Madeleine in Church

As the Christian holy days passed, I reflected a great deal on my own desires to believe in the resurrection with steadfast, unquestioning purity. My own waters of faith are easily troubled by the ramblings of my mind and the experiences of my past. In “Madeleine in Church,” a poem by British writer Charlotte Mew from roughly a century ago, I find a companion–a woman scarred and burned by the world, abused and cast aside by men in her life, looking ardently to connect with God through a human Jesus. She relates to the saints, whose own lives were traumatic, who lived perhaps for a time as she has: fallen, mortal, sinful, lustful. I share it with you, readers, in this most introspective of seasons as people of many faiths reflect on human failing and divine redemption.

–Jessica Walsh, Blog Manager

Here, in the darkness, where this plaster saint

       Stands nearer than God stands to our distress,

And one small candle shines, but not so faint

     As the far lights of everlastingness,

I’d rather kneel than over there, in open day

     Where Christ is hanging, rather pray

         To something more like my own clay,

                     Not too divine;

         For, once, perhaps my little saint

         Before he got his niche and crown,

     Had one short stroll about the town;

     It brings him closer, just that taint—

            And anyone can wash the paint

     Off our poor faces, his and mine!

Is that why I see Monty now? equal to any saint, poor boy, as good as gold,

But still, with just the proper trace

Of earthliness on his shining wedding face;

And then gone suddenly blank and old

The hateful day of the divorce:

Stuart got his, hands down, of course

Crowing like twenty cocks and grinning like a horse:

But Monty took it hard. All said and done I liked him best,—

He was the first, he stands out clearer than the rest.

                             It seems too funny all we other rips

       Should have immortal souls; Monty and Redge quite damnably

       Keep theirs afloat while we go down like scuttled ships.—

                            It’s funny too, how easily we sink,

                            One might put up a monument, I think

               To half the world and cut across it “Lost at Sea!”

I should drown Jim, poor little sparrow, if I netted him to-night—

                         No, it’s no use this penny light—

                Or my poor saint with his tin-pot crown—

                The trees of Calvary are where they were,

                       When we are sure that we can spare

                   The tallest, let us go and strike it down

                And leave the other two still standing there.

                                         I, too, would ask Him to remember me

         If there were any Paradise beyond this earth that I could see.                          

                             Oh! quiet Christ who never knew

                     The poisonous fangs that bite us through

                              And make us do the things we do,

                     See how we suffer and fight and die,

                              How helpless and how low we lie,

                     God holds You, and You hang so high,

                     Though no one looking long at You,

                              Can think You do not suffer too,

But, up there, from your still, star-lighted tree

        What can You know, what can You really see

                Of this dark ditch, the soul of me!

                We are what we are: when I was half a child I could not sit

Watching black shadows on green lawns and red carnations burning in the sun,

                                                   Without paying so heavily for it

                That joy and pain, like any mother and her unborn child were almost one.

                                                         I could hardly bear

                                 The dreams upon the eyes of white geraniums in the dusk,

                                                 The thick, close voice of musk,

                                        The jessamine music on the thin night air,

                                  Or, sometimes, my own hands about me anywhere —

   The sight of my own face (for it was lovely then) even the scent of my own hair,

            Oh! there was nothing, nothing that did not sweep to the high seat

                     Of laughing gods, and then blow down and beat

   My soul into the highway dust, as hoofs do the dropped roses of the street.

                                            I think my body was my soul,

                                           And when we are made thus

                                                   Who shall control

                           Our hands, our eyes, the wandering passion of our feet,

                                           Who shall teach us

   To thrust the world out of our heart: to say, till perhaps in death,

                                                  When the race is run,

           And it is forced from us with our last breath

                                                  “Thy will be done”?

If it is Your will that we should be content with the tame, bloodless things.

                As pale as angels smirking by, with folded wings—

                        Oh! I know Virtue, and the peace it brings!

                                                   The temperate, well-worn smile

                The one man gives you, when you are evermore his own:

                    And afterwards the child’s, for a little while,

                                                 With its unknowing and all-seeing eyes

          So soon to change, and make you feel how quick

       The clock goes round. If one had learned the trick—

                                                            (How does one though?) quite early on,

                          Of long green pastures under placid skies,

                          One might be walking now with patient truth.

          What did we ever care for it, who have asked for youth,

                          When, oh! my God! this is going or has gone?

                              There is a portrait of my mother, at nineteen,

                     With the black spaniel, standing by the garden seat,

                     The dainty head held high against the painted green

And throwing out the youngest smile, shy, but half haughty and half sweet.

                     Her picture then: but simply Youth, or simply Spring

                                  To me to-day: a radiance on the wall,

                                  So exquisite, so heart-breaking a thing

                     Beside the mask that I remember, shrunk and small,

                                     Sapless and lined like a dead leaf,

All that was left of oh! the loveliest face, by time and grief!

    And in the glass, last night, I saw a ghost behind my chair—

    Yet why remember it, when one can still go moderately gay—?

                Or could—with any one of the old crew,

                        But oh! these boys! the solemn way

                They take you and the things they say—

                This “I have only as long as you”

    When you remind them you are not precisely twenty-two—

                Although at heart perhaps—God! if it were

                                Only the face, only the hair!

                        If Jim had written to me as he did to-day

                        A year ago—and now it leaves me cold—

                                 I know what this means, old, old, old:

                        Et avec ça—mais on a vécu, tout se paie.

That is not always true: there was my Mother (well at least the dead are free!)

                Yoked to the man that Father was; yoked to the woman I am, Monty too;

                The little portress at the Convent School, stewing in hell so patiently;

The poor, fair boy who shot himself at Aix. And what of me—and what of me ?

