed and I will remember it when at Mass. I will remember you as well.

  4. “…that wafer on my tongue a holy metaphor, the Son of God Himself.”

    Lapsed or no, Mr. Guernsey ought really to know better or at least to be more careful in his writing. Does that little comma signify the ellipsis of a preposition (a metaphor *for* the Son of God), or does it place the phrase in apposition (the wafer, the Son of God)? The ambiguity (in an Empsonian sense) hedges a bit too much. The host is not “a holy metaphor”; it *is* the Son of God. As Flannery said, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”

    Not to be pedantic, but this is a Catholic magazine. One expects a bit more clarity regarding sacramental theology, even from non-practicing types. (Though I suspect, and this article evidences, there is no such thing as a truly “lapsed” Catholic. The image of grace that Father Brown employs–and Waugh cites–seems apposite: “Yes, I caught him, with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world, and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.”) Otherwise, a beautiful piece.

    • pe·dan·tic [ pə dántik ]
      too concerned with formal rules and details: too concerned with what are thought to be correct rules and details, e.g. in language
      Synonyms: finicky, plodding, obscure, arcane, dull, doctrinaire, sophistic, hairsplitting, nitpicking, fussy

      • I’d like to thank all of you, even the more “pedantic” voice, for your kind words about my essay. For those of you who wish me to “come back,” I hope my essay makes it clear that I have really never left.

        Peace and grace.–BG

        • Ray Dombkiewicz says:

          Exactly what is it that you never left? If you say the Roman Catholic Church you certainly did leave it, if all you have to say about it is that it is a fond memory and that’s all there is.

          Be truthful, what are your spiritual beliefs really? A New Ager. UU, or a flower child of the sixties? A liberal Protestant? Do you believe in sin? Do you believe in the last four things? Do you believe in sacrificing the lives of the unborn so that women may self-actualize? Did you ever read the New Testament as an adult and ponder its meanings with the mind of an adult? Did you ever read the Catechism of the RCC as an adult and consider how the Church has applied the Words of Christ?

          Do you think Jesus Christ can be half-pregnant?

          • Huh? Did you read my essay? Catholicism is part of my DNA, and the poems I write and some people actually read are a deep reflection of my spirit. I find your questions presumptuous and hateful.

          • Ray Dombkiewicz says:

            You say “not attending Mass regularly” in writing really means you are not partaking in the Sacraments regularly, and that your lack of participation is done with full knowledge. That is not presumptuous at all. It’s rather logical on my part.

            If its part of your DNA then answer the questions I raised in my last post. You do understand that not attending Mass without proper reason is a mortal sin? That if you continue to do it “your way” you will be judged for it on the last day?

            After you answer those questions then answer these questions: Besides not attending Mass regularly, how often do you go to Confession? Do you go to Mass on Holy Days? Do you participate in any of the corporal works of mercy as defined by the Church? Do you follow the Church’s Lenten practices, now that we are in that season? Should I go on?

            You begged off answering my questions because I hurt your feelings. Too bad that the truth hurts and that you think someone challenging you on your authenticity is hateful. To the contrary, I think I was practicing the spiritual works of mercy with you for this reason: its not enough to feel good about the Church you once belonged; if you say you are Catholic, then DO being Catholic and do not pretend. There is nothing “iffy-touchy” about being Catholic if you truly understand it. You’ve got to walk the walk.

          • Ray, of course you are right. But you are not being charitable. At all. You say you are practicing the spiritual works of mercy. But instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners is only possible if the “teacher” is respectful and respected. Please. We don’t even know this guy. Allow him the time and graces we have all been given in such abundance through Our Merciful Lord, through His gracious mother, and through our fabulously rich faith.
            Poetry, metaphor, and nostalgia also have their place. Allow him this in his comment, “I have never really left.”
            You said earlier, “….one can always hope. One may be inspired.” I myself would not feel inspired, instructed, or admonished by comments such as those you have made. Perhaps you are right that this is because we are not humble enough. We are human. We are sinners. As are you.

  5. Ray Dombkiewicz says:

    Rose,

    By the very fact of his writing it is is clear that he is very intelligent and that he knows exactly what he is doing. He is fully aware and fully conscious of his decision-making. As such, I do not assume willful ignorance or apathy. Rather, I assume that he knows what the Church asks of its members. Of course, he is free to accept or reject what the Church teaches.

    However, he cannot claim to be Catholic if he does not practice being Catholic, that is, if he rejects what the Church teaches, especially if it effects his soul. That is my main point-at least be honest with what we should think about his beliefs. It is not uncharitable if the goal is to force him to take a mirror to his version of Catholicism and make him see what it really is. It is not enough to love the aura, one must love the essence. It is charitable if he sees error in his thinking and is pointed in a new direction…

    He’d be more honest in my eyes if he said he was a lapsed Catholic , a liberal Catholic, or a struggling Catholic, and went on to explain some of the difficulty he has with Church teaching and practice. it is not uncommon for people to both love and hate the Church at he same time. It is very difficult to be Catholic. That’s why I asked all those questions.

    I do not consider myself a lapsed or liberal Catholic, but a struggling one, just like most people. But my struggles (meaning sin) have not stopped me from trying to do better, and doing what the Church asks, like partaking in the Sacraments. The Mass (and Communion) is the most important thing that we, as lay persons, can do in order to express and affirm our beliefs. To ignore its centrality in Catholic practice is to misunderstand Christ’s Sacrifice and the gift of Grace–which is the greatest gift that Our Lord has given us, other than his Sacrifice. How can a person say they are Catholic in their DNA if they do not attend Mass? If a person does not attend Mass is it logical to think that they partake in the other Sacraments?

    BTW, you may think I am too direct to your liking. It is the way I am with persons whom I think are intelligent and knowledgeable but say and do things which are contrary to my perception of them. Call it impatience, call it one of my struggles. In other words, the writer should have taken my opinions of him as a compliment!

    Also, I never would have been as direct in these discussion if it was geared towards non-Catholics. In fact, If a “non-Catholic” had written the article, I would have been encouraged.

    • JANUARY THAW

      This is the time of forgiveness,
      when your father
      would bend down to you
      just before sleep,
      the breath of his kiss
      the warmth of this breeze
      as you walk the slope
      behind the house,
      the land you’d forgotten
      under the drifts:
      how the stones,
      steaming with light,
      steady the earth
      in the melting snow.

      –Bruce Guernsey

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