I was at an archdiocesan meeting the other day, and the remarks of a prelate in attendance seemed to argue that the Catholic Church has a corner on Truth.
I don’t think I buy that. Throughout my life, I’ve learned a lot from lots of people, many of whom weren’t Catholic.
Brooks, who died in December, 2000, was a poet of soaring lyricism and flinty vision whose work and way of living were rooted in the black experience in the United States. She was also more than a little skeptical about organized religion.
Born in Kansas in 1917, she spent virtually her entire life on Chicago’s South Side where, through most of that time, she was segregated, like the hundreds of thousands of other blacks, from the rest of the city. In 1950, she was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, and, as poet laureate of Illinois, she was an apostle of poetry and truth-speaking throughout the nation, especially to schoolchildren.
Mining her poetry
It was in that capacity that I sought to interview her three times in connection with stories I was writing for the Chicago Tribune where I then worked.
Each time, she politely, graciously, wrote back to decline.
But, in one case — a sort of glass half-full/half-empty story I was doing about whether life today is better or worse than in earlier eras — she urged me to mine her poetry and use what I wanted.
I took her up on the offer, and quoted from a poem she had written to her two children and to all young people:
Say to them,
say to the down-keepers,
‘Even if you are not ready for day
it cannot always be night.’….
It was a poem of hope, a poem of optimism, and it was a perfect coda to my essay which contended that life, in whatever age, is a mix of the good and the bad. One can dwell on the bad and wallow in self-pity. Or one can look at the richness of existence — and participate in life. In other words, live.
Leaping for joy
I thought again of this often in the month after Brooks died Brooks’ death, particularly as Christmas approached. On the last Sunday of Advent, the day before the holy day, the gospel, from Luke, was about the newly pregnant Mary going to visit her cousin Elizabeth. As Mary approached the home and called out to her kinswoman, the baby — the future John the Baptist — leapt her Elizabeth’s womb.
He leapt for joy. Who wouldn’t? It is, at once, among the most transcendent and most human moments in the Bible.
(Maybe every baby in every womb who has kicked to the delight of mother and father is leaping for joy at the coming of Jesus.)
And Mary herself was filled with joy. She surely knew the pain of childbirth and motherhood that awaited her. She was certainly confused, overwhelmed, at the thought that, even though still a virgin, she was to give birth — and give birth to the Son of God.
It would have been eminently understandable if she had quaked and quavered. Instead, she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid; for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed…”
Faced with hope or despair, Mary chose hope. Faced with diving into life or hiding away in a cave, Mary dove.
Which brought me back to Gwendolyn Brooks.
At her funeral, many of the mourners who spoke quoted the same two-line verse from one of her poems. It summarizes, as much as anything can, her poetry and philosophy. It captures, too, the delight of John the Baptist and the elation of Mary. And it encapsulates the message that Jesus brought.
This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
Patrick T. Reardon
A somewhat different version of this essay appeared in U.S. Catholic in December, 2001.