Poetry and Humility: Lessons in Good Discourse

Poetry and Humility: Lessons in Good Discourse

Feeding of the Multitude, detail from the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, via Wikimedia Commons

Poetry and Humility

Last weekend I was invited to speak at a small online conference for Catholic writers. The aim of the Good Discourse conference, as the name suggests, is to promote better discourse, to help writers to interact in the public square with more grace and charity, to talk about contentious issues more charitably, to eschew fire and brimstone polemics.

Good discourse has been a passion of mine for quite some time, as my longtime readers here will know. However, when I looked at the slate of topics initially I didn’t find myself drawn to any of them. I really wanted to participate but I wasn’t sure where or how I could fit. But as I started to sketch out a few ideas I found myself drawn to the topic of humility. 

And then I started discussing Seamus Heaney’s poem Digging with a friend. It’s long been one of my favorites. And as we talked, I realized 1. it’s a poem about writing, 2. it’s a poem about eschewing the pen as a weapon, and 3. it’s kind of a poem about humility. I became obsessed with that idea and so this talk was born: three poems about humility. 

The first draft wrote itself in one evening. But as I labored over revisions I was plagued alternately by imposter syndrome and by the fear that a talk about poetry would seem irrelevant to the conference attendees. But I really felt called to this particular set of poems and this format. I even had a three am session where I rewrote the entire talk in one sitting, not changing the basic format but fleshing it out and discovering more connections. As the weeks passed before the conference I saw more and more things and then during one of the first talks of the conference itself a new paragraph presented itself. Which I suppose all adds up to the same thing: this talk was meant to be. I enjoyed giving it so very much and I think my audience very much enjoyed hearing it. This was meant to be an oral presentation and while I’ve cleaned it up a bit for the blog, I rather wish it was available in video form– but that is perhaps a labor for another day.

The Way of Beauty and the Healing Power of Poetry

So I’m not a professional writer. I am a wife and mother of five, in my former life, before kids, I was a literature and composition teacher. Now I’m a homeschooler and keeper of the house and children. I’ve been a blogger for sixteen years now. For the past year I’ve been a podcaster— thanks to my husband— we talk about parenting, cooking, what we are reading and watching, and a little bit about faith. I’d say that ninety percent of my writing these days is on Facebook, where my humble online apostolate is mostly about praying for people in need, listening and giving consolation and advice to other mothers in the trenches, and sharing poetry, art, literature, music and other forms of beauty with my social network. ButI still keep my blog as my place to share with the wider world and to hash out longer-form pieces and to share some of my original poetry.  I also like to write literary criticism when I have spare time, digging for truth and wisdom in my favorite books and sharing my insights with others. Basically, I try my best to evangelize my corner of the digital continent mostly via the way of beauty and art. I try to stay out of fights these days and witness in other, indirect ways. 

Beauty is a universal human language. And it’s the language of love. If you fall in love with someone, you want to give them flowers, you take them to beautiful places, you play them music, you read them poetry (maybe you even write them a poem). Love, courtship, they are bound up in this experience of Beauty. And maybe that’s part of what our modern, polarized world has lost sight of. The simple experience of beholding together that which speaks to our hearts, not our heads, to bypass the mind and the arguments, to speak in the language of the soul.

So today that’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to approach the topic of humility a little indirectly, through poetry. 

I believe that poetry can be therapeutic, healing, restoring wholeness and harmony and creating a common culture. Poetry works on our souls in that deep way that art does.  Poetry can touch and heal our wounded selves. I believe that when a culture is in crisis, it is often the poets who can see the crisis most clearly and who can help us to steer a course away from polemic and vitriol and into unity. Poetry can pull us out of our usual ways of thinking and acting and help us to see the world anew, with new possibilities. Ideally, poetry can also help show us ourselves and who we are in relation to God, the world, and other people. 

A poet makes an argument, but he/she doesn’t argue. Rather the poem itself, its beauty, its order, hold up a mirror to the world and argue that the world is knowable, that the world is orderly, that the world is beautiful.  The poet falls in love with the world and holds up that love and says, Look! Look! Isn’t this worth loving? Isn’t this worth knowing? The poet holds up a mirror to suffering and says: I see you, I suffer with you. I cry with you! And the poet makes of suffering something that is heartbreakingly beautiful. The poet creates a miniature world and invites us in. The poet addresses readers as people, not as enemies, but as a lover does, inviting them to share in a vision of something good. 

