I retreated. So did the spouse.
On a recent January weekend, the spouse and I went to the Trinity Retreat Center. The Center’s fifty-five acres of pretty New England countryside ninety miles from our Brooklyn home abut the Housatonic River and, cliché-like, require crossing a covered bridge a few hundred feet before entering the property.
The Center is affiliated with the Manhattan church often called Trinity Wall Street. Trinity Church sits at the western edge of Wall Street, and a Trinity Church building has been at this site since 1697. The first building was destroyed in minutes on September 21, 1776, in a fire that consumed much of New York City. A new structure was dedicated in 1790, but it was razed in 1839 after a heavy snowfall damaged the roof.
The present Trinity building, designed by Richard Upjohn, was completed in 1846. In all its incarnations, the church has been surrounded by a two-acre graveyard, although the cemetery preceded the church. The oldest tombstone is that of Richard Churcher, who died in 1681 at the age of five. This churchyard has a monument to Revolutionary War martyrs and the curious gravestone of Richard Leeson, who died in 1794. His marker has dots in a series of boxes. A hundred years later, the code was broken and revealed the redundant cemetery message, “Remember Death.”
Tourists come to the graveyard to look at the burial plots of famous Americans, with Alexander Hamilton’s monument most visited. (A smaller monument stands over Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, who died in the shadow of the approaching Civil War in 1854.) I have read but have not seen that people leave money, usually coins but sometimes bills, at Hamilton’s monument to honor the creator of America’s financial system. A church custodian collects it daily for the church to use in its service to the poor.
I have been told that Trinity Church’s leaders can still be buried in the churchyard, but if so, that is unusual. In 1830 the city forbade creating new burial south of Canal Street, where Trinity sits, and as the city spread northward, new cemeteries were banned in most of Manhattan. However, Trinity owns a cemetery about ten miles north of the church at Broadway and 155th Street, which I believe is the only active cemetery in Manhattan.
The church building remains much the same today as when it was built. Certainly the wonderful description in the 1930s The WPA Guide to New York City is still accurate:
The church is constructed of dark brownstone in a free rendering of perpendicular English Gothic. Although only 79 feet wide and 166 feet long, the building is so beautifully proportioned that it holds the attention, even in its present setting, enclosed as it is by high office buildings that would dwarf any lesser structure. Graceful porches project beyond its wide side entrances. The main entrance, at the foot of Wall Street, is in the base of the rectangular tower fronting the nave. The tower is surmounted by an octagonal spire with a cross at the top. For years, the spire, attaining a height of 280 feet above the steps, served as a landmark. Both the tower and the spire are of brownstone ashlar, and are exceptionally fine in workmanship.
Trinity was New York’s tallest building until 1890. A saying had it that while the church’s spire reached for the heavens the front door reached for Wall Street, for from its inception Trinity was the home of the distinguished, well-bred, and wealthy.
Although the Dutch had ceded New Amsterdam to the English in 1664, thirty years later the Dutch still had a strong presence in what was then New York. Trinity was established in 1697 as a place for the English to worship other than in Dutch churches. Englishmen responded and joined the new congregation. The names of important early members of Trinity live on in the names of nearby streets such as Vesey, Duane, and Reade.
In 1705 Queen Anne cemented Trinity’s preeminence by granting the church the land west of Broadway from the present Fulton Street a mile or more northward to almost Fourteenth Street. With this act, Trinity became perhaps the wealthiest Anglican, later Episcopalian, parish anywhere.
That wealth took a while to develop as the land remained largely undeveloped in the eighteenth century, but as Manhattan pushed north in the 1800s, the land was divided into lots, generally 20 by 100 feet, and leased. (Queen Anne also granted Trinity the right to all unclaimed shipwrecks and beached whales, but I know nothing that indicates that the blubber and flotsam and jetsam were of great importance to the church.)
