This article reprinted with
permission from the Washington OCDS publication the"Carmel Clarion"
The Spirituality of Jessica Powers
This article first appeared as "The Spirituality of Jessica Powers, " by Rev. Robert Morneau, D.D., Spiritual Life, Vol 36, No 3, Fall 1990, pp. 150-161.
0ur spiritual journey is shrouded by a number of factors that conceal rather than reveal our relationship with God: the inarticulate workings of grace, the inherent mystery of our personality and the infinity of the Deity, the subtleties of God's call and the mixed nature of our response. Yet, through the cracks and crannies, God's indwelling love and mercy break forth, and something is revealed of God's grandeur in "the shining from shook foil," even in "the ooze of oil crushed."
Jessica Powers' spiritual life received its first impetus in her family home near Mauston, Wisconsin, was nurtured by friendships, studies and work in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York, and gained rich maturity through her forty-seven years as a Carmelite religious. Clues to her relationship with God and how that relationship influenced her daily life can be found in her correspondence, her numerous friendships (within and outside the community), and in a special way, in the poetry that rose from the depth of her heart. Jessica Powers' poetic inspiration was grounded in a rich, earthly humanness and yet soared to the heights of prayer and contemplation. Emerson's words could well apply to her. He said, "The poet, like the lightening rod, must reach from a point nearer the sky than all surrounding objects down to the earth, and into the dark wet soil, or neither is of use."
In the final analysis, spirituality contains two essential ingredients, relationship and revelation. Spirituality is about God's decision to establish a relationship with humankind through creation, covenant and, for us as Christians, through the paschal mystery - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we are all called to holiness and to intimacy with God and union among ourselves. To understand the nature of friendship, its intimacy, duties and commitment is to understand the essence of spirituality.
As I read the poetry of Jessica Powers, review her correspondence, talk with those who have known her, four themes emerge that speak of her friendship with God and therefore of her spirituality. These are: presence, creaturehood, love/mercy, virtue and loans here. In making this somewhat arbitrary selection I regret that, because of space constraints, I cannot include humor, suffering, nature, fear and hope. I would like to let the poet speak for herself, and so I will share two poems that illustrate each of the themes. Around these I will wrap a brief commentary.
St. John Baptist de la Salle, founder of the Christian Brothers, dedicated his community to the mystery of the holy presence of God. Novices are instructed to say upon entering a room: "Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God." Though of a different religious tradition, Jessica Powers was keenly aware of God's abiding and providential presence in her life. In a poem entitled "The Garments of God" (p.21), she describes her relationship with the God of mercy.
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;
my joy is aware of His glance and my sorrow is tempted
to rest on the thought that His face is turned from me
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.
Even in the dark night of the soul and of the senses. Jessica held tenaciously to the faith conviction that God was present in her soul. To believe that God abides in the deepest recesses of our being when there is no vision or when we know that we are morally unworthy of God's love is a supreme act of trust. In this poem Jessica Powers shares something of her heart. It is not the prayer of high praise or lowly contrition, nor one of joyful thanksgiving or humble petition, but rather the simple prayer of a child in the dark frantically clutching the garments of God's voluminous, merciful robes. She feels no need for assurance for her senses or intellect; she is firmly convinced that God will not abandon her. "I hold to it fast with the fingers of my will", she says. Jessica, by means or an act of volition, is united to a God, hidden, obscure, but there. Eudora Welty comments: "I had come unprepared for the immediacy of poetry. " A theology of presence is about immediacy. Our Catholic tradition is rich in sacramentality. God often mediates divine love and mercy through scripture and sacraments, through community and nature, daily joys and sorrows. But for the poet and the mystic, the presence of God is direct, immediate, intense. Nor must we think that this presence is either a "cheap" or even a "delightful" grace. It is costly and piercing, cutting like a two edged sword. To enter the presence of Truth and Love causes the soul both to tremble and to be fascinated. Jessica Powers tasted the mystery of God's immediacy and wrote of it often. In her poem, "This Trackless Solitude" (p. 6), we are given a glimpse of God's "hereness and nowness:"
Deep in the soul the acres lieof virgin lands, of sacred
where waits the Spirit. Each soul bears
this trackless solitude.
The Voice invites, implores in vain
the fearful and the unaware;
but she who heeds and enters in
finds ultimate wisdom there.
The Spirit lights the way for her;
bramble and brush are pushed apart.
