"Will the veiled sister between the slender
Its startling to consider these lines from
T.S. Eliots 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 Eliots
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,
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 OConnor 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 Dantes
Beatrice? Or is she Mary?
Even if she is not Mary, I couldnt 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 Eliots description of the Incarnate Word resonate
so deeply with me?
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 didnt know why. I would sometimes cry as I worked
on them, and I didnt 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.
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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