In the mid-nineteenth century, after the construction of the present building, Trinity’s management drew critics. While English New York was religiously tolerant when the original building was erected, the Anglican church was an established one. Taxes from the members of all the denominations built the church. However, New York’s revolutionary constitution disestablished the Anglican church. Without state support, only private funding built the 1846 building, and as a result Trinity had some financial difficulties. The church cut back on its missionary work and aid to the poor. Knowing that the church was land rich, prominent citizens were shocked by this. Government hearings and investigations were held that showed that many Trinity lots were leased to rich people at low rates, with the Astor family especially benefiting from this practice. When this came to light, officials said that lands should be stripped from the church so that they would better serve the public interest. Trinity responded to the outcry by selling some of its lands and resuming its level of good works.
The nineteenth-century critics of Trinity Church’s real estate practices had become quiet. That changed in 1908 when Charles Edward Russell published an impassioned, eloquent, muckraking article, “The Tenements of Trinity Church,” in Everybody’s Magazine. Russell had walked and studied the blocks north of Trinity Church and had gained access to many of the buildings on the narrow streets. He reported that Trinity leased its vacant lots, and tenants built on them. The leases were not the 99-year kind but for short terms, and, as a result, construction was often makeshift. Trinity generally did not renew the leases when their terms ended and would not buy the erected buildings. The owners could tear them down for the materials or walk away from them, as most did. Trinity, then, basically, inherited the buildings.
As a result, the church owned hundreds of tenements, which originally were single family homes but, Russell wrote, now housed five or six families. He branded them the worst tenements in New York: “Of all the tenement-houses that there are on Trinity land I have not found one that is not a disgrace to civilization and to the city of New York. . . . Whenever I saw a house that looked as if it were about to fall down, one that looked in every way rotten and weary and dirty and disreputable, I found that it was owned by Trinity or stood upon Trinity ground.”
He wrote about the crushed lives of the people he found: “She had lived in tenement-houses all her life, and not being the kind that finds refuge in drink, the utter dreariness of her surroundings had shriveled away the soul of humanity in her until nothing was left but this shape of perpetual fear. . . . She was dressed in rags, she was gaunt and bent, and in her eyes was an unspeakable terror of you and of me and of all the world that had brought her down to this.”
He recognized that Trinity was not entirely responsible for the conditions he observed and that the church did many good things, but still: “Ah, yes, blessings on the Sunday-school excursions, blessings on the trade-schools, blessings on the parochial schools, blessings on the fruit and flower missions, blessings on the organ music, blessings on the chapel guilds, blessings on the contributions for the poor of St. John’s. Beautiful, indeed, are all these things. But while they keep their wonted way, the mill of the tenement-house goes on crushing, and the products of the crushing stare us in the face with ugly questions, not to be answered with Sunday-school excursions.”
Russell discussed some “strange features” to “this extraordinary story,” but he concluded “The Tenements of Trinity Church” simply: “But stranger than all is this: that a Christian church should be willing to take money from such tenements as Trinity owns in the old Eighth Ward.”
This devastating article had its effect. Shortly after its 1908 publication, Trinity Church tore down the tenements and built office buildings and warehouses in their places. I do not know what happened to the residents of the Trinity tenements, many of whom, as even Russell conceded, paid only small rents.
Today the church owns little or none of this land and of the rest of the original Queen Anne grant. I doubt that it was surveyed back in 1706. Different sources report slightly different sizes, but it was between 200 and 300 acres. A report a few years ago said that Trinity had retained only fourteen acres of the original grants.
The church gave away about two-thirds of its land, primarily to religious institutions of various faiths and to schools. For example, Trinity gave the land for the original Kings College, which later became Columbia University. It sold or gave land to the city for parks and other public purposes. But other lands were sold to business enterprises, and Trinity commercially developed lands it retains. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Trinity constructed what was probably the first Manhattan building exclusively for offices just north of the church — the Trinity Building, which has since been torn down.
Trinity has been and remains a rich institution. A recent estimate is that its assets are worth close to $10 billion. A news report of a few years ago said that the church had a tax exempt “diversified portfolio” of $6 billion.
