James Matthew Wilson
The All Saints Vigil Mass, here at Saint Peter’s,
Has ringed its belled way to the consecration,
The pews swelled with the zealous newly baptized
Who kneel and pray. Much to my consternation,
I sit with Livia in the muted closet
That serves as parish cry-room till we raise
The funds for needed renovations. Livia
Practices walking, and I speak her praise
As she, with lurching step, moves chair by chair.
Upon the wall, a cross and holy icon
Of the apostle and a television
Whose grainy screen reveals the priest, his mic. on,
Voice scratchy through the static of blown speakers:
“The supper ended, he took the cup. Again
He gave you thanks and praise …” I see the chalice
Raised up, and through the wall the Great Amen
I hear: the hymning of the faithful stirring
The modern stone foundations.
Like a frame
About the screen, rise crooked shelves, some bowed
Beneath their weight of myriad books with flame,
Cross-sceptered orb, or fleur-de-lis imprinted
Upon the spines, along with names like Knox
And Sheen, Gheon and Maritain, de Sales,
Chautard, and several other building blocks
Of the Church in a stronger, different age.
Preserved but long unopened, they remind
Me of the dim, unpeopled shrines of Amherst,
South Bend, or Somerville, where I would find
Myself the solitary youth knelt by
The hunched and hushed retirees at prayer:
Those who remembered trains of priests behind
The monstrance raised with incense in the air.
They’d tasted of that rational confidence,
Devotion scripted to precision, walls
Of flame-lit marble worthy to receive
The flesh of Christ called down, and mute the calls
Of restless merchants or crude Protestants
To join the modern world. Who could foresee
That order would give way, its disciplines
And rites neglected with their mystery?
And twenty centuries of chiseled thought
Left foxed, forgotten on a cry-room shelf?
Our family heard both voices, I now think:
Our grandpas who, in their way, died to self,
The one through draining charity, the other,
Who planned to join the priesthood till he met
That blend of joy and bitterness upon
A dance floor and proposed. And don’t forget
The seminarian who came to dinner
To help you to discern. The thought soon faded.
It was the age of Ronald Reagan then,
And his bright rhetoric had you persuaded.
How very much longer I was haunted by
The priesthood’s old, mundane sublimity,
That self-forgetting, that ascent of mind,
That sacred call which seemed my destiny.
But no, I ran as if to Nineveh,
Making each move in fear of my desire,
Until, in spite of me, by grace alone,
I found myself with wife and child, the fire
Of anguish gone, and one of love new lit.
Much gain, but much is lost: the Feast parade,
Of generations who saw in the Church
Perfect Society, the true ark made
By Christ who poured out blood and water till
It floated up and overcame the world,
And whose apt symbol is a Virgin’s heart.
Now, all those marching banners have been furled.
Now, I see all the enigmatic faces
Turned to our priest, upon the cry-room screen.
Some have come, hoping to recover what’s
Not lost but shelved, while others may not mean
To, but, with their light touch of jazz and rock,
Their salesman’s smiles at the kiss of peace,
Sow not old seeds anew but graft strange roots
Less sacred if no less sincere.
This wandering, snatch up Livia, and head out
To join the overflowing communion line
Uncertain what these groans of birth and death
Import, but know they’re hers as well as mine.
I pray that she have eyes to see that here
Alone, despite the kitsch and clutter, here
Alone do body, home, and spirit last,
As the Incarnate Word redeems our fear.
Excerpted from “Verse Letter to John,” in
Some Permanent Things: Second, Revised and Expanded, Edition.