He lures her into wilderness
but to rejoice her heart.
Beneath the glistening foliage
the fruit of love hangs always near,
the one immortal fruit: He is
or, tasted: He is here.
Love leads and she surrenders to
His will. His waylessness of grace.
She speaks no word save His, nor moves
until He marks the place.
Hence all her paths are mystery,
presaging a divine unknown.
Her only light is in the creed
that she is not alone.
The soul that wanders, Spirit led,
becomes, in His transforming shade,
the secret that she was, in God,
before the world was made.
To take the radical stance that one is not alone is to believe in presence. Nor was this some nebulous, amorphous awareness. Jessica Powers could have identified with Karl Rahner's personal prayer: "Your grace comes to us not in the 'always and everywhere' of Your all-pervasive Spirit, but in `here and now' of Jesus Christ. " Certainly Jessica Powers faced days and even whole Seasons in which God's absence was almost tangible. Yet she held fast to her only light, namely, the creed that she was not alone. In a world obsessed with loneliness, we have a teacher that reminds us that, in faith, beneath our loneliness is relatedness and divine presence. In yet another poem, Jessica Powers startles us with the naked question: "Child, have none told you? God is in your soul" ("The Place of Splendor," p. 123).
The Dominican priest Gerald Vann asserts that two things are necessary for human happiness: creativity and an appreciation of our creaturehood. To the extent that we give life through the whole range of creative expressions, and in the measure that we know ourselves to be creatures of a loving, providential God, will happiness be realized. Jessica Powers was a creative woman: her witness, her wit, her poetry gave life to so many of us. Her poetic creativity is captured well in a remark by T. S. Eliot: "Poetry takes something we know already and turns it into something new. " Jessica was constantly taking some thing known - a passing comment at table, a refrain from scripture, an insight given in a homily - and turning it into verse with new colors and shades of meaning. She could transform a common sparrow into a mystical bird, Abraham's test into a searing question about her own call, the experience of homelessness into the mystery of loneliness. She took seriously her baptismal call to live life to the full. If creativity was embraced as an essential part of her vocation, at an even deeper level was her identification with the sense and grace of creaturehood. Surely it was her radical, daily dependency upon God that filled her soul to the brim and brought her home daily to the pain and ecstasy of being a creature. In her poem "Creature of God" (p. 88) Jessica Powers' spirituality comes into sharp focus:
That God stands tall, incomprehensible,
infinite and immutable and free
I know. Yet more I marvel that His call
trickles and thunders down through space for me;
that from His far eternities He shouts
to me, one small inconsequence of day.
I kneel down in the vastness of His love,
cover myself with creaturehood and pray.
God likes me covered with my creaturehood
and with my limits spread across His face.
He likes to see me lifting to His eyes
even the wretchedness that dropped His grace.
I make no guess what greatness took me in.
I only know, and relish it as good,
that I am gathered more to God's embrace
the more I greet Him through my creaturehood.
The soul that experientially knows the mystery of being created is overwhelmed by the contrast between its own finite being and the infinity, the immensity of a Creator-God. When such a sensitive soul becomes conscious of the extravagance of grace and the wretchedness caused by sin, it is difficult to describe the shame and the guilt. Is not the secret of sanity and sanctity at this juncture to refuse to become fixated upon one's own inadequacies, be they spiritual or moral, and turn instead to the greatness of God's love and surrender to God's merciful embrace? Creaturehood allows us to make the choice in grace and enables us to avoid the dead-end road of pride. By contrast, acceptance of one's limits draws us into the land of humility where we live in the truth of our being, i.e., Cummings states, "I am a little church, no great cathedral."
A word that emerges frequently from the lexicon of St John of the Cross is "nothingness." Jessica Powers, following closely the thought and spirit of this great mystic, identified with this mystery and often spoke of the emptiness and poverty that characterize the human journey. At the natural level we reject emptiness and seek physical sustenance, psychological consolation, spiritual riches. We yearn to have something for ourselves and, in faith, something to give back to God. Jessica's sense of creaturehood reached full bloom when, at some point in her journey, she realized that her nothingness, her emptiness, her poverty could be a "gift." In her poem "If You Have Nothing" (p. 91) she writes:
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!