Not surprisingly, complaints are made that the church does not do enough good with its largesse. I don’t know if that is right, but from what I can tell, the church does do at least a lot of good with its money. It has many different fellowship programs for its parishioners, but it also helps many outside its own membership. For example, it has outreach programs for prisoners and the homeless. It serves 35,000 lunches to those in need. It has an affordable 325-unit residence for elderly and disabled people. It helps with housing for needy graduate students. Trinity has helped other churches experiencing financial difficulties. The church has a formal grant program for other worthwhile organizations, which in 2022 disbursed over $23 million. And they do much more good, I suppose. I don’t know if they do “enough,” but I do know that many have benefited from Trinity Church’s largesse.
Although not a member of Trinity, I have been a beneficiary of the church. Trinity not only has music at its services; it has frequent free concerts for the community at large including a regular series of performances at midday. When I retired, I started attending ten or more Trinity concerts a year at two different venues. Varied musicians performed at the church itself—a brass ensemble, jazz trios, a bass and cellist. Perhaps the most remarkable performer I heard was the renowned Moses Josiah. Renowned, I say, but in very small circles. Josiah played the musical saw. His repertoire included some classical pieces, John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a hymn I associate with my Sunday School days.
The brief program notes said that Josiah was recognized as a Master Sawyer by the Sawyer Association Worldwide. I did not know that one who played the saw was a sawyer (some not-in-depth research also found the term “sawist” and “sawplayer”), and I had never heard of SAW. (My research revealed other striking factoids, including that a member of The Pogues as well as Marlene Dietrich played the musical saw, sometimes referred to as the “singing saw.” Don’t you wish you had seen Marlene, bent blade clasped between her knees, bow a saw?)
At the performance, Josiah was briefly interviewed and said that he had learned the instrument in his native Guyana, had been a winner on “The Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour”, and had played for England’s Queen Elizabeth. Josiah then went on to thank the Lord, referring to his musical ability as a gift from God. I was happy that Trinity had given me the chance to see and hear his remarkable performance.
In retirement I started going to Trinity’s weekday music. However, I went more often to St. Paul’s, a chapel of Trinity located four or five blocks north of the church. St. Paul’s, too, is a historic building. Its cornerstone was laid in 1764, and it is the oldest church building in New York City. The AIA Guide to New York City says it “is as close to the original as any building requiring maintenance over 200 years could be.” The WPA Guide’s description is still accurate: “The light, spacious interior is handsomely decorated with a barrel vault carried on slender columns, and a gallery on each side.” St. Paul’s looks and feels much different from the neo-gothic mother church. (A painting marks George Washington’s pew. Immediately after his inauguration Washington and Congress went to a St. Paul’s service. The first president did not go to Trinity Church because no church building then stood on the Trinity site. The original building had been destroyed by the fire of 1776. By the time the second building was constructed, the federal government no longer met in New York.)
At first I resisted the signs that told me there were regular concerts at St. Paul’s titled “Bach at One.” I have infrequently attended classical concerts and have found my attention almost always wanders at some point. And while Mozart, Brahms, or Mahler might conceivably have had some appeal, Bach did not sing out to me. On the other hand, as I learned that these choral concerts were only an hour long and free (which always appeals) I urged myself to try at least one, especially since they were easy to get to, and I almost never had any plans in my retired life at 1 PM on a winter Monday or Wednesday. When I finally went, I found that the sixteen-person professional Trinity choir performed two Bach cantatas accompanied by the professional Trinity Baroque Orchestra playing period instruments. The more I went the more I enjoyed. I did not always revel in the solos, but I loved the choral music. I became something of a regular.
This made me even more interested in Trinity’s music, and I logged into their website frequently and signed up for their emails. I learned much about the church from this, including that they held retreats out of the city a half dozen times a year. Most held little interest for me, but then I showed the spouse the notice for one that was to be a weekend-long study of the Song of Songs and how that love poem had influenced poets through the centuries. It was to be led by a Canadian graduate student who was about to get his Ph.D. with a dissertation about John Donne.
