In the delightful cadence of her voice
The wickedness appeared a fragile thing;
But when she spoke, her eyes, like desert fire,
Threw off the darkness of an old waste place;
And if she raised a hand to touch her hair,
The gesture, once it was remembered, stung.
Her odd distracting beauty bore the weight
Of years of jewels and youth grown desolate.
Had any of her flashing friends remained
To question her, the answer, framed in smiles,
Could only have provoked a sullen tear:
Her childhood too had memories to be shunned:
Banal, the usual causeways to despair
Had led her on: she too was one who fails,
Another of the hated self-same kind
Who also weep and have an unquiet mind.
The world she knew was all the world could be -
Charming, deceitful, glazed with colour, cold;
A treasure house disgorging broken beads.
Sometimes her looking-glass threw back a ray
Of night light, and she saw the seven heads
Behind her, each an angel from the wild
Lost land of ruin - evil, avid, smart;
Clever at doing over a child’s heart.
In scented shops her taste for trifles soared:
‘But have you nothing pleasanter than pearl?’
An air of riches made her misery
Seem for a moment not to have occurred.
For this was never happiness, the slow
Effacement of God’s image in her soul.
She aged in spirit: wrinkled there, her grief
At being who she was dreaded relief.
Music and laughter and the subtle
‘Mary, they tell me, is buying a rattle
Instead of an emerald mine.’
And the air on the lyre is collusive,
Love being lost:
‘So that’s why she’s turned so evasive.
Dear Mary, a leper at last!’
Behind the lattice
From the terrace giving on the street,
Her terrible face unveiled,
To see the Son of God go by.
He passed in white.
He looked at her.
And in that instant she was cured.
The curtains in the doorways
Tore from their brackets,
As the seven devils left.
The sobs that shook her free from them,
The tears that washed the belladonna off,
The blaze of rings that fell like stars
Down to the ground –
All these He had forseen forever,
who now continued on His way
To dinner with the Pharisees.
The perfume had been given her by Herod,
That connoisseur of every lustrous thing;
To him, so bored, so restless, always wearied,
The incongruity at once appealed:
The coronation oil of roses sealed
In alabaster for the Jews’ true king,
Let it be squandered on the lovely harlot,
Who burned through life, like a Roman bride, in scarlet
Held in her hands now, the delicate translucent
Jar glowed. Torchlight cascading off the gold
Diadem top rebounded from complacent
Eyes. How the respectable stared at her!
Those properly dressed impeccable diners were
Encouraged in their wooden hearts. This bold
Bad beauty, flaunting a wanton’s unbound torrent
Of flaming hair, would find herself abhorrent.
Their heads turned, like the Greeks at games, a society
Of victors. How delightful virtue seemed!
The Man who scourged the bankers from their piety
Knew how to deal with what was so much worse.
Those tears, how easily they ran! His curse
would dry them soon enough. Ah, but they streamed
Now over His feet! And what did she use for a towel
But hennaed hair. The goggling good had to scowl.
This was too much. His silence should have ended
Sooner. They might be truly scandalized
And never recover. As they contended,
With intense wide-eyed glances, shrivelling smiles,
And shoulders shrugged, to disparage her wiles,
Each hoping to appear the more surprised,
Since the Guest whose feet were stained red mattered
In pious circles, their fierce quiet was shattered.
And the whole room filled with the scent of roses,
As the diadem tinkled to the floor.
So their anointed sovereign, knowing the vices
Which lay among their good deeds, leaned down to
This hopeless unspeakable woman, who,
Acting always in bad taste, bowed to adore
Him, whom they treated with their faint civility,
And praised her now victorious humility.
Simon, their sensitive, their scrupulous leader,
Who felt as though touched by ice when this wild
Debauchee wept, tried to keep back the shudder
Of goodness grazed by her bright brilliant eyes,
As she heard the words only the sinful prize:
‘Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.’ And a child,
At whose new-found beauty the angels repeated
Their songs of praise, withdrew from the defeated.
High in the noonday sky,
His arms thrown open wide,
Love is about to die,
With a thief on either side.
One He has welcomed home,
The other prefers to hate,
Like the Pharisees, who roam
In packs and wait and wait.
The soldiers there below,
Bored and ashamed and blind,
Rattle the dice and throw
Their lives away like rind.
