The Darkling Thrush

by Jessica Hickey, (c.) 2010

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Darkling Thrush
"I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.


. . . . every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.


At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
(From "The Darkling Thrush," by Thomas Hardy)

“Grant, O God, that I make good use of the tongue of flame which you have placed in my mouth . . . Since you have provided oil in which is immersed a seven-ply wick, what now prevents me from being a lamp?”
(Paul Claudel)

Some of you may have read this week about Grant Desme, a 23-year-old outfielder for the Oakland A's, who announced his plans to retire from professional baseball in order to begin studies for the priesthood.

Desme's decision came as a surprise to many, since his career in baseball seemed promising. He explained: "I'm doing well in baseball. But I had to get down to the bottom of things, to what was good in my life, what I wanted to do with my life. Baseball is a good thing, but that felt selfish of me when I felt that God was calling me more. It took awhile to trust that and open up to it and aim full steam toward him ... I love the game, but I'm going to aspire to higher things."

Reading some of the public commentary on this story, I was struck by how many people were critical of Desme's decision, seemingly unaware of the significance of his step toward the priesthood of God. "He could have used his millions to save more lives then he could do as a priest," one comment ran. "The church would love that way more than his service." "Two hands working do more than two million clasped in prayer," said another. People remarked that Desme was stupid, naive, brainwashed, or abnormal, and that he would assuredly come to regret "throwing it all away."

The spiritual blindness of the world, which we run up against time and again, can be disheartening. We see what St. John meant when he wrote that Light came into the world, but the world preferred the darkness. It is difficult sometimes not to be saddened by the state of things. Jesus said, "In the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world." Though we know that we are born to conquer, to share ultimately in the victory of Christ, we have to accept that sometimes, (as the Italian novelist Manzoni observed), suffering for the sake of justice is our way of conquering.

Every Christian must bear, in some sense, the wounds and weaknesses of his brothers in faith, but perhaps more so the weaknesses of his brothers who hold themselves apart from faith. These, who are "of the world," are incredulous of the Christian. Laying down one's life because God wills it is, in the eyes of the world, absurd. The restlessness of the unbeliever, his hostility, his desperation in clinging to material values, his blinded vision--all this the saint must carry for him, as Christ carried the cross for us; the saint sheds tears of contrition along with his brother, against the day when perhaps he may do so for himself.

This is true for each member of the Church. Paul Claudel wrote:

"Once I saw a young priest weeping all alone, weeping his heart out in his deserted church. But what of the vicar of Jesus Christ, Pastor of the universe: Must not he too sometimes weep, shed tears of blood, dash his forehead against the sacred steps of the ecumenical altar? The world is so wicked and, above all, so heedless, so appallingly deaf! The red lamp burning before the tabernacle is the pope--Jesus Christ in the pope, alone under the eye of God, watching, listening, looking, understanding, working, and praying."

Every Christian, each in his own way, must be a lamp burning, as the Holy Father is. We do so, not simply for the sake of men--as though our light is bound to convince and save them--but as lights burning on the altar of God, participating in the true Light, for this is what saves.

In the poem above, Thomas Hardy describes a dark, desolate day in mid-winter, when all seems bleak, and even human beings are "fervourless." Then, of a sudden,

". . . a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom."

And it seems to me that this is what it means to follow God's will, to be a saint in our times; that, in the midst of the coldness and misery and spiritual darkness, one chooses to "fling his soul / Upon the growing gloom," to sing like the thrush a song of "joy illimited." The poet concludes,

"So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware."

Like the voice of John the Baptist, which was heard crying out in the wilderness, the soul of the saint is noticed. It is noticed, if for nothing else, for its contrast to the world around it: "So little cause for carolings / . . . was written on terrestial things." The World, noticing this sign of contradiction, at least wonders why. The saint's life speaks of this "blessed Hope, whereof he knew," and of which the World is, as of yet, unaware.

I began this reflection with the story of one among us who, like the Darkling Thrush in the poem, is sign of hope and light. I would like to end with the story of another, one who has run her race fully.

To be a saint at the age of 18 is something seldom seen in our times. We often associate sainthood with the completion of great and illustrious tasks in the world, but this is not its essence. Chiara Luce Badano died in October of 1989, with, we might suppose, most of her life "unlived." During her lifetime, her sphere of influence in her provincial town in central Italy was small. She had no fame or notoriety or special accomplishments to set her apart from others, saving her goodness. Yet, she has already been declared venerable and compared to Therese of the Child Jesus. Last month, Pope Benedict approved the miracle necessary for her beatification.