This did not look like a devotional retreat as much as a literary one. Poetry and I have seldom seen eye to eye, but I thought that forty-eight hours might put us on a more equal footing. And a winter weekend in the countryside seemed as if it could be nice. The spouse and I decided that we could at least tolerate it and perhaps we might even find it interesting. Hell, oops, heck, it might even be fun. We decided to go.
With only a bit of bickering about the route, we crossed the covered bridge, turned right, and entered the 55-acre Trinity Retreat Center at 4PM on a January Friday. We entered a deceptively modest looking building, which was in fact the equivalent of a 25-room hotel. (Hotel-like but without a bar or a minibar.) Our room with a king size bed was spacious and modern and overlooked the Housatonic River (no TV, of course). The public areas were furnished as I thought a country retreat should be: comfortable sofas with mis-matched chairs, window seats, tables with worn finishes, patterned but slightly worn rugs that would have looked right in a child’s playroom, and fireplaces with seasoned-wood blazes so good they looked as if they might be fake (they weren’t). Everything appeared to have been recently updated with fresh paint, gleaming floors, state-of-the-art fire alarms, new plantings. Wrap-around porches faced the river, but it was too cold on this January weekend to use them.
Meals were eaten at a collection of communal tables, one of which was set aside for non-talkers who wanted a hint of a silent retreat. The food was prepared by in-house cooks with fresh ingredients. In summer their own gardens provide a farm-to-table menu. The food was healthy and delicious. Its bounty was its only flaw; I overate at every meal.
I was in the second week of a three-week cold and did not feel strong enough to hike the grounds. I did not even walk the prayer labyrinth, but I did make it to the barn, which housed six rescue donkeys. We got in the pen with them, and they seemed to enjoy being petted and scratched for a while, and then they seemed to indicate either satisfaction or boredom and started drifting away. (I now own a Trinity Retreat Center t-shirt with cartoon depictions of these gentle creatures.)
While the accommodations and the surroundings at the Retreat Center of Manhattan’s Trinity Church were a pleasant bonus, we were assembled there (some 30 of us) for the weekend to examine the Biblical Song of Songs and related poems. We had an introductory session on Friday evening. The leader asked our names and where we were from, but also why we were there and about our spirituality. I was third to speak and a bit nervous since I could hardly claim religious fervor of any kind. I said that I read the Bible some and that I hoped that the weekend might help me understand poetry better. I continued by saying that I identified neither as religious or spiritual, and that a question of my spirituality just seemed irrelevant to me. No outcries of disgust or amazed looks followed. Whether with tolerance, understanding, or politeness, my comments seemed accepted. More than that, the eighth speaker said that she identified with and was adopting my comments.
It turned out that others were not connected to the church and only some were what I would describe as a “seeker.” Six women came as a group and seemed mostly interested in comradeship. Some of the others were regular churchgoers, and several were Trinity clergy. Even so, there was little formal religiosity. Of course, meals and sessions were preceded by prayers, but there was no formal or informal proselytizing. Optional evening and morning prayer services were offered.
The retreaters’ common thread was an interest in the topic; everyone sought a better understanding of a Book of the Bible. And all were sharp, maybe even perspicacious. When I have had occasion to travel on a group tour, there is always someone along who is the group idiot — a buffoon, or an ignoramus who might say something such as, “You mean to tell me there is a North and a South Korea.” This was not true at the retreat. Every comment about what we read — and almost every person spoke at some point — was not only sensible but worth pondering.
Our study sessions started on Saturday morning. We were fortunate, or should I say blessed, to be led by Nate Wall, soon to get his doctorate from a Toronto institution. His dissertation is on John Donne, but his expertise on the Hebrew Bible was what was most valuable for us.
He would start each session with a short prayer, give a brief background about the topic, and ask a question to get the discussion going. Nate did not have a lectern, which would not have contained him. As he talked, he took two steps forward, rocked on his heels, then a step back, paused, a step to the left, another step back. As he talked, his eyes were alive looking for anyone who wanted to say something. When someone did, his gaze did not waver from them, and he stood still and listened. He then seamlessly incorporated those comments into the flow of the discussion.
