Three poems on the Death of Mary

Not quite liturgically apropos — but close enough, I think, since the Immaculate Conception is on Monday:

Three poems from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Marienleben (Life of Mary cycle). Translated by Knut W. Barde:

The Death of Mary I

The same tall Angel who once brought the news
Of the birth to her,
Stood there, waiting for her to notice him,
And spoke: Now is the time for you to appear.
And she was frightened as then and proved herself
Again as the maid servant, deeply affirming his command.
But he was radiant and coming infinitely closer,
vanished, yet shone from her face, and called
The widely dispersed proselytizers
To gather at the house on the hill,
The house of the last supper. They arrived more heavily
And entered with fear: There she lay, stretched out
In the narrow bedstead, mysteriously bathed in
Ruin and in being chosen,
Wholly unharmed, like one who had not been used,
And listened to angelic song.
Then, when she saw them all waiting behind their candles,
she tore herself away from the surfeit of
Of the voices and with an overflowing heart yet gave away
the two dresses that she possessed,
And lifted her face to this one and that one…
(Oh origin of nameless brooks of tears).

But she settled into her weakness
And pulled the heavens down to Jerusalem
So closely, that her soul,
As it left her, only had to stretch a little:
Already he, who knew everything about her,
Lifted her into her divine nature.

The Death of Mary II

Who had realized that until her arrival
the crowded heavens had been incomplete?
The risen one had taken his seat,
but next to him, for twenty-four years,
there was an empty space. And they began already
to get used to the pure gap,
which seemed to have healed, because with his beautiful
spreading radiance the son was filling it.

Thus, when she entered the heavens,
she did not go towards him, despite her strong longing;
there was no room, only He was there and shone
with a radiance that hurt her.
But just now as her moving figure joined
with the new blessed ones
and stood discreetly, as light with light, next to them,
there erupted from her being such an assault of
glowing light, that the blinded angel who was illuminated by her
cried out: Who is this one?
A wonderment arose. Then they all saw
how God-Father above shielded our Lord,
so that in the mild gloaming
the empty spot could now be seen
like a small pain, a sense of loneliness,
as something he was still bearing, a remnant from
his time on earth, a dried up injury-.
They watched her; she looked ahead with fear,
bent far forward, as if she felt: I am
His most enduring pain-; and suddenly broke forth.
But the angels took her in their fold
and steadied her and sang with blessed voices
and carried her up the final steps.

The Death of Mary III

However, sooner than the apostle Thomas, who
Came after it was too late, the quick angel, who had
long been prepared for this, stepped in
and ordered at the burial place:

Push the stone aside. If you want to know
Where she is, who moves your heart:
Look: just as a lavender-pillow
She had been laid in there for a while,

That in the future the earth would smell of her
In its folds like a fine cloth.
Everything dead (do you feel), everything sick
Is stunned by her fragrance.

Look at the linen: where is it white,
Where becomes blinding and does not shrink?
This light out of this pure corpse
Was more clarifying to him than sunshine

Aren’t you amazed, how gently she escaped him?
It is almost as if she were still here, nothing has moved.
But the Heavens are shaking above:
Man, kneel down and see me go and sing.




The congregation clambers to its feet
At the first slow stirrings of song.
Numbered notes spill from stringed voices
Stirring simultaneous nostalgia and anticipation.

Drums and hearts beat, bonded,
As the worshipers wake to their surroundings.
The leader lifts his arms, sensing the spirit
And the audience accedes, hands raised to a familiar God.

Evoking empathy and ecstasy,
A flame is fanned in every follower
And the crowd cries in one accord:
Hold the Heathen Hammer High!

Psalm 3

Psalm 3

I lie down and I fall asleep,
and I will wake up, for the Lord sustains me.

Whereas the Second Psalm focused on the fear of God as a requisite to knowledge and, ultimately, any form of true power (one that is not founded in the Ego, but rather flows through and from God himself), the Third Psalm shows that the fear of the Lord leads to freedom from the fear of man.

The psalmist writes the words above in the midst of an immanent threat to his life—he is being pursued by attackers who will kill him when they find him. And yet, so confident is he in the Lord that he is able to do perform the most vulnerable act—sleep—even though a letting down of all defenses means a potential loss of life. The writer here is not just free from fear, but from all anxiety.

Interestingly, the writer’s security is not merely a defensive one, but it manifests itself in an active faith of the offensive:

Arise, Lord! Save me, my God!
For you strike the cheekbone of all my foes;
you break the teeth of the wicked

We don’t here see death and utter destruction, but we do see a plea for debilitation. The saving of the righteous happens transpires through the punishment of the wicked.

What is striking about this psalm is the writer finds himself in a place of true desperation

How many are my foes!
How many rise against me!

And the reiterate, no one seems to believe he can (or will) be saved:

How many say of me,
There is no salvation for him in God

“It is not God who will (or can) save, but he may save himself, perhaps” they say. But the psalmist rejects this: On the contrary, it is precisely the Lord who allows him to live, who gives him the ability to continue. It is through this knowledge that he does not fear either man (or himself!), but finds rest in the Lord, who watches over all things.

