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The Race gives us a glimpse into the endless round of self-neglectful business that is robbing a woman of the peace of resting in her Lord. She wakes, with the jolt and intensity of a runner at the starting block, having anticipated and rehearsed the day’s demands to the point of near-sleeplessness. We feel sorry for her, hurting herself as she is by the hyperactivity that clearly is leading her to physical breakdown and, possibly, to the point of madness. But, we see in her mania an element of free choice that prevents our interpreting her predicament as inevitable, or unavoidable.
The poem is full of choice words with several layers of meaning that combine to place the characteristics of such driven-ness into relief against a background of love – of self, and of God. Here are just a few examples:
Writhe: twist in pain, twist into coils
Compress: press hard, condense, contract
Mania: ungovernable frenzy, excitement manifested by hyperactivity and elevation of mood
Design: mental scheme in which means to an end are laid down
Restive: stubbornly resisting control, uneasy
Heady: willful, rash, head-first, intoxicating
Coil: tumult, trouble
These images all fight – as the woman fights – against relaxation, and true rest. This woman’s coping, or self-defense mechanisms have gone horribly awry and are now destroying her. She is doing violence to herself, to the day, and to those around her, whose needs and humanity she speeds past.
The Race speaks of the subtle seductive power of ideas. Unless they are translated into reality – dull and tedious as that process may be – they may lure us into a world of imagined virtue, imagined freedom of movement, imagined rest that undermines the very things ‘vain imaginings’ represent. We may lose our footing in the imagined future if we dissipate our energies by grappling with virtual problems. Grace does not, cannot flow into virtual life. That territory – for all our work to know and control it – is an unmapped waste: “ungraceful and uncharted time”.
As one whose own life is the stuff this poem was made of, I can speak firsthand about the antidote for this woman’s – for my – impotent, cramped, pragmatic, heedless life. The cure is, pure and simple, real rest. The Source and Summit of this elixir? The Eucharist. Christ, fully present, waits for the soul to turn, simply, to Him for refreshment, for new life.
The poem echoes Christ’s words (in a vision) to Bl. Angela of Foligno: “Make yourself a capacity, and I will make myself a torrent,” and alludes to the last line of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14 (“Nor ever chaste except you ravish me.”) I include a discussion of The Race in my talk, A Prayer, A Poem, A Person, a Place, to illustrate both poetry and the poetic person – one whose very being is, like a poem, a place of encounter with Reality.
It is my prayer that, by winning people over to the practice of true Sabbath-keeping – Eucharistic Sabbath – I can help restore the calm, surrendered, interior spaciousness that will invite Christ’s torrential grace, more and more, into the world. “Slowed to a singleness of soul,” the double-minded man can become whole, and participate in the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Note: Since the poem is a bit longer than usual, I’ve got a pdf of it for you, here.
Thanks to Jill Stanek, pro-life activist, for publishing this Guest Post about the 50 Million Names Project!
50,000,000! When we reached that abortion toll, I woke up, in a way, to the horror of this ongoing holocaust. I wished then, before Internet, email, and computers in every home, there was a way to give names for all those babies. No way!
Hilary Hart’s Body of Wisdom was given to me as I’d been speaking about How Women Disintegrate and How Women Heal. I did resonate with about 70% of what she said, felt wary, but interpreted positively, about 20% more, and must reject the last 10% unequivocally. That leaves me in a quandary.
I can’t recommend the book itself, on the chance that a poorly-grounded Catholic might not discern the problems in it, but I feel the kinship of lived experience, and am grateful for the author’s poetic depth and insight. Read as a theological argument, Body of Wisdom is easily dismissed. But it would be unreasonable to read in that way what is meant as an evocation of conversation among wise, mature women. I must enter into such a book as I would enter an encounter with a person – in awe of the mystery before me, with respect for our differences, and appreciation for every good, true, beautiful, praiseworthy aspect of her being. With that in mind, and with no love for any ‘feminine spirituality’ that leads outside the bounds of my Catholic faith, I call attention to what edifies me in Hart’s offering.
First, I’m thrilled at her acceptance of gender as an essential aspect of being – a signifier rich with metaphor, that points toward the realization of a distinctively feminine approach to life, relationship, spiritual growth and service. Contra the androgynous, mentalized, self-defining ‘spirituality’ of modern Gnosticism, Hart’s approach is earthy, grounded, embodied in and affirming of physical reality. Contra the anti-human, mechanistic efficiency of modern scientific materialism, Hart presents woman as deeply spiritual and irreducible to objective functions or roles.
I’m also delighted to see, on every page, the affirmation of life’s sacredness, of child-bearing as a sacred trust, of new life as a wonderful treasure. It strikes me that we would do well to make such a beautiful, feminine appeal to women’s life-giving nature a greater part of our own fight against abortion.
Hart counsels, as I do, that women must be deeply true to themselves in order to give fully and effectively to their families and others. She thinks – and I heartily agree – that friendships among women (when ordered toward high good and away from rage, despair, pettiness and superficiality) are essential for the development and realization of what St. John Paul II called ‘feminine genius.’ We also agree that the world (even the Church, I’d say) desperately needs the gifts, giftedness, and self-giving of women to rebuild social capital, lines of communication, and networks of support for a culture of life.
A woman’s capacity for creativity, social influence, and healing can be ignored (or dismissed as ‘New Age-y’, which is ridiculous, but I’ve seen it happen), or deeply engaged to restore balance and bring healing to the disordered, broken world around us.
I suggest we focus on what Hart – passionate, poetic, person-oriented – has to teach about waking up the genius of women, and leave a modest veil over her understandable excesses. They are understandable, because she, as yet, stands outside the protective covering of a Church structure that she interprets, wrongly, as all-masculine. Where the Church has gone far beyond her thinking – female saints and doctors, Marian devotion, theology of the body, for instance – we can amplify her sense of the positive power of womanhood. Where she excels – attention to the lived experience of women, rich and emotionally engaging prose, respectful interfaith dialogue, for instance – she should lead us.
This book has a place in the conversation of discerning, well-formed Catholic women – especially those who nurture friendships with non- or newly-Christian women.
I recommend Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods frequently – and not just to get people to bring their kids out to my house in the country! The fact is, living on our ‘farm wannabe’, I can see for myself the benefits Louv describes. What’s more, I can see the effects of ‘time in nature’ on ‘nature deprived’ kids who come out to play. Last Child is a warning to us all of the dangers of abstracting children from the natural world. [Read more…]
If I could make one book required reading for Catholic parents and educators, it is Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake. In six succinct chapters, he leads readers from the history of education’s disintegration to a vision for its restoration and ‘re-enchantment’. Caldecott’s proposal to return wonder, beauty, integrity and, thus, enchantment to the sphere of education calls for a reawakening of some ancient sensibilities. [Read more…]