Therefore today I propose to look at three poems that speak to me about this virtue of humility and I hope that entering into these three little worlds that their words might shed some light on the virtue of humility and our present concerns about good discourse.

Digging by Seamus Heaney

The root of the word humility is humus, dirt, and so I’m going to begin by getting my hands dirty, so to speak. Getting down in the metaphorical dirt with Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” 

Seamus Heaney was a Catholic poet. He born in 1939, the son of a farmer, from Northern Ireland, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1995 “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.” He died in 2013.

This poem, “Digging,” was published in Heaney’s first volume of poetry, Death of a Naturalist, and it became a sort of manifesto of his calling as a writer. The poem begins and ends with the image of a pen — the emblem for every writer even if we mostly write these days by pounding keys— and in the middle of the poem, well, we have the spade.

 It’s a poem about vocation and what it means to be a writer and Heaney read it often, and he returns to its themes and images again and again over the course of his lifetime’s work.  

Also, the poem is representative of Heaney’s characteristic humility. When I was in graduate school, studying Irish literature, I attended a poetry reading at which Heaney told a self-deprecating story about a student stopping him while he walked across Harvard Yard— he assumed at first that she wanted his autograph— he was after all a Nobel Prize winning poet— but what she really wanted was directions, which he gave her. Heaney was always willing to knock himself down a peg or two. And I think this poem “Digging” does that as well, in a way.

 Between my finger and my thumb   
 The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

 Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
 When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
 My father, digging. I look down

 Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
 Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
 Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
 Where he was digging.

 The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
 Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
 He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
 To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
 Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

 By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
 Just like his old man.

 My grandfather cut more turf in a day
 Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
 Once I carried him milk in a bottle
 Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
 To drink it, then fell to right away
 Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
 Over his shoulder, going down and down
 For the good turf. Digging.

 The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
 Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
 Through living roots awaken in my head.
 But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

 Between my finger and my thumb
 The squat pen rests.
 I’ll dig with it.

It’s a lovely homely poem, isn’t it?  with lovely earthy images: the dirt and the potatoes and the milk bottle corked sloppily with paper and his father’s straining rump among the flowerbeds. I love the squelch and slap of soggy peat. Heaney really gives us a lot of dirt to contemplate here.

But Heaney opens his poem with the image of the pen resting between his fingers, “snug as a gun”. It’s a homely metaphor as well, and something of a cliche, and easy to overlook as the poem moves on rather quickly to picture the scene of the young poet sitting at his desk and then to hearing his father digging in the gravel in the garden underneath his window — and the sight and sound of that which then takes him back to his childhood and watching his father digging potatoes and helping to gather them. But I will want to come back to that image of the gun, so let’s stick a pin in it. 

By the end of the poem Heaney compares his pen to his father’s shovel. So we’ll start with that. There’s a lovely physical description of the act of digging:

“The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft  
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
 To scatter new potatoes that we picked,”

And then the poem goes digging further back into memory and family history, to his grandfather’s shovel. “By God the old man could handle a spade, just like his old man.”  And Heaney’s reminiscence of bringing milk to his grandfather and watching as he digs “going down and down for the good turf.” 

He clearly admires  both his father and grandfather and respects and perhaps even envies their work ethic and their skill. Perhaps he even feels a little inferior, a little abashed. “But I’ve no spade to follow men like them,“  he says. They were hard working men and maybe he feels a little soft. He’s got a cushy desk job. Is this writing poetry gig really a fitting job for a man? Being a poet, a university man, sets him apart from his family and neighbors. Maybe he worries they will think he’s gotten above himself, thinks he’s better than he is? 

But yes, Heaney concludes after some digging, this is what I’m called to do: the sounds of the spade awaken something in him: the need to put words to the sounds and to the images, the need to write. This is his vocation, as that was theirs. His father’s tool was the spade, but Heaney has been given the talent for writing and he will not bury that talent in the ground. His job, like his father’s will be excavation, digging, his final line tells us. But what kind of digging will he do with his pen? Is that just an easy parallelism or is there more to this metaphor of digging? 

Let’s go back for just a moment to that gun in the first stanza: “between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” For many of us the idea of pen as a weapon is familiar. And Heaney was no stranger to guns and violence. When he wrote Digging the first rumbles of the Troubles had already begun in Northern Ireland, deep-seated suspicion and hatred between Catholics and Protestants erupting to new violence. One of the great challenges in Heaney’s early poetry is this question of the role of the writer, of the poet, and the role of poetry in time of violence and upheaval. This is the late 60s and at the same time as the Civil Rights movement was causing upheaval in the United States many Catholics in Ireland were seeing a deep parallel between their own struggles for civil rights and those of African Americans. 