Psalm 2

And now, kings, give heed;
take warning, judges on earth

Serve the Lord with fear; 
exult with trembling, 

The second Psalm is one centered around fear, specifically the fear of the Lord—the same kind of fear that is considered “the beginning of knowledge” in the first Proverb. A king or ruler, of all people, should be one who fears the Lord, who “trembles before him,” because failing to do so only increases pride, ultimately leading to destruction. Interestingly, the ruler’s pride here isn’t characterized as a “worldly foolishness,” like a mere stubbornness, but rather one that invokes the wrath of the Lord. 

Accept correction
lest he become angry and you perish along the way

when his anger suddenly blazes up

Pride here isn’t characterized as an inwardly destructive force, but rather one that destroys from outside the self—pride is a provocation, a wind on the embers of the wrath of God.

But contrary to all of this destruction, the second psalm ends on on a positive admonition:

Blessed are all who take refuge in him! [The Lord] 

This imagery of “refuge,” of the Lord as a “strong tower” is one that will crop up again and again in the Psalms. There is a prevailing discourse of power that persists through these songs, one that compares the King (or ego) with the King of Kings.

Where does true power lie? Only where “will and power and one.”

Psalm 1

He is like a tree
planted near streams of water,

that yields its fruit in season

Such is the man who “does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in the company with scoffers.” A man who delights in the law of the Lord, “and on his law he meditates day and night.”

Patience, is a motif here—or, more aptly, diligence or perseverance. We read that the fruit that is yielded is not immediate, but rather it is produced “in season.” When is this season for harvest? When Jesus spoke of a harvest, it was in reference to the “end of the age.” But I think we may be allowed to read this not in an exclusively eschatological light, but rather understanding that the fruit yielded from the labor of righteousness comes intermittently, in various “seasons”.


We are not to despair when the the fruit is lacking, but we are to wait, and to continue working.

The second half of the psalm echoes this motif focusing on the wicked,

“But not so are the wicked! They are like chaff driven by the wind…”

The image here of chaff, of something light being caught up into the daily shifting winds, is an image of idleness, of “flightiness,” characterized by submitting to the whims of fancy. It is a damnable evil, but one less severe than others (such as deceit or malice), one found in the likes of Dante’s 5th canto where the lustful are caught up in the powerful winds in the second circle of hell.

We find then that the first Psalm is fitting as ordered — it readies the one willing to pursue righteousness, telling him to be prepared to wait and continue in labor (persevere) until the time of harvest.


Our hearts aren’t hardened
Only deaf
Soft, but cannot hear
A deafness wrought from no defect,
But songs played in our ear

We’ve been charmed!
And by a tune
That we ourselves have sung

Instead of list’ning
To the notes
That God in heav’n has rung

A different kind of love we’d know
If our great chorus be brought low
And from above as stars and angels sing

Our hearts might hear the ancient song
composed before the primal dawn
A music woven into


The Fourth Mark

As Catholics, we oftentimes talk about the four “marks” of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic (CCC 811). These marks are deeply rooted both in Sacred Scripture, as well as the Church’s rich Tradition. They’re so crucial to the Christian faith, in fact, that we profess them each and every Sunday in the Nicene Creed:

…I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…

Sadly, many Catholics (including myself) fail to profess these truths with their words and their lives. And although all of these “marks” are essential, one in particular is easy to ignore: apostolic.

As I’ve met more and more Catholics, I’m reminded of the fact that the Church is made up of billions of people, each one with their own unique thoughts and opinions. And, more often than not, many of these thoughts and opinions don’t quite line up with the teachings of the Church. Don’t get me wrong—faith is a journey, and not everyone winds up at the same place at the same time. But when we openly oppose the teaching of our priests, our bishops, and our Holy Father, we are denying the apostolicity (among other things) of the Church.


In this light, it’s important for us to understand what it means for the Church to be apostolic:

1) The Church’s teachings find their authority in Christ

In St. Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus “appointed twelve [whom he also named apostles] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:14 NABRE). Later, Jesus says to Peter: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Again, after his resurrection, Christ appears to the apostles and says to them: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). Clearly, Christ has given his apostles great authority—not just over preaching and teaching, but also over the forgiveness of our sins.

2) These teachings are passed from one generation to the next

After Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the apostles meet to select a successor to Judas. St. Peter stands and prays: “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have  chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24-25). The apostles, by the will of God, pass their authority to a new apostle—St. Matthias. Similarly, we see St. Paul exhorting St. Timothy to continue this chain of apostolic succession: “what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Tim 2:2). St. Irenaus, writing in the second century, summarizes this well:

It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known to us throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors down to our own times. . . (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3)

When we read from Scripture and our Church Fathers, it’s plain to see that Christ intended for his authority to be consistently passed from one generation of apostles to the next—all the way up to the present day.


