When we lived in England, we attended a church which in the seventeenth century had had for its vicar the poet Richard Crashaw. In our time, the church had another poet, a devout lady in her seventies whose Little Book of Poems had been printed up by a concern in Ipswich and was sold on a table in the back of the church, alongside postcards and leaflets on Marian devotions, for 50p. Of this lady my husband, now a Catholic theologian but then an Anglican priest, used to say that she had no actual sin -- hers was all original.
She had grown up in a village far out in the fens, the daughter of stern, old-style Methodists who had threatened to disown her on discovering a rosary in the drawer of her nightstand. Though she was elderly when we knew her, she still had about her the quality we associate with small children and think of as innocence: a reflexive, unselfconscious egotism which assumes that its concerns are everyone's, and that there are no others. She once rang me on the telephone -- I was packing up our flat to move back to the U.S. as it happened -- to say that a parcel had arrived for her from Maryland. From the absence of any explanation of what was in the parcel or who had sent it to her and why, I understood that I was supposed to know these things and comprehend their significance. I didn't, and I still don't. "Well, it came from America," she said before hanging up. "I knew you'd want to know."
I wish I could think where to go with this fragment of narrative. It, too, was part of my attempt to write a serious paper on poetry and religion, and I'm fairly sure it didn't make the final cut, because what can you say about someone like this, whose trust has been so utterly in your hands, with regard to poetry? Once she gave my husband a poem about the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham; it's probably just as well that I don't remember the poem itself, though I do remember rather vividly how I felt about Walsingham at the time. It was not my favorite place. Specifically, the Anglican shrine was not my favorite place. Walsingham itself is a charming and, when the National Pilgrimage isn't on, very quiet village, maybe five miles from the sea in Norfolk. I love the ruined abbey, begun on a site shown miraculously to an 11th-century Saxon lady named Richeldis by the Blessed Mother; the last time I was there, my two oldest children were six and two years old, and we spent the time when everyone else from our parish was at Mass walking in the abbey garden and peering into a well which crawled and wriggled and croaked with shiny green frogs at various stages of metamorphic development.
That was as close as I came to piety in those days -- I consented to enter its city limits -- and even now, if I wanted to write a poem about Walsingham, it would undoubtedly wind up being about frogs or Buddhas, a cottage windowful of Buddha statues being my other favorite sight in the whole of the town. Actually, though, that's not entirely true. While we were in England, I did write a long cyclical poem purporting to tell the story of Richeldis's vision, in which Our Lady showed her her own house at Nazareth and asked that one just like it be built in Walsingham. I wrote it not out of devotion, but out of liking what I imagined of Richeldis as a narrator, and out of some . . . taste in my mind for that landscape, when its ancientness was less ancient, and the Normans were poised to come in and take over everything, including the language. By the time I'd finished writing the poem, most of my reflexive skepticism about things like Marian apparitions had evaporated. I still liked the Buddhas in the window, but I also liked Mary more than I had, and I loved Richeldis, who had seen her. The poem's lost now -- no idea what I did with it -- but I can still see bits and pieces of it in my mind, like the outline of something wanting to be built. Ultimately I think it will be built, though maybe not in those words.
For a writer, maybe it's just as well not to be innocent, but to need to be redeemed, daily, by writing, in the same way that one is redeemed, daily, by the practice of the faith and the reception of the sacraments. To stand in need of conversion and to need bringing over -- well, that's all of us, obviously, not just writers, but this is what my own writing does for me. The soul it's out to win is mine. Somehow it's letting me see something which realigns my soul with God, and it's in this -- not subject matter, not argument, not the apologetics -- that the religious element exists. It's of a piece with my practice of my religion: ergo.