In another of hie early poems ‘Whatever You Say You Say Nothing’ he notes, his name, Seamus, a Catholic name, speaks for him before he opens his mouth: he is Catholic, a papist. (This is not entirely unlike how skin color African Americans into the oppressed class.) On one hand, then, Heaney can not escape that identity which automatically puts him on a side. But on the other hand, in his poetry he firmly eschews the political, carefully avoids the rhetoric of taking sides. At times he becomes something of a conscientious objector in his poetry, at one point, in his sequence Sweeny Astray, taking as his model the mad Irish king Sweeney who is driven crazy by the the violence of battle and flees from it into the woods, and lives there in the forest for some time under the delusion that he is a bird, singing in the trees. That’s one of Heaney’s possible images for the poet: singing in the trees because violence and bloodshed have put him on the edge of madness.

But I don’t want to oversimplify my account. Heaney doesn’t just flee from violence and partisanship. He does more than that: he tells stories about the particular, about himself, his childhood, and about the people and places that make him who he is, and in doing so about the people and places that make Ireland what it is. His poetry digs into the personal and the local, he tells stories in which protestants are not enemies but friends and neighbors, he captures the local dialect which they share, he writes about the wounds, not only those of his fellow Catholics but of the neighbor Protestants. He doesn’t ignore the Troubles but he shuns rhetoric, instead he bears witness to the wounds.

The bog where he sees his grandfather digging for peat to heat houses also bears witness to those wounds. In his collection North the bog becomes a locus of a different kind of poetry as he writes about archaeological excavations in bogs. It is not uncommon in Ireland for turf cutters to uncover pots of butter perfectly preserved by the acidic and anaerobic environment of the bog. Heaney’s poems also act as a kind of preservative and excavation. But diggers have also found well-preserved human bodies in the bogs. In Heaney’s poetry the excavation of the bog becomes an occasion to ponder history, and the sacrificial victims found in the bogs become a symbol of tribal warfare, and of violence and scapegoating. For Heaney these bog bodies become emblems not only of the past but of the present Troubles, symbols of the tribal, symbols of political violence pulling his country apart. Heaney’s self-appointed task as a poet is to dig into that past and show the reader an image of the modern day troubles — not by engaging in arguments, but coming at the question at a slant. But by looking to the past Heaney avoids partisanship and instead presents an image, a story, that can speak powerfully to people on both sides. 

In a 1999 interview, later in his career, Heaney envisions poetry, narrative, storytelling as a path to peace. He speaks about the need for “a common story” being achieved. That is, reconciliation happens when both sides work together to tell a single story that acknowledges their mutual past and all its wounds and all the faults on both sides, when each sees and owns the wounds it has inflicted on the other. A common story isn’t a one-sided, nursing of grudges, muttering over past wrongs. Rather, it is one where each person feels fully seen and fully heard by the other, seen by the enemy. And a common story also imagines a future together, where people on both sides can live side by side not by giving up their differences but learning to live together in peace accepting those differences. A common story requires courageous witness, clear sight, and willingness to truly see and listen to the other.

So in Digging I think we see Heaney rejecting the pen as a gun metaphor and deliberately replacing it with the metaphor of pen as spade. He turns from polemics to poetry and in poetry he attempts to lay the foundations for the hard work of reconciliation. To me this is also a model of the kind of humility I seek to emulate as a writer: the way of the peacemaker who shuns the fierce battles and instead seeks to uncover deeper truths. 

You can’t get much more humble than digging potatoes or digging peat. Sinking your hands literally into the dirt and muck and coming up with food or fuel. But writing often feels a little less connected to the dirt and to humility. So Heaney’s poem bridges that gap.

As a writer, what is my vocation? Is my pen a weapon? Do I rattle off salvos, broadsides to sink all comers, ruthlessly turning my words and my wit against my enemies? Or is my pen a different kind of tool? And, if I reject the path of polemic, what is the alternative? Heaney points the way: “I’ll dig with it.” Writing as excavation.

The Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, is full of homely agricultural metaphors, of people who are close to the soil. Jesus calls us to follow him “for I am meek and humble of heart.” Am I also called to be a digger-poet? Are you? When you find yourself in the midst of conflict, what might it mean for you for the pen to be a spade instead of a gun? How might you use it to dig instead of to fight? 