3) The authority of the bishops = the authority of Christ

This sentiment has been repeated countless times by our earliest bishops and Church Fathers. Here are but a few examples:

Obey your leaders and defer to them, for they keep watch over you and will have to give an account… (Hebrews 13:17)

Let all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father, and the priests, as you would the Apostles. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans, Chapter 8)

Therefore it is necessary to obey the presbyters who are in the Church,—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles. (St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Bk. 4, Ch. 26)

It’s important to note here that the Church doesn’t teach the infallibility of individual bishops (apart from the entire College). As Christ’s chosen apostles, however, each bishop ought to be awarded the deference and obedience that accompanies his station.

With all these exhortations from Scripture and Tradition, we ought to re-examine our views on the Church’s apostolicity. Do we believe that the Church’s teachings come from Christ? Do we believe that our modern-day bishops are teaching with apostolic authority? Are we thinking or acting in rebellion to Christ’s apostles?

Perhaps you or I discover that we aren’t quite in accordance with our bishop. What are we to do? The Church, in her infinite wisdom, offers us this simple guidance in Lumen Gentium:

Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. (25)

Holy Mother Church doesn’t disparage our legitimate fears and feelings. She merely asks for our trust. If we trust her to administer the medicine of immortality each week in the Eucharist, perhaps we ought to trust the teaching of her apostles.

Next Sunday, and every Sunday thereafter, may we faithfully and fervently pronounce:

I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.


I’ve been addicted to this game for the past three weeks. It’s the perfect addiction: deceptively easy to play (most of the game can be played with 2 keys, sometimes a third, and the first half can even be mostly keysmash) and seemingly impossible to win. You learn your strategy and try to perfect it and just launch it over and over, because each failure was only one number tile away from a win, and it’ll have to happen next time…

Actually, I’ve been addicted to my own game for a long time, the game where I try to get my life to fit together in the way I want so that I can merge those pairs and bask in the endorphine rush of a new glowing tile. I want the sense that things are going somewhere, that I am taking the right steps, that I can win. Losing is the fear at my elbow, waiting to take over when I can’t force the gratifying situation in the moment that I want it.

What I’m saying is, I might have control issues. Whether it’s fear or pride, or just the hope that I could escape the pressure of preparing for what’s next and relax enough to focus on the actual business of being alive, it has sent me into innumerable slumps over the past year. This must be the real end of childhood: no longer passively submitting to whatever is supposed to happen next, and no longer passively freaking out about the challenges of “real life” and then pushing the hard decisions forward a few years. I have matured into ACTIVELY freaking out.

So, back to this game. Because it’s struck me, over the past few weeks, that the only way to win the game is to stop obsessing over lining everything up neatly every time. You’ll have two fours that have to go in opposite directions, or two eights stranded in opposite corners with only twos and 16s checkerboarded in between, and that’s okay — because the larger pattern requires your largest tile in a corner, and you cannot let it get out of place. At first it seems like you’ll be hopelessly gridlocked and that you are blindly sacrificing the smaller tiles just to box your biggest tile in. What you eventually realize is that, to win, you have to trust that the game will keep offering up these smaller tiles, over and over, and out of this slightly unpredictable, chaotic generosity, there will always be another chance to merge your tiles, if you just focus on matching up what you see and keeping the biggest in the corner. You have to practice a kind of half-blindness and trust that the part you can’t see yet will work in your favor.

What is the reason for elaborating on this fairly obvious metaphor? Well, not to brag or anything, but I totally beat the game last night (and even kept going past the 2048 tile, SUCKAS). So I feel that my ponderous moralizing now has some street cred.

Trusting God and trusting others with my happiness is definitely a harder project (and, I suspect, may take longer than three weeks).

a thing happened at Mass and I wrote a poem about it

At the Feast of the Annunciation
I heard him again:
the man with the voice
like unto a bellow in the furnace,
an unquiet, incorporeal reverberation
rising to the rafters.

At least a lag behind everyone else
his Amens resound into eternity,
a terrible trumpet blat
up from the rolling out belly of the earth,
a roar of horror, or an angel’s shout
shattering the vaults of dressed stone
we have considerately built to observe our worship.

The cantor is a professional;
she doesn’t miss a beat.
But others of us twitch toward the disrupt
after every antiphonal abuse
and I have thought to myself: I wonder
if he knows what he is doing, wonder
if he can hear himself at all
amidst the beauty of the choir, the obedient
lumbering from the pews,
the polyphonic pirouettes of Catholic artifice.

Before I’d only heard him, but today I saw
a man deaf, all numb to his noise, knuckled
hands gripping the pew in front.
A quiver in the angle of his head
made me imagine him an aged virtuoso
finding himself no longer the master of his
voice unrecognizable and uncontrolled,
Gabriel on a warped tape,
his tongue meeting his thoughts with nothing
hemming him, transparent as Mary’s mouth.

Hail, utterer of the word
I do not strain to hear you
but in heaven you cry in exquisite time
first, not last. Our songs there are delayed,
the rest of us, well habituated
to march in ancient notation,
but you groan the Spirit’s meter,
the voice of an old man or a ghost
dead as a monk to the world of sound,
in contemplation of the Virgin’s silence.

Speak, Lord, your servant is
a wind rending the mountains, a waxing fire,
a still small voice.