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Poetic Praises of the Virgin Mary Through the Centuries
Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
August 11, 2019
Thursday is the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, a Holy Day of Obligation. In honor of Her, who precedes our resurrection and raises our eyes to heaven, I offer you these small blossoms of faith that, like dogwoods in springtime, get lost in the seasons of time and yet foreshadow a joy to come. These poems are fruits of Christian devotion to Mary through the centuries. Of course, this is a bulletin article, not an anthology. So, I offer you these praises of God’s Mother – and ours.
The Poetry of St. Ephrem the Deacon (4th century)
In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI recalled that St. Ephrem the Deacon (306-373) became known as the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” for his hymns and poems that sang God’s praises “in an unparalleled way” and “with rare skill.” Ephrem is also known as “Mary’s own Singer,” as his verse anticipates the Church’s definition of the Immaculate Conception some fifteen centuries later. In the year 363, the Persian invasion of Syria exiled him from his birthplace in Nisibis. He fled to Edessa, where he continued his work as poet and hymnodist until his death. His works were written in his native Syriac and translated into Greek, Persian, Coptic and Georgian. Here, St. Ephrem praises Mary’s interior beauty:
The eye is clear if united to the sun. By its light it conquers armies.
It shines with its light, gleams with its brilliance, is adorned by its beauty.
As though on an eye, the light dwelt in Mary and purified her spirit;
it cleansed her thoughts, sanctified her conscience and perfected her virginity.
The river in which He was baptized conceived Him symbolically.
The moist womb of the water conceived Him in purity,
bore Him in splendor and made Him ascend in glory.
In the chaste womb of the river recognize the Daughter of man,
who conceived without knowing man and gave birth without the seed of man.
By grace she formed the Lord of grace. Light in the river, splendor in the tomb.
He skipped over the mountain, shone in the maternal womb,
was resplendent in His rising, was radiant as He rose to the heavens.
from The Mozarabic Liturgy (5th century -present)
There’s an exotic rite in the western Catholic Church known as the Mozarabic Rite, sometimes called the Visigothic Rite, still celebrated in Toledo, Spain. It’s called “Mozarabic” in reference to Catholics living in Al-Andalus, a medieval Muslim realm that occupied most of Iberia. The Mozarabic rite dates back to Spain’s Visigothic era (5th-8th century), before Muslim occupation. Here I offer a prayer from the Mozarabic liturgy, giving honor and praise to Mary’s Assumption into the fragrant beauty of the eternal Libanus (Mount Lebanon) where, beyond the corruption of this world, grow the sweet and durable cedars of God’s promise:
As the tower of David art thou, O Mary,
And in thee there is no flaw,
How beautiful and lovely art thou in the adorning,
And the odor of thy ointments
Is like the fragrance of Libanus,
Above all perfume.....
Like a dove brooding over swelling waters,
Like vials that pour out perfumed oil,
Like lilies distilling their fragrance,
Like the golden vessels of Tharsis,
Like the choice Libanus and the cedar tree,
Like fair tall columns of marble
Set upon bases of gold, art thou, O Mary!
How beautiful and how lovely!
“To the Blessed Virgin Mary”
By John Donne (17th century)
John Donne (1572–1631) is arguably the greatest “modern” English poet, famous for his Holy Sonnets, such as: Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you / As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; / That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. / I, like an usurp'd town to another due, / Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; / Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, / But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue. / Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain, / But am betroth'd unto your enemy; / Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, / Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
But lesser known is the cleric’s verse honoring the Virgin Mary. Enjoy his poem honoring the “fruitful garden,” evidence that the ancient breath of Catholicism blows always and ever into a post-Catholic world.
O FRUITFUL garden, and yet never till’d!
Box full of treasure, yet by no man fill’d!
O thou which hast made Him that first made thee!
O near of kin to all the Trinity!
O palace, where the King of all, and more,
Went in and out, yet never open’d door,
Whose flesh is purer than an other’s spirit,
Reach Him our prayers, and reach us down His merit!
O bread of life which swelld’st up without leaven!
O bridge which join’st together earth and heaven!
Whose eyes see me through these walls, and through glass,
And through this flesh as thorough cypress pass.
Behold a little heart made great by thee
Swelling, yet shrinking at thy majesty.
O dwell in it! for wheresoe’er thou go’st,
There is the temple of the Holy Ghost.
By William Wordsworth (early 19th century)
William Wordsworth (1770-1850), along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), spearheaded the Romantic Age of English poetry. As if to pre-empt the pre-Raphaelite movement in the arts, Wordsworth famously wrote in his poem The Tables Turned, “Come forth into the light of things / Let Nature be your teacher.” His poem The Virgin praises someone beyond Nature – “tainted nature’s solitary boast” – who brings us to the Light of all things. This poem is from Part II of Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822).
Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemished moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast;
Thy Image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween,
Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mixed and reconciled in Thee
Of mother's love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene!
“Song in Late Summer”
By Edith M. Stoney (early 20th century)
And finally, here’s some rhyme from a hidden lover. May her song lift our minds from our violent age to the Eternal Peace, to where she has been assumed.
Soft and blue are thy robes, my Mother,
Azure and clear as an angel's eyes -
Let me hide in them, oh, my Mother -
Radiant Queen of the summer skies!
Softly piled on the far horizon
Smoky white clouds drifting here and there;
These the border on your blue mantle -
Mother most holy......Virgin most fair!
Deep and blue and wide is the ocean -
Deep as the call of its peace to me;
Jeweled and shining.....Thy veil, my Mother?
Thy silvered veil, oh Star of the sea?
Robert, Cyril, “Mary Immaculate: God's Mother and Mine,” Marist Press, 1946.