The digger uncovers potatoes, food that sustains life, humble but nourishing. The  digger excavates turf, used to heat homes, cook food, to push back the cold, to nurture life. The digger finds the roots of things. The digger looks for hidden treasure like the man in the parable who sells all he has to buy a field because he knows the good stuff is hidden there. The digger looks beyond the surface of things, the digger hunts for origins, the digger seeks for connections. 

The pen can connect the poet to the potato farmer and to the peat digger, looking for similarities instead of differences, looking for  kinship and unity instead of division. Heaney manages to find a family likeness precisely where it seems he is most unlike his father and grandfather, precisely in that difference. By pondering the difference in their tools, he finds kinship and roots. We too must look for kinship and connection in the most unlikely places; digging for hidden meanings, for points of connection where it seems we are most divided from each other. The digger finds the common history, the story that makes enemies into one people, one human family. Instead of making his words into weapons to destroy, to cast into darkness, and to pull people asunder, the digger uses words to nurture, illuminate, encourage, sustain, connect, and create.

A talent for poetry, for metaphor and image can help, though it isn’t strictly necessary. What else is poetry but finding surprising connections between unlike things? And every good writer has at least a touch of the poet. 

I’m Nobody by Emily Dickinson

And now I want to move from digging to singing. There’s a bog in my second poem too but it serves a very different purpose. ‘Digging’ is a poem I first met and loved when I was in college but if I dig a little deeper into my past I find a poem that I loved when I was much younger. It’s ‘I’m Nobody’ by Emily Dickinson, the famous reclusive poet of Amherst, Massachusetts, which is now my adopted state. I  think I memorized ‘I’m Nobody’ when I was in elementary school — maybe you did too? — and it has haunted me  all my life. This is how it goes: 

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too? 
Then there's a pair of us! 
Don't tell! they'd banish us – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog – 
To tell one's name – the livelong day – 
To an admiring Bog!

This poem speaks first of all to Emily Dickinson’s preference for privacy over fame. She was famously something of a recluse towards the end of her life who seldom left her Amherst home. When visitors came to call, she would often run and hide in her room. 

Few of her poems were published during her lifetime, they were mostly found after she died, scrawled on the backs of envelopes and on scraps of paper, stuffed into her desk. And yet, despite her anonymity while she was alive, she is and has been one of America’s most beloved poets. Recently my seven year old was delightedly copying memorizing and reciting ‘Hope Is the Thing with Feathers’ for school and it’s really lovely to see how she delights in the words and images.

When I was a child and memorized ‘I’m Nobody,’ I didn’t really understand it but I liked the playful quality, the conspiratorial tone. It made me feel like Emily and I were friends, children hiding together under the table or in the bushes. it reminded me a lot of the story of Odysseus who tricked the Cyclops by telling him his name was “No Man”. But now that I’m middle aged the poem seems to me a touchstone of humility. It’s about being little and knowing you are little; knowing that it’s ok to be a little nothing of a flower because to God you are precious. 

“I’m nobody” the poem begins. How do we judge success? How does God judge success? Not as the world judges.  Little and quiet and retiring people like Dickinson, who might seem to be a failure, might in fact be making a profound difference in other ways… that they might never know. You might know that you are called to be a writer but you might be less sure about who God intend your words to reach.  To Dickinson during her lifetime, it seemed… nobody. And yet, her words do reach out to us today. 

The poem continues “Are you nobody too?” And I love that sense of invitation to the other to reveal themselves. But also I love the poem’s curiosity. We all of us want to be known and loved. But when the soul accepts that she is nobody, that acceptance frees her to turn her attention outward, towards the other. It allows her curiosity about the other to awaken. One of the hallmarks of humility is putting the other person first instead of pridefully focusing on self.

And I love how the poem expresses that other-first by being curious about who the reader is: “are you nobody too?” Dickinson seems to see me in my nothingness and to delight in it. “Then there’s a pair of us!” she exclaims delightedly. The poem looks for kinship in the unknown, unknowable reader and invites the reader into identification and into relationship, into seeing ourselves as being just like the nobody-narrator of the poem. 