Chiara was born to her parents, Ruggero and Maria Teresa, in 1971, after they had been childless for eleven years. Maria Teresa recounts, “Even though we were so immensely happy, we understood straightaway that this child wasn’t ours alone. She belonged to God first of all.” This became more and more evident as their daughter grew. A particular spirit of generosity was manifested in her various actions--as a daughter, a friend, a parishioner. Chiara had a particular fondness for the elderly and compassion for the sick, for whom she prayed from her earliest years. She tried to perform acts of mercy and self-denial, some of which are recorded in her spiritual diary: “My friend has scarlet fever and everyone is too scared to visit her. With my parents’ permission I decided to do my homework over at her place so that she wouldn’t feel lonely."

For her friends, Chiara was a jewel. She was a popular and friendly person, skilled at singing, dancing, tennis, swimming, even mountain-climbing. She was fun-loving, and enjoyed going out to coffee shops with friends. When she became involved with Focolare, a Catholic lay apostolate in Italy, she was able to find many like-minded souls.

She had to learn virtue and self-discipline as we all do. Once when her mother asked her to clear the table, she responded, “No, I don’t want to.” She got as far as her room, then turned back and said, “Mum, I’ve just remembered that story in the Gospel about the two workers who had to go and work in the vineyard; one said ‘yes’ but didn’t go; the other instead said ‘no.' Mum, give me that apron.” Chiara struggled in some areas, such as with her studies. Despite being a conscientious student, the work sometimes proved too much for her. She found in the disappointment of her academic failures another form of penance, but resolved to persevere.

It seemed that this friendly, normal girl had a full life ahead, with both the blessings and difficulties everyone faces. Then one day when playing tennis, she experienced a severe pain. Tests later revealed that she had osteogenic sarcoma, a dangerous and very painful cancer. In and out of the hospital with various treatments, Chiara laid aside her needs to take care of others; she was seen frequently walking the ward with a young woman suffering from drug-dependency and depression.

“At first we thought we’d visit her to keep her spirits up,” one of the boys from her youth group later recounted, “but very soon we understood that, in fact, we were the ones who needed her. Her life was like a magnet drawing us to her.”

When it became clear that her condition was terminal, Chiara began to discover her real calling. "Previously, I felt another world was awaiting me and the most I could do was to let go," she wrote to friends, "Instead now I feel enfolded in a marvelous plan of God which is slowly being unveiled to me.” As the illness progressed, she chose to forego the use of morphine: "It reduces my lucidity. There’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.” In her last days, she planned her funeral celebration with her mother, choosing the flowers, music, and clothing as one would do in planning a wedding. She asked for it to be a joyful occasion, and consoled her parents in anticipation of the days ahead: “When you’re getting me ready, Mum, you have to keep saying to yourself, ‘Chiara Luce is now seeing Jesus’.”

The effects of her life--her obedience, kindness, cheerfulness, & example--were felt deeply, and in the end, over 2,000 people attended her funeral.

A city on a hill cannot be hid, the Gospel tells us. A girl, born only eight years before I was, who seldom left her little town, who left no great writings, and no famous deeds, has conquered, has attained fully the Kingdom of Heaven, and may well draw thousands after her.

Her story helps us see that we should not underestimate the good that may be wrought in the world by one light burning at the altar of God. Let us walk this week, not blindly, cursing the darkness, but rather, as St. Paul urged, as children of the light, in which is found every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.

Prayer from "Choruses from the Rock," by T. S. Eliot:
O Light Invisible, we praise Thee!
Too bright for mortal vision.


O Greater Light, we praise Thee for the less;
The eastern light our spires touch at morning,
The light that slants upon our western doors of evening,
The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight,
Moon light and star light, owl and moth light,
Glow-worm glowlight on a grassblade.
O Light Invisible, we worship Thee!


We thank Thee for the lights that we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And lights reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but see not whence it comes.
O Light Invisible, we glorify Thee!


. . . . We thank Thee for our little light, that is dappled with shadow.
We thank Thee who hast moved us to building,
to finding, to forming at the ends of our fingers and beams of our eyes.


And when we have built an altar to the Invisible Light,
We may set thereon the little lights for which our bodily vision is made.
And we thank Thee that darkness reminds us of light.

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