In the Spirit of St. Thérèse

This week I’d planned to address the complex, nuanced topic of humility — the virtue that consists in facing honestly your own good habits and vices. Key to it, of course, as C. S. Lewis explained unforgettably through Screwtape, is to pay yourself attention without getting overly interested in the subject. We are each our own favorite action-movie hero, a preference deepened and darkened by the spill of Original Sin. A prerequisite for humility, Lewis suggests, is a certain emotional distance from the subject of ourselves, a willingness to step back and try to look at the “thing” objectively. Furthermore, any craftsman of word, sound, or image must learn to retreat from the toil and tears he poured into his creations and judge their merits. Later on, if he’s healthy and humble, he will look at the best of his work with a certain wonder and surprise: “Did I do that? Surely not. That’s better than I could do.” And in some ways, it always is — which is what we mean by “inspiration.”
But all my intentions of crafting a decent piece exploring these issues were ruined today when I read a piece by a better writer with a deeper grasp of the subject. Indeed, her intimate acquaintance with the virtue of humility, and the sweet docility to truth that flows from it, can be read in every line of the piece she penned for the New York Times on June 27. In the essay “Born Again in Brooklyn,” Irish-American poet Michele Madigan Somerville recalls her journey of faith, explaining how she rejoined the Church of her youth and became a “born-again Catholic.”
This decision wasn’t easy for Ms. Somerville. There were deep wounds from the past still left unhealed:
Most of the Sisters of Charity who taught at my grade school were tyrants. In 1971 I knocked on the door of my parish rectory to inquire about becoming an altar server; I was advised that only boys could serve. Brides, said the priest, were the only females allowed on the altar.
What is more, as a young girl Somerville had witnessed a grotesque abuse of the Sacrament of Penance:
When my mother became critically ill at age 30, a Catholic priest administering last rites refused to offer absolution when she, who had given birth to four children by age 25, refused to express contrition for taking birth control pills.
As a teacher in a Catholic school, Somerville saw firsthand the emotional price helpless children pay for the insensitivity of certain Catholic firebrands:
I watched a 19-year student of mine weep in homeroom in response to that morning’s “pro-life” announcement, which included references to “mothers who killed their own babies.”
After all this, you really might wonder how Somerville could muster the fortitude to darken a church’s door. But not all was bleak and wintry. There were glimmers of light and compassion within the murky Catholic sanctuary, and Somerville was not too proud to seek them out.
Giving credit where it’s due, Somerville confesses that “a radical nun was the first person to teach me anything sophisticated about poetry.” She notes that the Church feeds the poor. In a phrase that might have been taken from Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, she writes, “On most days a logic-defying confidence in the potential of the sacraments to deliver grace persists in me.” And she meditates on the paradoxical coexistence of sinful clergy and Renaissance art:
While I consider the brutality of the papacy, now and throughout history, a source of shame, Roman Catholic art, often commissioned by those very same bad popes is a source of pride, and comprises a tradition in which I, as a poet, often work . . . .
Burning hyssop and frankincense, the stark and heart-charging splendor of Gregorian chant, Marian devotion; the iconography, the Latin Agnus Dei and Litany of the Saints, the Angelus bells, the rapture at the crux of Catholic worship have always held fierce sway with me.
In search of a worship community, Somerville wasn’t too proud to “experiment.” She writes: “My aims were practical and ethereal, metaphysical and physical. I wanted to transcend, but as the mother of three toddlers, I wanted convenience, too.” She notes that some priests reacted badly to her children’s behavior, or the fact that she nursed during Mass. Such priests “failed the audition.”
She sought out parishes that were “racially and socio-economically diverse,” that included “the presence of women priests when I was lucky enough to encounter it.” Practicing discernment, Somerville allowed “zero tolerance for folk masses, anti-abortion diatribes, ecclesiastical greed, rote reciters of scripture and congregants who refused to sing.” Instead, she looked for “homilists witty, lyrical and learned,” and found one in a “brilliant theologian and Dante maven.” She was home.
Not all has been hearts and flowers for Somerville in our deeply human and imperfect Church. She writes of her ongoing pain in lines that raise a tear or two:
You might wonder how someone like me — a feminist-progressive living in 21st-century Brooklyn — can abide the Vatican’s positions. Well, I don’t. I am Catholic under protest and I’m in good company.