So first the poem looks outward and makes a connection. And then it invites us to action, or, rather inaction: “don’t tell, they’d banish us, you know.” That “don’t tell” reminds  me of Jesus. It’s one of those things that kind of bugs me when I read the Gospels. Over and over again Jesus cures people and then tells them not to tell anyone. Why? Every time it comes up I ponder that question. Why does he not want the leper to go tell everyone about the great thing that God has done for him? I’ve still not got a satisfactory answer, but maybe Dickinson is onto something. Maybe telling could seem a bit too much like bragging. Maybe for those individuals to whom Jesus gives this admonition, even telling about their healing would be putting the importance on themselves instead of on the one who did the miracle?

In the case of the poem, it suggests that “telling” about our nobody-ness would lead to banishment. And isn’t that our fear: that we don’t have a place at the table, that we will be cast out, that we won’t be accepted? As Father LoCoco said last night, that sort of fear is an enemy to true humility.  But Dickinson invites us to accept and celebrate our anonymity in a small select society of two. She invites us into a little conspiracy of quiet with her. Maybe it’s *ok* to just be… nobody? Especially if we won’t really be alone?

“How Dreary to be somebody” Emily concludes, “how public like a frog / to tell your name the livelong day to an admiring bog”. And here she provides us with a salutary image of pride: pride is the frog who is Somebody, who croaks his name all day long to the bog. As father LoCoco mentioned in his talk last night, this is such a pitfall for those of us who are good with words. I have a hard time not falling into it. Again and again I find myself croaking out my name, seeking attention from the Bog. And yet this prideful attention-seeking behavior almost always ends in humiliation and failure. I catch a glimpse of myself and hear myself and I don’t like what I see. I pull in my head like a retreating snail and go back to being quiet, hidden me. It’s safer that way.

Humility is knowing who God made you to be and singing the song God gave you to sing. It means being content with the audience that is given to you. Whose praises are you singing? The frogs proclaim their own name, sing their own praises to the admiring bog, and indeed they receive admiration for their efforts. But the poem’s narrator and the imagined nobody reader, we share a hidden, secret world of silent conspiracy to be nobody— “Don’t tell, they’d banish us.” I like the idea of trying to write from this place that Emily describes. The nobody place. Where who you are doesn’t matter as much as who you are with. Where what you write is much less important than making connections and keeping confidences of friends.  

“I’m nobody.” Social media can seem to be all about getting reactions, getting shares and likes and comments. It can become all about being Somebody. It’s designed that way, engineered to hook you in to the needing to be noticed and liked and interacted with. But Emily imagines deliberately choosing another way. 

This doesn’t have to mean total disengagement from the world, to be a recluse— I’m not saying that. Obviously some of us here are called to engage and even to argue in good faith. But I think this other way of humility does mean maybe pushing back sometimes against the culture of hot takes and instant reactions. ‘Silence is complicity!’ the memes shout— and there’s truth to that, of course. If you stand by silently while atrocity unfolds, you are complicit. But I think we often make that into a false syllogism: Silence is complicity with atrocity. There are terrible things happening in the world. And therefore if I don’t offer my opinion, right NOW here on Facebook or Twitter or at the Thanksgiving dinner table… I’m complicit. But… does that necessarily, logically follow?  Is this really the time and place you are supposed to speak? Or would speaking here and now be more about being admired by the bog? Are you being called to speak in a different way? Where, and when, and to whom, am I being called to witness? 

Is my witness today here, now, rooted in prayer, in Christ, in the Word? Am I digging deep, seeking for roots, connection? Am I seeking to dig and understand history? To understand scripture— and theology and philosophy, and other disciplines —which might give me wisdom and understanding to bring to the table? Or am I only offering a hot take, giving off a lot of heat and not much light? Perhaps I’m breaking silence only to offer hot air and smoke instead of light, obscuring the heart of things with a “take” that’s not deeply considered, not rooted. Am I leading people into the bog of emotion, like a will-o-the wisp, deeper into the muck and mud? Am I really shedding light onto the situation at hand? Am I really leading people to truth, to Christ, to wisdom? Or am I really showing off, performing for an audience of admirers, shouting my name to an admiring bog?

Emily Dickinson eschews notoriety and publicity— “How dreadful to be somebody!”— and prefers to remain unknown, self-effacing. She sings but does not yell her own name. Rather, her work most consistently points to a Divine Author. I must decrease, she seems to say, so that he may increase. Dickinson’s poetry consistently effaces self to speak of the work of God in her life. She writes of her joys and sorrows and trials and fears, of the beauty of nature and the works of human hands, but the focus is not on the almighty Self.