He made it seem easy, but I know it is not. I have done similar things in court, law school classes, and community forums. It requires the ability to listen, and few people truly have that. The mind must stay focused on what is being said and not wander even for an instant. The leader must have tremendous control of the subject matter to incorporate comments into the discussion. Flexibility is required. The leader cannot have a rigid notion of how the session should proceed because the questions and comments will always take it somewhere else. The leader must be equable and remain enthusiastic. A good sense of humor is often needed. And it is useful if, like Nate, the leader never says an um or its equivalent.
Nate was as good a discussion leader as I have seen. With his knowledge, ability, enthusiasm, infectious smile, and curly hair, I could see future college students developing a crush on him. The crushes, however, would go unrequited. Nate’s lovely wife Julia was also at the retreat. Almost eight months pregnant, she was even more attractive than Nate. An ordained Canadian Baptist minister, she worked for a Baptist nonprofit. The love between the two of them was almost a field force. The admiring looks from one to the other gave me a warm smile. I am often cynical, but Julia and Nate made me think that the future could be good.
In preparation for the retreat, I read Song of Songs a few days before we got there. This much was clear: it was a love poem. I know that I do not have a good appreciation of poetry. I may feel the aptness, power, or beauty of a single line or image, but I almost never enjoy or appreciate an entire poem. Poetry, it too often seems, must be approached as a puzzle but with no one solution or right answer. Any satisfaction I get does not seem to be worth the trouble. I read and stumble and then conclude that I don’t really care what Yeats or Auden is saying.
For years, I was fascinated with Pound and thought I might write about his imprisonment, trial, and hospitalization. I read books and articles about him, but I thought that to write well about him I should have some appreciation or at least understanding of his poetry. I started reading the Cantos and quickly concluded I was not going to be writing about Ezra.
As one fascinated by Brooklyn and Manhattan and beyond, I thought Whitman was a natural for me. I tried. A few lines stood out, but I soon became bored. Of course, I have enjoyed some Dickinson, and to my surprise, I seem to feel something significant when I read Wallace Stevens, but don’t ask me to explain what I have read. Only rarely do I “get” poetry.
Maybe, I thought, the retreat organized by Manhattan’s Trinity Church would help me to appreciate Song of Songs and some other poetry. There is an immediate difficulty, though, because Song was in translation. I always have doubts about whose words I am reading with translated literature. The translator must have made choices that could affect the meaning, and that seems especially true for poetry. Whether conscious or not, the translator’s own views and background no doubt affect the translation. We confronted that early in the discussion.
The Song is a poem with two main individual voices and some brief “choruses.” The original Hebrew, however, does not delineate the parts, and the translator must decide whether to indicate the voices or allow readers to make their own choices. I gather that the translator usually defines who is speaking. That was so in our version translated by Chana Bloch.
The translator’s choices can be very important. Early in the Song, the woman says, “I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,/and I am beautiful.” To me, the line conveys that whether objectively beautiful or not, the speaker glories in her physicality. Because she is in love and is loved, she knows or feels that she is beautiful. But, as Nate indicated, some translators have produced a different version: “I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,/but I am beautiful.” The difference between “I am dark and beautiful” and “I am dark but beautiful” is huge. A conjunction can be powerful. But which is it?
Song, however,also presented some of the typical difficulties I have with poetry. A metaphor could have different meanings, and the “right” one was not always clear. For example, the love poem said: “My brothers were angry with me/they made me guard the vineyards./I have not guarded my own.” What does “my vineyard” refer to? It could mean an actual piece of property (unlikely since women could not own property). Or it could mean integrity or self-worth. It, of course, could mean something sexual. Is the speaker confessing that she is not a virgin or perhaps even a slut? Is my choice better than yours or are all interpretations equal and the poem’s meaning up for grabs? Am I searching for the author’s meaning or the meaning that I think is best? And, of course, now I’m on my way down the rabbit hole of literary analysis.
The overarching question left open by Song is the identity of the lovers. The poem seems clear that while they may be deeply in love, or perhaps lust, they do not get permanently together. A whiff of the forbidden permeates the poem but nothing suggests what the impediment is. Perhaps he is already married; they are of different classes; they are Romeo-and-Juliet teenagers whose feuding families disapprove. We can only guess. Does it matter what scenario we pick? Well, yes. Isn’t the poem different if the man is a married adult or an adolescent whose parents don’t want him to stray from home?
There are many lovely images, some bordering on the erotic: “That day you seemed to me a tall palm tree/and your breasts/the clusters of its fruits./I said in my heart,/Let me climb into that palm tree/and take hold of its branches./ And oh, my your breasts be like clusters/of grapes on a vine, the scent/of your breath like apples,/your mouth good wine—”
I was familiar with some images but had not known that they had come from Song of Songs. For example: “I am the rose of Sharon,/the wild lily of the valleys.” “My beloved is mine and I am his./He feasts/in a field of lilies.”
Some of the fauna images, however, seem bizarre to a modern reader: “My love, as I dreamed of you as a mare.” “Your eyes are doves.” “Your hair/ like a flock of goats/bounding down Mount Gilead./Your teeth white ewes/all alike,/that come up fresh from the pond.” Hoping to make time (does anyone still say that?) with a young woman, I don’t think I would tell her she has hair like a goat and sheep’s teeth. Wooing seems to have been a bit different in those days.
There are, however, beautiful expressions of love and longing: “Bind me as a seal upon your heart,/a sign upon your arm.” And: “Great seas cannot extinguish love,/no river can sweep it away./If a man tried to buy love/with all the wealth of his house,/he would be despised.”
And then there is: ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me/that you will never awaken love/until it is ripe.” Beautiful. And deep. Or so I think until I examine that verse more closely. Then I realize that I need to grapple with a confusing metaphor. “Ripe” would seem to refer to a fruit or perhaps a vegetable, and you don’t wake up a pomegranate (too literal, I know, I know). Don’t partake of love until it is ripe might be more straightforward, but that is not what this version of Song proclaims. And even if I understood the phrase, why not awaken love before it is ripe? This is like much of poetry for me. Some phrase seems beautiful and meaningful until I try to dig deeper into its meaning, and I am lost.
Song of Songs, however, is not just a love poem. It may seem like a performance piece akin to a Greek play, but it is a book of the Bible. Placed there, it must have some deeper meaning than that of a heated call and response between a man and a woman. It must be about God’s relationship to an individual or perhaps more likely the relationship between God and the nation of Israel.
It is difficult to read the poem just on its own terms separated from its context. In my struggle to do that, I saw it “only” as a love poem without spiritual meaning. And, indeed, God is not mentioned in it. (That makes it rare in the Bible, but it does not stand alone. Esther, I gather, also has no mention of God, but don’t let me digress about Esther or I will get on to my love of hamantaschen.) Furthermore, Song does not overtly concern itself with laws, religion, or prophecy. To conclude that this is anything more than a secular love poem seems a bit of a reach. And yet, since it is a book of the Bible, many find in it a more sacred meaning.
We were not only to examine the Song of Songs at our weekend at the Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut but also to read some other poets who had found spiritual meaning in the Song. Saint John of the Cross, a priest and Carmelite friar of the sixteenth century, is, I’m told, regarded as one of the foremost Spanish poets, but I had not heard of him before the retreat. Several of his most famous poems clearly reference Song of Songs. His imagery is powerful and presents to many readers a mystical communion between a devout person and the Lord: “There he gave me his breast;/there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;/and I gave myself to him, keeping nothing back;/there I promised to be his bride.”
I had assumed that Song of Songs was written by a person or people who were not or wished not to be celibate. The author or authors of Song had experienced at least some of the fruits of physical love, and this had led to the distinctly erotic imagery in the poetry. I wondered if it was just spirituality that elicited the presumably chaste Saint John’s ecstasy: “When the breeze blew from the turret,/as I parted his hair,/it wounded my neck/with its gentle hand,/suspending all my senses./I abandoned and forgot myself,/laying my face on my Beloved;/all things ceased; I went out from myself/leaving my cares/forgotten among the lilies.”
It seemed unlikely that the poems of Saint John of the Cross were just directed towards God. Time and again the author indicated the love was secret or must be concealed: “One dark night,/fired with love’s urgent longings/–ah, the sheer grace!—/I went out unseen, my house now all stilled.” We are told of a “secret ladder” and “One glad night in secret.” The adoration of God by a priest and monk would not have to be hidden. I was not surprised when I later learned that John’s verses are often regarded as homoerotic: “And then we will go on/to the high caverns in the rock/which are so well concealed;/there we shall enter/and taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates./There you will show me/what my soul has been seeking,/and then you will give me,/you, my life, will give me there/what you gave me on that other day. . . .”
While I wondered how the Spanish friar could write so exquisitely about physical love if it had not been experienced, the connection between his poetry and the imagery of Song of Songs was unmistakable.
On the other hand, the connection to Song was less clear in the contemporary Kimberly Johnson’s poems. Perhaps the link was that her poetry, like Song for some, could be about earthly or celestial love: ‘Yours the fretless neck of my desire, the fretful knock of my desire’s echo.”
I did, however, admire Johnson’s poetry because it connected on a modern, quotidian level: “We’d make a legendary pair; you love the sound of your/own voice, and I have to have the last word.” And I certainly could relate to a poem that began: “Good God, I need a drink. I’ve been talking me hoarse,/rehearsing full-throated my love’s ferment.”
I had heard of Christina Rossetti, the third poet presented at the Trinity Church retreat, but she fell into that vast category of poets I had never read. Her poems clearly drew from Song: “Thou Rose of Sharon, Cedar of roots/Vine of sweet fruits,/Thou Lily of the vale with fadeless leaf,/Of thousands Chief,/Feel Thou my feeble shoots.”
Rossetti’s verses, however, were unmistakably addressed to God. Unlike Song which had the exuberance and excitement of people on the cusp of physical love, these poems are ones of sad longing and the I-am-not-worthy-make-me-worthy-type: “My life is like a broken bowl,/A broken bowl that cannot hold/One drop of water for my soul. . . .” Or: “Thou who didst bear for me the crown of thorn,/Spitting and scorn;/Though I till now have put forth thorns, yet now/Strengthen me Thou/That better fruit be borne.”
Rossetti’s self-doubt turns into a doubting of God that has a whiff of the blasphemous: “Thy fainting spouse, yet still Thy spouse; . . . Recall Thy vows, if not her vows;/Recall Thy Love, if not her love. . . .” To enjoin Him indicates the possibility that He has forgotten his promises but surely that cannot be true. Is this sacrilegious from a good Anglican Englishwoman? You can doubt yourself, but not God. He is not God if He does not remember His promises.
Rossetti’s poems once again remind me why I don’t miss one aspect of being religious. I have seen religion bring peace to a believer, but I have also seen many others who are, like Rossetti, unrequited seekers. They search for something that will give them contentment, but it remains elusive. If the seeker cannot fully experience the presence of God, they believe, it is because there is something fundamentally missing in them. They carry around a dark soul of the night. I think sometimes that I should have accomplished more with my life. I have my sleepless nights when I may dwell, often senselessly, on what I should do or what I should have done. I do think of my failures, but that does not make me feel as if I am an existential failure. I don’t feel as if I have a hole in my soul as I see with some religious seekers. Thus, I am quite happy to take a pass on that aspect of religion. I am not waiting helplessly for God to fulfill my life; I realize that fulfillment is up to me.
I did not go to the Trinity Retreat Center seeking religious enlightenment. However, I came away with a bit more understanding of poetry. I certainly felt that the Center, the participants, the leader, the study all made for a worthwhile weekend. Perhaps I should even thank God for the experience. I’m glad I went. And did I mention that the food was terrific.