Fr. Frederick Edlefsen
“Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason,” said G.K Chesterton. “Poets do not go mad,” he said. As for the ones who did go mad, poetry was their region of sanity. I agree. Poetry evokes sanity and solace. Poetry invokes prayer, and prayer invokes God. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”
I treasure greatly the Harvard Classics: Five-Foot Shelf of Books (1938 edition) that my grandmother left to me not long before she went to God. Among other things, the books have a fine collection of the best English poetry. I took two volumes with me on a vacation to Wyoming in the summer of 2018, and I read this one aloud to some priest friends. It’s “The Eternal Goodness,” by an American, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892). This poem is an attempt to put one’s heart into the heavens. After reading it, there was a moment’s silence. And then a comment: “That’s beautiful.” That could’ve been said of anything that day – the poem, the lake, the mountains, the forests, the silence. It was an encounter with sanity because the poem demanded nothing but invited everything. It reminded me of St. Therese’s First Communion: “There were no demands made, no struggles, no sacrifices...” The poem invited an openness to “all things visible and invisible.” And so, today, I hope it invites you, my dear reader, to look beyond the madness of time.
The Eternal Goodness
By John Greenleaf Whittier
O FRIENDS! with whom my feet have trod
The quiet aisles of prayer,
Glad witness to your zeal for God
And love of man I bear.
I trace your lines of argument;
Your logic linked and strong
I weigh as one who dreads dissent,
And fears a doubt as wrong.
But still my human hands are weak
To hold your iron creeds:
Against the words ye bid me speak
My heart within me pleads.
Who fathoms the Eternal Thought?
Who talks of scheme and plan?
The Lord is God! He needeth not
The poor device of man.
I walk with bare, hushed feet the ground
Ye tread with boldness shod;
I dare not fix with mete and bound
The love and power of God.
Ye praise His justice; even such
His pitying love I deem:
Ye seek a king; I fain would touch
The robe that hath no seam.
Ye see the curse which overbroods
A world of pain and loss;
I hear our Lord’s beatitudes
And prayer upon the cross.
More than your schoolmen teach, within
Myself, alas! I know:
Too dark ye cannot paint the sin,
Too small the merit show.
I bow my forehead to the dust,
I veil mine eyes for shame,
And urge, in trembling self-distrust,
A prayer without a claim.
I see the wrong that round me lies,
I feel the guilt within;
I hear, with groan and travail-cries,
The world confess its sin.
Yet, in the maddening maze of things,
And tossed by storm and flood,
To one fixed trust my spirit clings;
I know that God is good!
Not mine to look where cherubim
And seraphs may not see,
But nothing can be good in Him
Which evil is in me.
The wrong that pains my soul below
I dare not throne above,
I know not of His hate,—I know
His goodness and His love.
I dimly guess from blessings known
Of greater out of sight,
And, with the chastened Psalmist, own
His judgments too are right.
I long for household voices gone,
For vanished smiles I long,
But God hath led my dear ones on,
And He can do no wrong.
I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruisëd reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.
No offering of my own I have,
Nor works my faith to prove;
I can but give the gifts He gave,
And plead His love for love.
And so beside the Silent Sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
O brothers! if my faith is vain,
If hopes like these betray,
Pray for me that my feet may gain
The sure and safer way.
And Thou, O Lord! by whom are seen
Thy creatures as they be,
Forgive me if too close I lean
My human heart on Thee.