Providentially, Somerville has found spiritual leaders who offer her courage and support. She encountered one such soul at “an interfaith Gay Pride Celebration held in a Roman Catholic Church,”
a former Catholic nun who left her order many years ago and is currently an Interfaith minister. She spoke of her work as a person of the cloth, her life as a lesbian, her 25 years with her beloved. The honorific “Reverend” precedes her name. She wears a Roman collar.
Somerville was taken aback by this sister’s “fervent recommendation that progressive Catholics remain in the Church — so as to be in a position to create change.” But she was convinced. And so Somerville humbly remains inside the Church, as Catholic as you or me. Probably more so.
But she doesn’t just sit idly by, like some “cafeteria Catholic.” Somerville tries to work her way into the kitchen, to gently nudge the chefs into serving up healthier fare. She lists among her spiritual works of mercy:
  • “I support dramatic change as energetically as I can.”
  • “I withhold my cash from the bishops and hand my diocesan appeal tender to the Woman’s Ordination Conference and to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).”
  • “I devote much time and talent to working in the Gay Ministry at my church.”
  • “I recognize it is my obligation as a conscious, conscientious Catholic to discern — to know that the church no more belongs to the Vatican than it does to me. The power of the Church may rest with the College of Cardinals, but its glory rests with people like me.”
But Somerville’s life as an activist, born-again Catholic isn’t all Martha. There’s also a hint of Mary. In her meditative moments, she reflects that if there is “indeed a God presiding over the End of Days, the particulars, the language and myth, various sects employ as means for understanding and revering God will wash away moot in the flood of some unified, unifying light.” While she waits with us for that final revelation, Somerville self-effacingly practices the Faith in a spirit that would surely be familiar to St. Thérèse or St. John Vianney. As she avers, “Practicing provides pockets of peace, soothes me when I am terrified, enhances my appreciation of the created world, helps me to shape who I am into the woman I wish to become.”
Savoring Somerville’s prose I was intrigued to read her verse. One of her forthcoming books, titled Black Irish, suggests her strong connection to her Celtic heritage. And the immersion in theology that is apparent from her essay was sure to find its way into her poems. So I wasn’t unduly surprised when I found online the following poem by Sommerville — an adaptation of an old Irish rebel song to reflect her renascent interest in matters of the spirit. Of one spirit in particular — the guardian angel of all those who contest the claims of authority and stand up for the right of the individual to (in that poet Sinatra’s words) do it “My Way.” To really enjoy the song, you should first hear the tune, which she took from the Fenian anthem “The Rising of the Moon.” (The Clancy Brothers perform it here.)
With no more ado, here is Somerville’s song — rich in reference to Scripture, and deeply infused with the humility that is hers.
Non Serviam, Lord
I’ll ascend into heaven, that’s where I’ll exalt my throne
up above the stars of God, and the covenant’s lofty stone.
In the sides of the North I’ll ascend above the cloud.
Being like to the Most High, I will sing out bold and proud:
And I’ll say “Non serviam, Lord! No, non serviam, Lord!
I am not some cringing servant. So, non serviam, Lord.”
Does Job fear God for nothing? Or hast thou not put a hedge
around him and his dwellings, and he feels his safety pledged?
Thou hast blessed his work and wealth, and hast watched over his race.
But strike down his good fortune, and he will curse thee to thy face.
And I’ll say “Non serviam, Lord! No, non serviam, Lord!
I am not some cringing servant. So, non serviam, Lord.”
Why pester me O Jesus, what have I to do with thee?
Or since our name is Legion, I should probably say “we.”
Art thou simply being cruel, smiting us before thy time?
If thou really must expel us, how about that herd of swine?
And I’ll say “Non serviam, Lord! No, non serviam, Lord!
I am not some cringing servant. So, non serviam, Lord.”
Feeling hungry, Son of God? Why not turn these stones to bread?
Or leap down from that Temple — will He let thee hurt thy head?
Or see those mighty kingdoms, spread from sea to shining sea —
All their glory will I offer to the one who worships me.
Still I’ll say “Non serviam, Lord! No, non serviam, Lord!
I am not some cringing servant. So, non serviam, Lord.”


John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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