“I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?”

When I sit at my keyboard to write what kind of song am I singing? Am I shouting my own name to an admiring bog or am I pointing beyond myself and singing the songs of Creation’s Creator? Do I dare to efface myself to the point of being a mere nobody or am I chasing fame, attention, clicks, shares? Do I trust in God to see that my words get to the ears that need to hear them or am I caught up in the numbers and stats and metrics? It’s easy to get bogged down in worrying about what other people think of me. Much harder to lose myself in the work, to be merely a messenger for someone else’s message, to be unknown, unacknowledged, unthanked, disrespected. Hard to be thought a weirdo, a recluse, ineffective. Dickinson’s poems reach their widest audience after she is long dead. Who is the audience God intends me to speak to? It might be a small hidden audience of a handful of souls? But true humility means the work isn’t about me. 


And that brings me to the third and final poem I want to contemplate today, perhaps the finest poem about humility ever written in any language. It was composed more than two thousand years ago by a young woman and is the only extant example of her work. It has been set to music by some of history’s greatest composers, sung by the greatest singers, inspired countless writers of poetry and song in dozens of languages and I think on every continent. I am of course speaking of the Magnificat by Mary of Nazareth, Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God as recorded in the Gospel of Luke.

I know we aren’t used to thinking of Mary as a poet, but once I started thinking of the Magnificat as a poem written by a young pregnant mother on a journey to visit her older pregnant cousin— pregnant with Word, pregnant and pondering the angel’s message as she travels into the hill country, sleeping under the stars and pondering how the Maker of the stars has humbled himself to come and dwell within her. Once I stated to think of Mary the poet, composing in her heart on her journey and then bursting into praise and recitation when she hears Elizabeth’s greeting— that changed how I read her great poem of praise and it made it personal.

I know everyone here knows it already, but it goes like this: 

My  soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior  for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed:  the Almighty has done great things for me,  and holy is his Name. He has mercy on those who fear him  in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm,  he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,  and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things,  and the rich he has sent away empty. He has come to the help of his servant Israel  for he has remembered his promise of mercy, the promise he made to our fathers,  to Abraham and his children for ever.

Mary’s song is a song of praise, of course… she recounts the great things that the Lord has done in her life. But it’s not praise of self. If, as she rightly says, all generations will call her blessed, she is not because of *her* deeds but because of the deeds of the Lord who has looked with favor upon her. She acknowledges that her name will never be forgotten— which at first looks like the opposite of Emily Dickinson’s Nobody. But she turns immediately from pondering the wonder that all generations will call her blessed, to non nobis— not to my name but to yours, God, be the glory. The name whose praises Mary sings is not her own but that of God… Holy is *His* Name. I wonder if Dickinson had the Magnificat in mind when she wrote “I’m Nobody”.

I pray the Liturgy of the Hours— or try to— nightly. And so day after day, week after week, year after year, I pray Mary’s Magnificat. I had it memorized within the first few months and now I  can say it while only half awake– possibly even while fully asleep. I’ve prayed it while being wheeled into surgery and I’ve cooked a lot of meals while the words washed over me listening to the liturgy of the hours podcast. But… what does it mean for me as a writer — other than how absolutely awesome it is to be able to speak the words that Our Lady spoke so long ago? 

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” As a Catholic writer first and foremost my job is to exult God, to tell the good news, to recount his mighty works in all generations. It is not to win battles— he has already won the ultimate victory over sin and death. My job is not to cast down the proud, I can leave the casting down to God. My job is first and foremost evangelization: telling people the good news that God loves them, that he is merciful, that he wants to fill them with good things, that he remembers his promises and that he keeps his word and that he wants to do mighty deeds in the world, in the lives of every person that I meet. 

So when I sit down to write do I remember to pray first? Do I remember to ask: Where is God in this? How is he working in my work? Do I hear his voice or my own when I read what I have written? Is the news I bring good? Am I always writing for the greater Glory of God or for my own glory? Do I rely on his help or am I trying to save the world on my own? 

Mary begins by saying yes, she continues by pondering the Word deeply within her heart. She brings the word joyfully to her cousin Elizabeth. She brings him into her home in Nazareth and makes her dwelling with him. How can I, like Mary, be Mother to the Word who promised that all who heed him will be his mother? 

One of Mary’s hallmarks is silence: she listens more than she speaks. She points always to her Son when she does speak: do what he tells you.