In the late 1930s Jessica Powers lived in New York. She tells how she sat on a New York park bench arguing with an editor for over two hours as to whether or not truth or beauty was the greater attribute in God. The editor aided with truth; she, with beauty. Several months before she died, she told me that perhaps both she and the editor were wrong. "In the end," she said, "all we have is the mercy of God. That is God's greatest attribute." It is not surprising, then, that Jessica asked that her poem "The Mercy of God" (p. 1) be given prominence in her volume of selected poetry.
I am copying down in a book from my heart's archive
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 judgment of sun overhead,
and the hush of His peace, and the moss of His mercy to tread.I have nought 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 of His infinite mercy alone.
Spirituality deals with that radical move from the acres of self into the circle of God's love and mercy. We call this conversion, metanoia. Through the action of grace, the soul now has a new center of consciousness, and directs its activity in accord with God's will. Discernment and obedience become a way of life. Conversion is a gift of God's mercy and once it is experienced, there is no longer any enduring fear. Mercy is one facet of love. In the face of sin, mercy is called forgiveness; in the face of affliction, mercy was called compassion. Jessica Powers understood that mercy was truly an aspect of love and thus a large volume of her poetry centers on love with a capital "L" (referring to God) as well as love with a small "I" (referring to ourselves). In her poem "Letter of Departure" (pp. 43-44) she makes two references to this important distinction in her spiritual understanding:
... We knew too much of the knowable dark world,
its secret and its sin,
too little of God. And now we rise to see
that even our pledges to humanity
were false, since love must out of Love begin.
And later in the same poem:
Love, tho divine, Love, the antiphonal,
speaks only to love,
for only love could learn that liturgy.
since only love is erudite to master
the molten language of eternity
This same distinction is made in the poem "Come, South Wind" (p. 37) where she writes: "I am saying all day to Love who wakens love: rise in the south and come!" What is said specifically of love in reference to God and the soul can be said of mercy. The mercy of God speaks to the mercy that lies dormant in the human heart. In the end, all we have left is the mercy of God.
At her funeral liturgy Jessica's community distributed a small card containing a poem entitled "The Homecoming" (p .53) that gives the experience of love and mercy that were central to Jessica's spirituality:
The spirit, newly freed from earth
is all amazed at the surprise
of her belonging: suddenly
as native to eternity
to see herself, to realize
the heritage that lets her be
at home where all this glory lies.
By naught foretold could she have guessedsuch welcome home:
the robe, the ring,
music and endless banqueting,
these people hers; this place of rest
known, as of long remembering,
herself a child of God and pressed
with warm endearments to His breast.
In the first chapter of his Confessions, Augustine identifies and articulates the basic longing of the human spirit when he says our hearts are restless until they rest in God. George Herbert, a seventeenth century poet repeats that theme in his poem "The Pulley." There he reminds us that one gift has been held back from the human heart: rest. The deprivation of that gift acts as a pulley to draw us into the divine presence. In Jessica Powers' privately published volume The House at Rest (1984), the lead poem, from which the volume receives its name, identifies the fundamental reality that haunts the one who searches for God; what is it that puts our house at rest? The scripture scholar, Fr. Barnabas Ahern, once said, "Virtue it is that puts a house at rest." Jessica took his insight and transformed it into poetry and into a theology of life. She writes (Selected Poetry, p. 122):
On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings --
Oh, happy chance! --
I went forth unobserved,
My house being now at rest.
- St. John of the Cross
How does one hush one's house,
each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,
the rooms made restless with remembered laughter
or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,
the stairs that vacillate from up to down,
windows that bring in color and event
from countryside or town,
oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?
The house must first of all accept the night.
Let it erase the walls and their display,
impoverish the rooms till they are filled
with humble silences; let clocks be stilled
and all the selfish urgencies of day.
Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.
Caution the doors against both foes and friends,
and try to make the windows understand
their unimportance when the daylight ends.
Persuade the stairs to patience, and denythe passages their aimless to and fro.
Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.
How well repaid that tenant is, how blest
who, when the call is heard,
is free to take his kindled heart and go.
Virtue and intimacy are so closely linked together that one is not present without the other. Vice means enslavement and causes chaos and disorder. Unless God's grace is received in the Spirit and transforms our hearts through the theological and moral virtues, restlessness endures. St. Teresa of Avila explicitly links authentic prayer to the virtuous life. Jessica Powers saw the same connection and knew from experience that the level of our freedom is proportionate to the level of virtue.
