In youth my wings were strong and tireless,
But I did not know the mountains.
In age I know the mountains
But my weary wings could not follow my vision –
Genius is wisdom and youth.
–Edgar Lee Masters (1868-1950)
Try as you may, you will not find 20th-century American poet Edgar Lee Masters’ “Alexander Throckmorton” in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. Nor is it likely that this petite poem, expressing a man’s lament for a life that never could combine the capacities of youth and the wisdom of maturity, was on the mind of anyone who came to St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC, last month to listen to Pope Francis address the American bishops. Nevertheless, something in “Alexander Throckmorton” struck Pope Francis as meaningful and worthy of inclusion into his remarks that afternoon. As such, perhaps we could benefit from a closer look at the poem and the ways in which Francis’ appeal to it may encourage us to proclaim the Gospel in our daily lives as Americans.
The entire poem, a mere five lines, is quite simple in its narrative structure. The narrator provides a description of two ages in his life and then makes a declaration. In the age of his youth, the speaker had both strength and stamina, but lacked knowledge of “the mountains.” Conversely, in his maturity, he has come to possess the knowledge he had lacked in youth, but presently his “weary wings” deny him the chance to pursue what he sees. This inability leads him to conclude that “Genius is wisdom and youth.” Genius has ultimately escaped Alexander Throckmorton because in his youth he lacked wisdom and in his wise old age he lacked youthful vitality. In light of his failure, the poem’s terse last line is tinged with discouragement. He seems resigned to the fact that genius is definitively out of reach, like the vision that lies beyond the mountains.
How did Pope Francis, the former literature teacher, weave this melancholic poem into his exhortatory address to the bishops? One might think he would use it to rail against a fatalistic culture. Instead, he chose to baptize a part of Masters’ poem, making it the very prescription for what ails us. Speaking to the American prelates he said:
Nor am I unaware of the efforts made over the years to build up the Church amid the prairies, mountains, cities and suburbs of a frequently inhospitable land, where frontiers are always provisional and easy answers do not always work. What does work is the combination of the epic struggle of the pioneers and the homely wisdom and endurance of the settlers. As one of your poets has put it, ‘strong and tireless wings’ combined with the wisdom of one who ‘knows the mountains.’
Pope Francis recognizes the difficulty the American Church faces. The Church wishes all people in this country to possess true wisdom and a true vitality. But more often than not, what she sees in the people to whom she ministers is neither. In place of wisdom she sees a foolishness that chases after worldly goods and glamour. Instead of a youthful vitality, Americans more recently seem weary—a weariness leading to disillusionment and divisiveness and ultimately to a despair of ever attaining “genius,” that unity of sagacity and childlike spirit that will satisfy our restless souls. In the absence of hope, the culture of false autonomy and the culture of death result.
This despair is not only external to the Church. It threatens to creep into the minds of the faithful and their pastors too. We begin to believe that our wings have become worn out and our spirit tired. Convinced that neither we nor anyone else can “follow our vision”—the Christian vision as found in Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium—our eyes begin to look not to the mountains of the Lord, but rather gaze decidedly east of Eden. Soon then, the ersatz gospel we preach with our words becomes a mere attempt to justify and rationalize our shortcomings in living out the true Gospel.
Pope Francis challenges his fellow bishops, and all of us, to something more. He calls on us to lift up our eyes to where they always should be. Setting aside the “easy answers,” the only reliable answer for us and our nation is the help that comes from a Church endowed with “strong and tireless wings” and wisdom of “the mountains.” From whence shall this help come? It shall come from the Lord! For it is only in the Lord that our “youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Ps 103:5). It is only “to the godly that He hath given wisdom” (Sir 43:37). It is only in the Church, in a loving relationship with the Triune God, and in fidelity to His will, that we come to know the unsurpassable joy of the Gospel and the proclamation that the risen Christ, by His cross and resurrection, truly does “make all things new” (Rev 21:5).
How blessed indeed are we to have had Christ’s Vicar in our midst! Pope Francis spoke eloquently in another address in Philadelphia about the family, saying, “Let us care for the family. Let us defend the family, because there our future is at stake.” Bishops from around the world are currently gathered in Rome to address the state of the family and issues surrounding family life. May we offer our prayers for them, especially our American bishops, that they may be strong and tireless defenders of such an important institution.
Image: Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley