Like a canine with its teeth clenched around a rawhide bone, occasionally I’ll come across a line or two of poetry that I cannot dispatch.
Such an experience occurred a few months ago. I was doing research for an article about the life of Father Tom Heath, O.P., a holy writer, teacher, and African missionary. During one conversation, a priest who had had Father Tom as his Novice Master shared that he has never forgotten a time during his novitiate year—some forty years ago now—when he heard a knock on his door. He opened it to find Father Tom standing before him with a handwritten poem scrawled out on a sheet torn from a legal pad, a gift between two men with a shared affinity for the written word.
He recounted the first few lines of that poem—lines that had left a deep imprint on his heart—but as for the rest of it, he could not recall. Though Father Tom published many poems during his lifetime, this particular one is not among them; it seems to have been written and passed on as a gift so spontaneously that its author kept no duplicate. The location of the original copy is unknown; perhaps it was destroyed decades ago or is buried away in some dust-covered trunk somewhere.
Yet the lines which had been treasured interiorly for so many years and were now transmitted to me lingered in my mind. Conveying items perennially essential to our Christian vocation—compassion, mercy, and an understanding of our fallen state—I wondered about what direction the poem had taken from there. It was as if I had been invited to hear the first few bars of a beautiful orchestral piece, only to have some prankster in the back pull the fire alarm, prematurely ending the work in its very nascency.
Here in New York this summer, the lines began to resonate even more within me as I worked next to the Missionaries of Charity—Mother Teresa’s sisters—at their soup kitchen and homeless shelter in the Bronx. One evening at sunset, after serving dinner to the men who had come to the homeless shelter, I went out to the sisters’ garden to pray. In the garden, there is a beautiful white statue of Our Lady. The older sisters attest that Mother Teresa, when visiting the convent, would always stop to sit and pray in front of that statue.
While praying, I was moved to take those lines from Father Tom’s poem and write a few more. What follows is the fruit of that happy labor.
My Heart Is Pierced by Gentle Things
My heart is pierced by gentle things
Caught in cruel circumstances.
By drunkards and druggies
Dandies and dropouts:
All these rend asunder
The calculated calcification
Of my starched-stiff self.
My heart is moved
Toward each and all these
Vessels of the image Divine
Long or lately defaced by garish graffiti
Of post-lapsarian pride.
And when I permit my eyes to search
The heavy, knowing pairs of theirs
I see they see I see in them
And I dare say they see it in me too:
Our Lord’s own Passion renewed.
Such a knowing glance
Between such distant men
Not so distant
But really very much the same.
The thirsty glance of piercéd hearts
Leads each a small step further
Along the Way’s way
And to Love’s sweet refrain:
“You did it for me.”
Image: Old Beggar, Vasily Tropinin