Dear Parishioners, +JMJ
About three months ago I wrote in a bulletin letter that one of the things I do during my annual retreat – among other spiritual exercises – is to read some Catholic poetry. In particular, I often read something from a cloistered, contemplative Carmelite religious sister, who died in 1988, whose pen name was Jessica Powers. There are a couple other poets I read as well; but recently I read the following poem, entitled “The Cloister”. We were approaching Pentecost as I read it, and I thought it is such an appropriate poem to consider the work of the Holy Spirit in a cloister of religious sisters. But, this meditation certainly reflects the work of the Holy Spirit in every Catholic life. So, I thought I’d share it with you, just after Pentecost.
It’s important to realize that a “cloister” is a group of religious women, usually vowed to silence for most of the time, living in community and follow a very strict rule of obedience. They are in the cloister, because God has called them to this vocation as a means for reaching perfect sanctity, perfect holiness; just as He calls each one of us to some particular vocation, through which we are supposed to become saints, to state it blatantly. It’s worth reading this poem many times, in order to catch everything in it. What’s attractive about these contemplative Catholic poems is the way the beauty of God’s holy interaction with his creation is so deeply reflected upon. Here’s the poem:
Nobody lives in this shining house but God, 1
though shadowy figures tremble to and fro. 2
Over these cool grey stones that suffering made 3
only the pierced feet of the Master go. 4
A fire went through this place and gutted it; 5
over the ruins a fog of silence spread. 6
Nobody comes here but the pale young Christ 7
Who loves a shelter uninhabited. 8
Here are a few of my own notes to help interpret what the lines mean. But, please don’t read them, until you read the poem several times to figure out what you can:
- Nobody lives there, because all the sisters have emptied themselves and can say with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19).
- The sisters are the shadowy figures, because of their self-emptiness and because of their dark habits (their “uniforms”).
- The stones were made by human labor, which was difficult, involving suffering. But, also, the stones were shaped and polished by the feet of sisters over the decades – sisters who lived a life of sacrifice and penance (i.e., suffering).
- Again, it is Christ the Master who is alive in these sisters, so the poet can say that only the pierced feet of the Master walk over these stones. The sisters who are walking over the stones are experiencing the “paschal mystery” of Jesus’ death and resurrection in their very being all the time; thus the feet of the Master are pierced, as Jesus’ feet were pierced, even after His resurrection. Crucifixion and Resurrection are both represented.
- The fire is the Fire of the Holy Spirit. What was “gutted” is precisely any self-indulgent vice of each sister. The Holy Spirit purges out of us anything contrary to full self-gift love. And he has done that in each sister of the cloister through the disciplined life they live.
- It can also be called a fog, because there is a spiritual darkness that is involved at a certain point in the spiritual journey. The sisters who become so transformed by the Holy Spirit enter a state of spiritual quietness in their soul. So it can also be called a silence. The noise of internal dysfunction, with intellect, will and passion/emotions in disequilibrium is silenced, once the equilibrium of advanced holiness has been reached.
- The pale young Christ comes each time a new sister enters and begins to consider taking vows as the bride of Christ the bridegroom. She is young, and has to grow with Christ in the spiritual marriage she enters. Christ is beginning to live in her; but there will have to be a maturing process in the sister.
- Christ loves the human soul that has emptied itself for Him, or we could say, that has allowed the Holy Spirit to empty it… so that Jesus can increase, and we decrease.
I am sure I have not grasped all of the meaning in the poem. Have a blessed season of Ordinary Time!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,