In his biography of Thomas Merton, The Human Journey, Anthony Padovano writes: The meaning of a poem is not in the information it provides. A poem is rich in its associations and in the resonance it affects. It puts things together, even contradictory things, not so that they can be grasped but so that we might see that they belong. A good poem, like an effective prayer, invites one to give attention and affectivity to life that might otherwise have been neglected.
We might add that, together with attention and affectivity, poetry can move us to action, indeed, to a virtuous life. I sense that one of the reasons why the poetry of Jessica Powers has touched so many hearts is precisely because of this tripartite integration. Beyond drawing us to ponder the mysteries of God and life, beyond arousing our deepest emotions as she describes the joys and sorrows of the human condition, her poems inspire us to action, to those kinds of actions whereby we exercise our freedom creatively in our response to God's call. To put it simply, her poetry calls us to virtue so that our house might be at rest.
Among all the virtues, there seems to be one closest to her heart and most descriptive of her spirituality, i.e., obedience. Simone Weil claims that obedience is the most perfect way of life and Jessica would surely agree. To be obedient is to become a listener and a lover; it is to live with the Spirit of God. Obedience is that disposition that both hears God's call and responds to it with generosity and courage. In her poem "Yes" (p. 137) we come to know what Jessica understood by heaven and beatitude:
Yes to one is often no to another
here walks my grief and here has often been
my peak of anguish yes is the one need
of my whole life but time and time again
law forces no up through my heart and lips
spiked leaden ball rending as it arises
leaving its blood and pain yes is the soft
unfolding of petals delicate with surprises
curve and caress and billowing delight
out to the one or many I would guess
heaven for me will be an infinite
flowering of one species a measureless sheer
beatitude of yes
Jessica Powers lived within a rather limited external geography. Her natural habitat was interior, in those thousands of acres where God lay waiting. Perhaps we can apply what Richard Sewall says of Emily Dickinson likewise to Jessica Powers:
"There is a paradox here, of course. She [Emily Dickinson] knew very well that the landscape of the spirit - the inner life - needed a tongue, and no one surpassed her in getting at its truth. She is simply saying, `There's no need to tell you I love you; while I breathe, I do.' It is when she says, `I tell you what I see,' that she describes her purpose as a poet of both lives, inner and outer. As the poet of the inner life, her dedication to this kind of truth led her to insights of the most penetrating kind, epiphanies of the moral and spiritual life; as poet of the external world, she caught its evanescence and its permanent realities with matchless precision."
Perhaps Jessica Powers does not match Emily Dickinson in capturing the mysteries of the external world. But then, Emily Dickinson is no match for our Wisconsin poet in plumbing the depths of the spiritual world. The trackless solitudes and mountain peaks and acres of meadows that Jessica traversed are in the realm of mysticism. Many do not travel this terrain and few who do can articulate what is found there.
Indeed, Jessica Powers' natural habitat was the interior domain. Her choice - her being chosen for the cloistered life - indicates as much. But hers was an integrated spirituality. Prayer was supplemented by asceticism, asceticism by a movement outward in care and concern for others. Though lacking a specific geographic apostolate, her evangelization found expression in sharing her poetic gift with the world. Her poem entitled "The Uninvited" (p. 10) demonstrates her love and concern for all of humanity:
There is a city that through time shall lie
in a fixed darkness of the earth and sky,
and many dwell therein this very hour.
It is a city without seed or flower,
estranged from every bird and butterfly.
Who walked these streets of night? I know them well.
Those who come out of life's sequestered places:
the lonely, the unloved, the weak and shy,
the broken-winged who piteously would fly,
the poor who still have starlight in their faces.
They are the outcast ones, the last, the least,
whom earth has not invited to her feast,
and who, were they invited in the end,
finding their wedding clothes too frayed to mend,
would not attend.
1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet," in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited, with a biographical introduction by Brooks Atkinson (New York, NY: Random House, 1940). 1984), p. 80.
2. All quotations from Jessica Powers' poems are taken from Selected Poetry of Jessica Powers, edited by Regina Siegfried and Robert Morneau (Kansas City, MO: Sheed & Ward, 1989); page references given in the text are to this volume.
3. Eudora Welty, One Writer's Beginnings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 80.
4. Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence, translated by James M Demske (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1963), p. 69.
5. T .S. Eliot, Quoted by Madeleine L' Engle in "Walking on Water."
6. Anthony Padovano, The Human Journey - Thomas Merton: Symbol of a Century (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1982), p. 97.
7. Richard B Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), p. 611.
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