N HER DUO OF POEMS for Sexagesima Sunday, Christina Rossetti invites us to contrast the paradise of Eden with the paradise to come in Christ:
Yet earth was very good in days of old,
And earth is lovely still:
Still for the sacred flock she spreads the fold,
For Sion rears the hill.
Mother she is, and cradle of our race,
A depth where treasures lie,
The broad foundation of a holy place,
Man’s step to scale the sky.
She spreads the harvest-field which Angels reap,
And lo! the crop is white;
She spreads God’s Acre where the happy sleep
All night that is not night.
Earth may not pass till heaven shall pass away,
Nor heaven may be renewed
Except with earth: and once more in that day
Earth shall be very good.
That Eden of earth’s sunrise cannot vie
With Paradise beyond her sunset sky
Hidden on high.
Four rivers watered Eden in her bliss,
But Paradise hath One which perfect is
Eden had gold, but Paradise hath gold
Like unto glass of splendours manifold
Tongue hath not told.
Eden had sun and moon to make her bright;
But Paradise hath God and Lamb for light,
And hath no night.
Unspotted innocence was Eden’s best;
Great Paradise shows God’s fulfilled behest,
Triumph and rest.
Hail, Eve and Adam, source of death and shame!
New life has sprung from death, and Jesu’s Name
Clothes you with fame.
Hail Adam, and hail Eve! your children rise
And call you blessed, in their glad surmise
Rossetti understands attachments. And foremost among them here is the attachment to earth and the things of earth. Earth was “very good,” she says; earth is “lovely still.” Earth is our “mother,” our “cradle,” and indeed “A depth where treasures lie.” But for all that, I am struck with how often Rossetti’s praise of earth is informed by her understanding that it is not our real home. She calls it “The broad foundation of a holy place,” but it is not the “holy place” itself. It is, she explains, “Man’s step to scale the sky.” So earth is to be praised, not so much for what it is in itself, but for the fact that it is our path to something holier and better. It is only in that context that we can understand what Rossetti means when she refers to the earth as “lovely.” I am reminded of Robert Frost’s stopping by woods on a snowy evening. The woods weren’t his destination, but that didn’t prevent him from stopping a while to linger over how “lovely, dark, and deep” everything was. Christina Rossetti would understand. And yet she points out that, at the end of days, when heaven is renewed with earth, “once more in that day / Earth shall be very good.” It is okay to linger over attachments to lovely things; but we must realize that it is only by renewal that any of them shall merit the superlative “very.” We must seek to be renewed first.
In the second of the two poems, Rossetti turns her focus to a more specific contrast between the lovely things of Eden and the lovely things of Paradise. Eden had “four rivers,” but paradise “One which perfect is.” Eden’s “gold” is lesser than Paradise’s “gold / Like unto glass” which “Tongue hath not told.” Eden could only offer “unspotted innocence,” but Paradise “God’s fulfilled behest.” Eye hath not seen nor hath ear heard: I admire Rossetti’s method of calling us to detachment from the things of this world–however lovely they are–by reminding us that lovelier things await. She goes gently about the business of telling us to forgo the world and the things of the world. Something in the nursery-book style of her rhyme and meter only adds to how deeply her poems call us to a longing for a loveliness we can somehow remember despite knowing that we never experienced it for one day. Perhaps, in the end, it is our longings more than our fears that will prompt us to forgo our attachments and our sins and seek the city that is to come.
N HIS HOMILY FOR THE VIGIL MASS, Fr. pointed out that St. Paul’s words in the epistle reading were the most perfect examination of conscience he could think of. Fr. is an expert in moral theology, so his analysis of Paul here would seem to carry some weight. The passage in question is, of course, the great “love chapter” 1 Corinthians 13:
But earnestly seek the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 12:31 — 13:13)
Fr. took us through verses 4–7 and rephrased them in the form of an examination of conscience: Have I been patient and kind? Or have I been jealous? Boastful? Arrogant? Rude? Have I insisted on my own way? Have I been irritable or resentful? Have I rejoiced at wrong, or have I rejoiced in the right? Have I borne all things, hoped all things, endured all things? As Fr. explained it, there is no better examination of conscience than to make a serious examination of the state of your soul with respect to those questions. After hearing that homily, I’m near resolved to read 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 every night while I make my examination of conscience, and while I’m preparing myself for confession.
If I may make this challenge to my readers: During the next two weeks, before you go to Confession on Ash Wednesday (you are going to Confession on Ash Wednesday, right?), why not spend some time making an examination of your conscience according to the standards of 1 Corinthians 13:4–7? Lent is right around the corner; examine yourself and see how you might renew yourself for the sake of the city that is to come.
Paul’s words in the rest of the passage are a good complement to the Rossetti poems: a contrast of the things of earth, which are temporary, with the things of heaven, which are eternal. Prophecies will pass away. Tongues will pass away. Knowledge will pass away. So will all things; whatever we are most attached to. Annie Dillard asks the question this way: “Do you think you will keep your life, or anything else you love?” In the end, that is why we must make a real examination of conscience: Because we cannot keep a thing. It is not about what we can cling to here; it is about what we are promised there. And when all of our possessions and attachments have been taken from us, what shall we have left but what we have discovered when we looked into our conscience?
I make this confession of pride: My greatest attachment is to my intellect, my knowledge, my understanding, my reason. That may explain why one of my greatest fears is dementia. And what that tells me is that I most need to study humility; Paul says, “as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect.” St. Thomas Aquinas, who was the greatest intellect to ever live, looked upon everything he had written–the Summa, the Tantum Ergo; all of it–and said: “It reminds me of straw.”
He wasn’t attached. Except to Christ. Before Lent begins, examine your conscience; take note of your attachments; then refocus your desire on him and his promises for the city that is to come.
Photo Credit: Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Portrait with chalk, 1866. Public domain.