Reading English at Warwick University, I understood that poetry inspires and moves but I did not immediately recognise it as prayerful. Yet a brief scan of the breviary reveals how the Daily Office is bookmarked with poetic gems from George Herbert, John Donne and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) would be a welcome female voice in that collection.
She, too, versifies prayer and in her industrious output, publishing work almost continuously from 1953 until her death, poetry becomes an incarnational practice whereby “she repeatedly returns to the conjunction of the divine and the human…of the material and the spiritual, the mundane and the mysterious” (Barry Sloan, 2006). At over a thousand pages Jennings’s Collected Poems perhaps invites commitment as well as patience. I certainly see her poems as life-long companions, unfolding in meaning over time, and I share here some examples of the way her poetry, richly and complexly layered with her experiences as a Catholic, has accompanied me in priestly formation and, more broadly, Christian discipleship.
Take, for instance, her poem addressed to a “Friend with a Religious Vocation”:
Thinking of your vocation, I am filled
With thoughts of my own lack of one.
Jennings writes of the silence required by a religious vow, and how uncomfortable it is to Jennings herself, for whom “silences are always enemies”. The physical structure of the convent with “curtain” and “grille” brings to her mind the “kind of scaffolding” and support her poetry represents, although these “fitful poems … can’t protect / The empty areas of loneliness”.
I read her poem during a propaedeutic (introductory) year when discernment often involves feelings of doubt. Jennings’s skill was manifest in capturing the burgeoning flame of vocation with that “sense, / Vague and inchoate, with no symmetry, / Of purpose” that flickers all the brighter having honestly faced “the dark, the dark that draws me [her] back / Into a chaos where / Vocations, visions fail, [and] the will grows slack”.
Although Jennings distanced herself from the label confessional poet, an autobiographical background clearly emerges. This is especially the case in her poems describing the Sacrament of Confession. Her poem “First Confession” is a stark read, presenting the Sacrament as an uneasy step in coming of age: “From that day on this healing sacrament / Was hurting for me”. Even though the “priest / Was not unkind” she writes that her “childhood ceased / Upon that day”.
Yet visiting Rome in 1957 as part of a three-month trip, she experiences reconciliation as healing. In “Happiness in Rome” she celebrates how “I had come home at last …/ Home to my Faith at last through kind words spoken / In a confessional”. Words of absolution release her from that recurring childhood memory and in the Eternal City she reflects that “Time is small, is small” because “much was mended that had long been broken”. Elsewhere she asks: “Is this how each return to God begins? / Perhaps to know no desert is a lack”.
As with her poem on vocation, Jennings narrates confusion, doubt and ambiguity interwoven with moments of grace, inspiration and conviction.
She also writes movingly about the Eucharist in the poem “Homage to Gerard Manley Hopkins: After Receiving Communion in Hospital”, which appears in her last collection. The poem is born of an experience of hospitalisation for Jennings, who faced challenges with mental health. Having received Holy Communion:
I feel its power immediately.
Stammering my thanks, I know my flesh behaves
Oddly, but I know also I am
Within Heaven’s confines …
My thanksgiving is home
And Jesus Christ is with me where I lie.
In these poignant lines she finds strength and “power” in receiving the body of Christ, whose body is more familiar and sure to her now than her own body in which she experiences strangeness: “I know my flesh behaves / Oddly”. The hospital bed itself becomes a sanctuary; she is, for a moment, relieved of a sense of alienation by her belief that “Jesus Christ is with me where I lie”.
I first read this poem in the wake of my own mother’s illness and death during my time in seminary. Reading these words anew, I recall her experience of receiving the Sacrament, with the palpable “power” of familiarity and memory it inspired within her. I remember, too, how she described the way a hospital bed suddenly becomes your universe. It was then that Jennings’s words made sense to me – “but I know also I am / Within Heaven’s confines” – and I realised that a small hospital bed can become a great expanse.