The Goodness of Poetry in Desolate Times

There is a guest blog entry for this week’s Pontifex Minimus blog. Jennifer Reek is a former colleague and dear friend currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Her special academic interest is the multivalent relationship between the imaginative and spiritual sensibilities.  She has a graduate degree from Regis College in Toronto and a doctorate from the University of Glasgow.

This blog is made available with the permission of Go, Rebuilda weekly blog on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and related matters hosted by Sacred Heart University, Connecticut.


“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”— John 10:10

Four years ago, not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was invited to a conference at Heythrop College in London to celebrate the life and work of the Irish Jesuit Michael Paul Gallagher who had died the year before. The conference was titled after one of Gallagher’s books, Dive Deeper, in which he wrote that our neglect of “our human adventure,” of the poetry of life, had led to “a cultural unfreedom, a shared cultural desolation.” Recent years in the UK and the U.S., both of which had been my homes, had certainly been full of what could be called “cultural desolation,” what with Brexit, Trump, and the rise of the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic. I wondered what Gallagher, and more broadly the spiritual traditions of the Jesuits and their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, could offer our desolate world.

At Heythrop I spoke to what was already feared for the Trump reign those first early weeks: there was talk about registering Muslims, of imprisoning and deporting hundreds of thousands or even millions of immigrants, of making lists of “liberal college professors.” The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Shaun King of Black Lives Matter and The New York Daily News had already tracked thousands of hate crimes around the country: swastikas on playgrounds, in the subways, on synagogues; African Americans, Muslims, women, the disabled targeted by mail, by phone, in person. A colleague at the Catholic university where I taught sent out an email the day after the election offering safe space for students and faculty who might have reason to fear. A Muslim student came into his office, he told me, and sat down and wept. She was afraid to leave her house. What should she do? The colleague’s wife, who taught elsewhere, said two of her women students were walking from town to campus when men in a pickup truck flying a confederate flag on election night yelled ‘We will grab your pussies! Trump Nation!’ One of my students told me his parents were “illegal,” though they had lived and worked in the U.S. for decades. He was terrified they would be deported.

In his dark inaugural address, Trump announced the end of “American carnage,” though in truth it was just beginning. Now, after four years of the thief who came to destroy, America is shattered: more than 25 million infected and 400,000 dead by the Coronavirus; millions of jobs and any associated medical coverage lost; thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents at the border; hundreds of thousands hungry and homeless; five dead, more than a hundred police injured and countless traumatized by the white supremacist mob that attacked the Capitol only three weeks ago.

Four years ago, I asked whether Gallagher had something to offer as amelioration. What might he offer us now? In Dive Deeper, Gallagher turned to the “haunting line at the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’.” “We are all aware of the ruins around us,” he wrote. And yet Gallagher claimed that whatever the circumstance, his life had taught him “to believe both in humanity and in God.” Such a disposition is perhaps the best of what he, and Ignatian tradition, can give us. To gain it, Gallagher urged that we explore our inner depths and seek to see anew. He was convinced that “imaginative writers, like biblical prophets” can help us do that by deepening “our angle of seeing.”

This is why Gallagher and the Heythrop gathering have been much on my mind after the inauguration of President Biden, which was such a contrast to the previous one that had left me and so many other Americans bereft and fearful for the future. As fellow blog contributor Michael Sean Winters noted recently in the National Catholic Reporter, “Wednesday, Jan. 20, was a very Catholic day.” Biden began inauguration day with Mass. The night before he hosted a moving Covid Memorial Service, the first national remembrance for the victims of the pandemic, for all of us “united in sorrow as a single people,” as Cardinal Wilton Gregory put it in his opening prayer. Four hundred lanterns lined the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, each representing a thousand Americans lost to the virus. Washington had never looked so beautiful or seemed so sorrowful. We were all aware of the ruins around us.

The inauguration took place at the Capitol, protected by 25,000 National Guard brought to the city to defend it from another possible attack. The day was glorious, with a clear sky and brilliant sun. It was indeed a very Catholic day, and in ways that made me feel joy in being Catholic that I hadn’t felt in many years. There were obvious Catholic elements: Jesuit Leo Donovan gave the invocation. Joe Biden’s inaugural address was filled with the values of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, the importance of the common good and solidarity. “My whole soul is in this,” said the new president, and it was hard to believe otherwise.

But for me it wasn’t so much the overt Catholicity of the event but rather a sacramental sense about the affair that appealed, those outward things that signified something more. Kamala Harris, the first female vice president, wore purple, as did Jill Biden, Michelle Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Purple is a combination of red and blue, so perhaps worn to signify that we are a people united, not to be divided simplistically by Red or Blue states. The color is also a nod to the suffragettes, who wore purple, as did Shirley Chisholm, the first Black Congresswoman, who ran for president in1972. Over against the relentless march of old white males in the Trump administration, here was a multicultural crowd of many races, genders, beliefs, and ages. As the young Black inaugural poet Amanda Gorman spoke in her wondrous performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb,” we are meant “to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions” of humanity, “to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.” What a graced and joyous day, a new angle of seeing.



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