Am I afraid of getting down into the dirt, of finding connections with those who seem radically different from me? With my enemies and those who hate me? Am I afraid of being a failure, a nobody? Does my work praise God and is it a part of his plan?

Little and Hidden in Nazareth

I recently read a gorgeous article in the National Catholic Register about Blessed Charles de Foucauld the soon to be canonized French monk and hermit who after fighting in Africa had a conversion. He went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he lived for a time in a shack next to a convent of Poor Clares, working as their doorman and doing manual work, became absorbed in prayer. He decided to take as his model the hidden life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. He ended his life living as a hermit in the desert of Algeria living among the poorest of the poor, the local Tuareg tribe. He dreamed of starting a religious community there based upon his ideals of seeking the lowest place. Yet no one understood these ideals, and no one joined him. In that he achieved his goal of being little and hidden like the holy family in Nazareth, an apparent nobody. Until his death, he labored for souls among the Muslim Tuareg but none were converted to the Christian faith.

He prayed for them daily before the Blessed Sacrament: “Sacred Heart of Jesus, thank you for this, the first tabernacle in the lands of the Tuareg! May it be the first of many, and proclaim salvation to many souls! Radiate out from this tabernacle on all those round about, people who surround you yet do not know you.”

He seems to have been known and beloved by them, and yet he never made a single convert—by many standards he failed. Blessed Charles saw in Mary a model of humble service, a hidden life. He became a nobody like Dickinson. And for me that’s been the path that I keep returning to. Not public speaking or founding of schools, not writng books or articles for pay, but teaching my own children in the heart of my home, ministering quietly to a handful of people in my own corner of cyberspace. Hopefully bringing the light of Christ with me; but not necessarily seeing big results. Standing at the foot of the Cross and wondering what it all means. 

Blessed Charles was martyred in December of 1916, during the fighting of the first world war, dragged out of his hermitage and killed by Muslim soldiers when he wouldn’t renounce Christ. When the soldiers left, his Tuareg friends buried him. And when the French army came some weeks later, the Tuareg told them about his death and showed them his grave and the French soldiers erected a cross over it.

The leader of the French patrol wrote: “Father de Foucauld, since his conversion, never for one day stopped thinking of that hour after which there are no others, and which is the supreme opportunity offered for our repentance and acquisition of merit. He died on the first Friday of December, the day consecrated to the Sacred Heart, and in the manner that he wished, having always desired a violent death dealt in hatred of the Christian name, accepted with love for the salvation of the infidels of his land of election—Africa.”

The commanding officer found a monstrance thrown down on the ground that still contained the sacred host. When the French patrol rode away this officer led the way, carrying the Blessed Sacrament at their head, the monstrance carefully and respectfully wrapped in a linen cloth. That image is the one I want to end with: the hermitage hidden in the desert, the defeated martyr who had made no converts, but who had brought Jesus into the empty waste, and the faithful soldier who picked up the torch and carried Jesus through the wasteland. It’s an image, an icon that Blessed Charles made of his life, conformed to the Magnificat. In a way his life was an image of the Magnificat. 

I hope that wherever we go, we start from such a place as Blessed Charles’ hermitage and that whenever  we go out from our hidden places of prayer we too can carry Jesus before us into all the empty wastes. Let us all go forth and dig deep, be happy to be nobody, and praise God. 


Seamus Heaney Poems 1965-1975   Collection that included Heaney’s first four volumes of poetry: Death of a Naturalist / Door Into the Dark / Wintering Out / North

Sweeney Astray, A Version from the Irish by Seamus Heaney

Station Island by Seamus Heaney “The title poem of this collection, set on an Irish island (which is a popular site of pilgrimage) tells of a pilgrim on an inner journey that leads him back into the world that formed him, and then forward to face the crises of the present.”

Seamus Heaney Interview (1996)

“A Common Story is Achieved” a blog post in which I ponder Seamus Heaney’s interview and connect it to Hilda van Stockum’s The Borrowed House.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The Prowling Bee, a Dickinson blog. This blogger is blogging her way through all of Dickinson’s poems.

The Poems We Think We Know, a lovely little essay about I’m Nobody by Alexandra Socarides in the LA Review of Books.

Magnificat Luke 1:46-55, translation from the Liturgy of the Hours, USCCB

Charles de Foucauld’s Eucharistic Procession Through the Sahara Desert by K.V. Turley at the National Catholic Register

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