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"Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender …"

It’s startling to consider these lines from T.S. Eliot’s haunting poem "Ash Wednesday" some twenty years after I first read them. At that time I was in junior high and had just discovered Eliot. I became enamored with "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Hollow Men." I fancied myself an artist and figured that Eliot’s dark vision of life in the modern world (a vision that changed once he became a Christian) was one full of dramatic, if not always uplifting, images.

I read several more of Eliot’s poems, including "Ash Wednesday," but didn’t say much about them to friends or family. After all, I was a devout, self-described "Bible Christian" who expected the end of the world and Armageddon to come with explosive violence, a far cry from Eliot’s contention that "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper."

This tension between apocalyptic expectation and vaguely literate despair would begin to come to a head while I attended an Evangelical Bible college. During that time I was introduced to the works of Flannery O’Connor and the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, and was reintroduced to "Ash Wednesday." My interest in Prufrock and hollow men had waned, but I was being drawn to the quiet, mysterious "Lady of silences" who Eliot describes as the "Rose of memory" who sits between the yew trees. Who is she? Is she Dante’s Beatrice? Or is she Mary?

Even if she is not Mary, I couldn’t avoid the Marian qualities of the poem. Other questions began rising to the surface: What is Ash Wednesday? Why does Eliot draw so heavily upon liturgical texts? Why did Eliot’s description of the Incarnate Word resonate so deeply with me?

Although Eliot never crossed the Tiber, his later poetry was very Catholic. But as a conservative Evangelical I had been raised with strong prejudices against the Catholic Church. It went without saying that Catholicism was a perverted, apostate form of Christianity, a form of paganism cleverly wrapped in a thin veneer of Christianity. Since Catholics loved ritual, we avoided it. Because they turned the Lord’s Supper into an idolatrous representation of Jesus’ finished work, we downplayed its importance.

Since the Romanists worshipped Mary, we hardly glanced in her direction lest we be tempted by some theological trickery. In the first twenty years of my life I heard three sermons dedicated to Rahab the harlot, which was three times as many sermons as I heard about Mary, the mother of Jesus. And that single sermon was a perfunctory Mother’s Day sermon, adequately summarized as saying, "Mary was a good mom."

While in Bible college I grew in my faith in God while often struggling to make sense of the difficulties of life. Much of my artwork at the time was dark, sometimes angry, and often filled with despair. At the end of my time there I found myself at a crossroads that I could not put into words or even capture in thought. Instead, the inarticulate longings poured out in images, especially two that reoccurred several times: the Crucifixion and the Madonna with the Christ Child.

I had been raised attending a small "Bible chapel" that featured a barren cross on a wall and where no mention was made of Mary. Yet I found myself drawing and painting Jesus on the Cross and Mary holding her Son. I didn’t know why. I would sometimes cry as I worked on them, and I didn’t know why.

But Jesus knew why and so did Mary. It took some time, but a few years later I picked up the newly published Catechism of the Catholic Church. The first sections I looked up were those addressing Mary and her relationship with her Son. Mary had been there all along, the silent Mother praying for a terrified sinner.

And now, today, I can sit in the presence of the Crucified One and pray, in return, "Hail Mary, full of grace…"

This column originally appeared in the August 15-21, 2004 edition of the National Catholic Register. Reprinted by permission.

Carl Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He writes regularly for National Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and other Catholic periodicals.


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