"Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
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,
I read several more of Eliots poems, including "Ash Wednesday,"
but didnt 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 Eliots 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 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?
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 Lords 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 Mothers 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 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.
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.
Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He writes regularly for National
Catholic Register, Our Sunday Visitor, and other Catholic periodicals.