                But I, I paid for what I had, and they for nothing. No, one cannot see

                           How it shall be made up to them in some serene eternity.

If there were fifty heavens God could not give us back the child who went or never came;

                 Here, on our little patch of this great earth, the sun of any darkened day.

              Not one of all the starry buds hung on the hawthorn trees of last year’s May,

                              No shadow from the sloping fields of yesterday;

                 For every hour they slant across the hedge a different way,

                                 The shadows are never the same.

                     “Find rest in Him” One knows the parsons’ tags—

                 Back to the fold, across the evening fields, like any flock of baa-ing sheep:

Yes, it may be, when He has shorn, led us to slaughter, torn the bleating soul in us to rags,

                                 For so He giveth His belovèd sleep.

                             Oh! He will take us stripped and done,

                             Driven into His heart. So we are won:

                  Then safe, safe are we? in the shelter of His everlasting wings—

                  I do not envy Him his victories, His arms are full of broken things.

                         But I shall not be in them. Let Him take

                                 The finer ones, the easier to break.

And they are not gone, yet, for me, the lights, the colours, the perfumes,

                         Though now they speak rather in sumptuous rooms.

                                          In silks and in gemlike wines;

                  Here, even, in this corner where my little candle shines

                                          And overhead the lancet-window glows

                         With golds and crimsons you could almost drink 

To know how jewels taste, just as I used to think

There was the scent in every red and yellow rose

                                Of all the sunsets. But this place is grey,

                                       And much too quiet. No one here,

                                       Why, this is awful, this is fear!

                                                  Nothing to see, no face.

                         Nothing to hear except your heart beating in space

                                        As if the world was ended. Dead at last!

                                        Dead soul, dead body, tied together fast.

                         These to go on with and alone, to the slow end:

                 No one to sit with, really, or to speak to, friend to friend:

                         Out of the long procession, black or white or red

Not one left now to say “Still I am here, then see you, dear, lay here your head”.

                         Only the doll’s house looking on the Park

                 To-night, all nights, I know, when the man puts the lights out, very dark.

With, upstairs, in the blue and gold box of a room, just the maids’ footsteps overhead,

Then utter silence and the empty world—the room—the bed—

                                         The corpse! No, not quite dead, while this cries out in me.

                                                          But nearly: very soon to be

                                                          A handful of forgotten dust—

                                        There must be someone. Christ! there must,

                                             Tell me there will be someone. Who?

                                        If there were no one else, could it be You?

                                        How old was Mary out of whom you cast

                 So many devils? Was she young or perhaps for years

She had sat staring, with dry eyes, at this and that man going past

                 Till suddenly she saw You on the steps of Simon’s house

                                        And stood and looked at You through tears.

                                                     I think she must have known by those

                                        The thing, for what it was that had come to her.

                                        For some of us there is a passion, I suppose,

                                        So far from earthly cares and earthly fears

                                        That in its stillness you can hardly stir

                                                     Or in its nearness, lift your hand,

                                        So great that you have simply got to stand

                                        Looking at it through tears, through tears.

                                        Then straight from these there broke the kiss,

                                                    I think You must have known by this

                                        The thing, for what it was, that had come to You:

                                                    She did not love You like the rest,

                                         It was in her own way, but at the worst, the best,

                                                    She gave You something altogether new.

                                         And through it all, from her, no word,

                                                    She scarcely saw You, scarcely heard:

                                         Surely You knew when she so touched You with her hair,

                                                    Or by the wet cheek lying there,

And while her perfume clung to You from head to feet all through the day

                                         That You can change the things for which we care,

                                         But even You, unless You kill us, not the way.

                                         This, then was peace for her, but passion too.        

                                         I wonder was it like a kiss that once I knew,

                                              The only one that I would care to take

       Into the grave with me, to which if there were afterwards, to wake.

                                              Almost as happy as the carven dead

                                         In some dim chancel lying head by head

       We slept with it, but face to face, the whole night through—

One breath, one throbbing quietness, as if the thing behind our lips was endless life,

       Lost, as I woke, to hear in the strange earthly dawn, his “Are you there?”

                                   And lie still, listening to the wind outside, among the firs.

       So Mary chose the dream of Him for what was left to her of night and day,

It is the only truth: it is the dream in us that neither life nor death nor any other

                               thing can take away:

       But if she had not touched Him in the doorway of the dream could she have

                               cared so much ?

       She was a sinner, we are what we are: the spirit afterwards, but first the touch.

And He has never shared with me my haunted house beneath the trees

Of Eden and Calvary, with its ghosts that have not any eyes for tears,

And the happier guests who would not see, or if they did, remember these,

                                                      Though they lived there a thousand years.

                                       Outside, too gravely looking at me. He seems to stand,

                                                    And looking at Him, if my forgotten spirit came

                                                            Unwillingly back, what could it claim

                                                            Of those calm eyes, that quiet speech,

                                                    Breaking like a slow tide upon the beach,

                                                            The scarred, not quite human hand ?—

                                       Unwillingly back to the burden of old imaginings

                                       When it has learned so long not to think, not to be,

              Again, again it would speak as it has spoken to me of things

                                                             That I shall not see!

              I cannot bear to look at this divinely bent and gracious head:

                     When I was small I never quite believed that He was dead:

                         And at the Convent school I used to lie awake in bed

              Thinking about His hands. It did not matter what they said,

     He was alive to me, so hurt, so hurt! And most of all in Holy Week

                                      When there was no one else to see

                              I used to think it would not hurt me too, so terribly,

                                               If He had ever seemed to notice me

                                               Or, if, for once, He would only speak.

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