In honor of St. John Paul II’s feast day celebrated earlier this week on October 22nd, we are posting this insightful piece about his life and poetry, originally published in the ‘Year of the Spouse’ Journal.
“I am on a pilgrimage to identity.” (1)
Cocooned in my childhood bedroom over my university’s winter break, I encountered Karol Wojtyla, the faith-filled philosopher-turned-priest, for the first time, through the pages of his book, Love and Responsibility. Pencil in hand, I spent hours marking the book with exclamation points and emphatic underlines, shocked that a celibate, Polish archbishop from halfway around the world could enunciate with such amazing specificity all the subtleties and longings of my American, female, collegiate self. Although I had already been experiencing an awakening engagement with my Catholic faith, my love for the then-Holy Father blossomed at that moment and led me on a pilgrimage to receive his last World Youth Day blessing in Toronto, to study in graduate school at an institute founded under his name and to beg for his intercession during the birth of each of my children, particularly my third son, John Paul.
By reading Love and Responsibility I met an educationally and pastorally zealous Father Wojtyla, eager to guide young people to a proper understanding of the greatness of the human vocation to love; a study of his poetry, on the other hand, is a brush with his more private side. The compilation of his pre-papal poetry is aptly named The Place Within. While he was Cardinal, Wojtyla wrote the preface to a book of poetry by priests, and in it he wonders how “the two vocations, the priest’s and the poet’s, coexist and act on each other in the same person.” Indeed, this question, he says “touches on the personal secret which each poet carries in him… is this secret not revealed in his writing?” Throughout his life, Wojtyla was a clandestine poet. He was not eager to pull back the curtain on the inner workings of his soul as he became an increasingly public figure – first a vicar, then pastor, then a bishop, and eventually Cardinal. All of his poems were published under a pseudonym. Yet resistance to totalitarianism often took a literary form, albeit one subtle enough to pass under the omnipresent eye of the Communist censors. Just as his university-era hidden theater troupe, the Rhapsodic Theater, resisted the Nazi obliteration of Polish heritage with acts of literary drama, his poetry, while quite inward-looking and reflective, was an act of beauty offered to contrast with the gray wash of atheism and materialism that spread over his country for decades after World War II.
“My soul, magnify the glory of the Lord,
Father of great Poetry – and so good.”(2)
I tend to enjoy poets whose words weave new sense into my everyday experiences, which, thirteen years after my winter epiphany with Love and Responsibility, now revolve mostly around the little dramas of wife- and motherhood, homeschooling, homemaking, and toddler-chasing. I relish the moment when a poet incarnates in words an intuition that has hovered, unarticulated and abstract, on the edge of my mind. John Paul II’s poetry is quite different from what I normally enjoy, and it challenged me. It is cerebral, often theoretical, and it seems to float in the space between mind and heart, prayer and will. Reading it was at times like sliding unseen into a room where this great man was whispering his prayers in his native tongue, at other times like hiking the forests of Poland alongside a musing grandfather, rich in suffering and in memory. The poems in The Place Within were published over the course of forty years and are in a movement that reflects the poet’s own life. The searching contemplation of youth gives way to the exhortations of a perceptive pastor, accompanying his flock in the midst of their daily trials, to that of the archbishop, concerned on a vast scale with the historic trajectory of his Church and his country as well as maintaining their deep-rooted faith in God, which was often threatened and discouraged.
“Sower, I am your soil – widely scatter your grain
may a field of rye and a castle of spruce
grow from my youth cradled in yearning and pain.” (3)
The more youthful poems reflect the searing, searching questions of a Christ-centered man, intimately acquainted with suffering – Karol Wojtyla lost his mother, father and only brother by the age of 21 and witnessed the massacre of his countrymen at the hands of the Nazis. As a 24-year-old, he risked his life by becoming an underground seminarian; some of his classmates were even executed by the Gestapo. He lived in the midst of absurd cruelty, yet, remarkably, was not infected with cowardice or cynicism. His early poetry swells instead with a sense of wonder: “Is life a wave of wonder higher than death?” This is a question which, considering his life’s environment, could only have been born from a soul able to prayerfully immerse itself in “a place/far removed from the din and clamor” in the “Calm, the great Silence” of the “Simplicity / that can hold the world.” Reading the humble confession of the pensive 24-year-old seminarian, who was worried that his faith was too bound up in intellectualism, is not only striking, considering the theological powerhouse he was to become as he matured, but also a precious window into the heart of a saint-in-the-making.
Forgive my thought, Lord
For not loving enough.
My love is so mind-manacled,
forgive that, Lord;
it subtracts You from thought
leaving it cool as a stream,
where you want an embrace of fire.
But accept, Lord, the wonder that leaps
from my heart –
as a brook leaps up from its source –
a sign that heat may yet burn.
So, Lord, do not spurn
even that cool wonderment.
One day You will nourish it
with a burning stone:
a flame in my mouth. (4)
He seems to have an extraordinary presentiment that he will follow in the footsteps of the prophet Isaiah, whose revelatory vision of the Lord enthroned initiated his prophetic vocation. In the face of this glorious sight Isaiah protests his unworthiness. A seraphim then flies to him, holding a burning ember from the altar of the Lord, and touches his mouth with the flaming stone, purifying him so that he might speak the words the Lord had given him. (Isaiah 6.1-8) Little did the young seminarian Wojtyla know that one day his inspired teachings, notably his distillation of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the human person in the Theology of the Body, would one day re-ignite the flames of orthodoxy in an entire generation of Catholics, myself included.
“With wondrous rhythm he fortified my youth,
on an oak anvil he hammered out my song.” (5)
With a decade of priestly ministry under his belt after his ordination, Wojtyla returned in poetry to his experience of forced labor on a limestone quarry during World War II. “The Quarry” is not simply a historical meditation, however, and it speaks volumes to anyone who, like the Polish people living under the thumb of the Communists, experiences oppression in any form. One of the marks of a saint seems to be an intensifying and deepening of one’s humanity in the midst of the most inhumane situations imaginable – fellow Pole St. Maximilian Kolbe comes to mind, a concentration camp martyr who voluntarily died in the place of another man destined for execution. The poet of “The Quarry” sees a dynamic – and surprising – relationship between anger and love at work in such situations: “Look how love feeds / on this well-grounded anger.” Certainly, given the Communist regime that hoped to obliterate Polish Catholicism and replace it with its atheist ideology, Father Wojtyla must have grappled in his ministry with many people in the grips of corrosive anger or bitter despair. In “The Quarry” however, a picture emerges of a man centered so deeply on Christ that the most essential part of him cannot be touched by any oppressor:
If from afar you want to enter
and stay in man
you must merge these two forces
into a language
simple beyond words
(your speech must not break at the lever’s
tension: the fulcrum of anger and love).
Then no one will ever tear You
out from the center of man. (6)
With Christ at the center of one’s being, well-channeled anger acts as the counter-weight of a lever which raises humanity to ever-greater heights of love. It is, he says “…the world’s inner structure / where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.”
The experience of the laborer in “The Quarry” is meaningful for anyone engaged in work. Everyone, from the simple wage-earner to the stay-at-home mother, needs to be reminded that “Man’s daily deeds have a wide span,” and the person cannot be merely equated with the quantitative measure of his or her productivity. The most true fruit of labor is whatever excellence is forged within the heart of the person who works: “A thought grows in me day after day:/ the greatness of work is inside man.” In the midst of whatever mind-numbing repetition one must endure, like the quarry’s “even knocking of hammers”, one must “fear not” and remember to
Work, simply work, and trust.
enter only to learn about pride,
your own pride (thus humility begins).
In the midst of my own home front’s ever-spreading detritus of toys and abandoned socks, I found in this poem a greater dignity for my own small work, particularly if I remain grounded “in Him”.
Poland: the land rushes by, in green, in autumn, in snow.(7)
Even as Archbishop of the Diocese of Krakow, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla continued writing, his shepherd’s heart now expanding to embrace an even wider flock with whom he identified deeply as a fellow pilgrim aboard the tradition-rich barque that was the Polish nation. “When I think my Country – I express what I am, anchoring my roots” explains the poet at the outset of the 1974 poem “Thinking My Country.” The stanzas in this poem are more conversational and direct, as though Cardinal Wojtyla didn’t want his meaning to be missed by his readers, a people united not by government programs but laced together by an ancient and complex language – “the stream of speech charged with history” – who must “exist deeply down to our roots, waiting for the fruit of ripeness and of crises.” He challenged not only his people, but also anyone who endeavors to remain authentically free, reminding them that in the pursuit of God’s purposes, “freedom has continually to be won, it cannot merely be possessed. It comes as a gift but can only be kept with a struggle.”
I stand on a threshold, glimpse a new world. (8)
My nearest encounter with John Paul II, in the flesh, was a moment when, sandwiched in a roadside crowd of you people, I joyfully waved at the aging Pontiff as he bestowed his blessings from the Pope mobile upon the throngs of cheering World Youth Day pilgrims. Reading The Place Within, however, I felt a nearness to the Holy Father, the poetic voice of Karol Wojtyla speaking in a way quite distinct from his encyclicals and catecheses. My beloved saint’s poems illuminated his thoughts and concerns in an intimate way, more than even a detailed biography ever could. His poetry stretched me and inspired me to dwell in a slower, deeper and more thoughtful space, away from flickering screens and seemingly urgent to-do lists. The historic circumstances that gave life to his poems were far from my own, but running through them all was the common thread of the ageless human struggle to know and serve God in all things.
Carla Galdo, a graduate of the John Paul II Institute, lives with her husband, four sons and daughter in Lovettsville, Virginia. She is a contributor to Humanum, an online quarterly review of books of the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research, at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC.
1 – from Karol Wojtyla’s poem “Journey to the Holy Places,” in The Place Within
2 – from “Magnificat,” The Place Within
3 – from “Magnificat,” The Place Within
4 – from “Song of the Inexhaustible Sun,” The Place Within
5 – from “Magnificat,” The Place Within
6 – from “Profiles of a Cyrenean,“ The Place Within
7 – from “Stanislas,” The Place Within
8 – Profiles of a Cyrenean,“ The Place Within