The mocking scholars toss
Their beautiful white heads
Far off; but at the Cross
His mother, calm in pain,
Adoring, and John,
The youngest friend, remain:
Fair weather friendships gone.
And one other. She,
Whose sins have had their share
In blossoming that tree,
Offers her sorrow there.
Those tears are now for Him,
Not for herself; she weeps
Outside her life; eyes swim
Up from their own deeps.
His gift of sacrifice
Opens her rusted heart:
With Him she pays the price
Of love, that suffering art.
And so triumphant grief
Makes her the fourth to stay:
Two innocents, a thief
And a whore, together pray.
The sun that shone beyond the morning star,
Dispersing night and coldness in the air,
Brought out the hidden birds, brought out the clear
Colour of the rose, brought out the more
Than aromatic fragrance of the myrrh
She carried through the dawn, and lit each tear
That mingled with the dew as she came near
The tomb in which the waiting angels were.
They spoke: she answered, weeping, unaware
Of what their brightness meant, of whom the door
Already must have opened on, so dear
Was He whose absence caused her absent stare.
But then the Gardener gently questioned her:
‘Mary!’ He said, and she forgot to fear.
At Baume the years had passed in stillness
And many prayers been said.
The dying woman who had lived alone,
And blessedly obscure;
Of robbers or the kind of illness
For which nothing can be done;
Now waited while the high horizon lifted;
And in the rift of clouds,
With mist between,
The mountain vistas shifted:
A different scene
Spread out below her.
Above the lonely frightened crowds
Of pagans in the south of France,
From every thought of being dead,
And had they had the chance,
Would not have wished to know her;
High in the bright mercurial air,
Poised on her Point of vantage,
Out on the gorgeous future
Which all the politicians praised,
The martyrs rising into Heaven
Who bore the marks of torture
Those she had strengthened by a prayer
Said centuries before.
Further, she saw them matched
By other brother saints -
The odd percentage
Who in their simple goodness had forgiven
The costumed fools who cuffed them,
So buffed them
That they shone,
Each, as it were, a moon
In which to see something of Christ’s radiance.
In that vast obedience
Holiness had grown
In the light that dazzles down
On the Fisherman’s heaving blood-red throne,
The haloed Popes
Smiled and blessed
This dying woman of the world.
So she was shown
Through the serpent-circled years:
The tapestries of mail slid back on metal ropes,
And the little wars ran screaming to the serpent’s breast
And drank their hatred from its primal source,
Oblivious to a world in tears.
The smoke of burning churches curled
Like money signs
Over the counting houses,
And the dead lay down like dogs
Beneath the bankers’ ormolu tables –
Heraldic beasts embossed on cheque-book fables.
Looming beyond the yellow fogs
Spread by the coroneted liars,
The bartered negroes shuffled from the diamond mines:
(Earlier, before the Boston and Bristol slave-buyers):
And other noble causes
Of the golden times in which the present peoples live,
As mothers dragging trucks of coal on hands and knees,
And children skinned alive inside the chimneys of the rich:
Things hard for anyone but God to forgive,
The former friend of Herod saw.
Closer to now
The belching furnace of the buccaneers
Deposited its oily smitch
Over the bankrupt nations, while
The rouge beast nosed aside the broken stile,
In whose retractable-clawed and file-fanged empires teemed
The terror-struck inheritors of the millionaires –
Those men of mazelike markets, who,
An iron Venetian blind
While trafficking with a self-raised demon,
Would pitch their hard bright desks in Hell
Sooner than later,
If there were money to be made there,
And power to be schemed
For, and a soul to sell.
As she further sickened at the dense
And acrid smell
For ice-clad nymph and brassy-hearted satyr,
Who clashed each long-linked fetter
As though its music maddened them,
The old companions of her lonely youth,
That each might see the truth
And far surpass her in their penitence -
Those once rebellious children, now
Indentured to a bitter lust,
Through whose bleak souls the devils danced,
Engrossed in nakedness and desolate desires,
To whom the things of God could make no sense
Until the chains began to rust
That weighed them down in grief-damped fires
Lit in the tinder years of pride.
And the shameless were ashamed.
For as her love for Christ had grown the greater,
Her heart, expanding, rose the lighter
In the rarifying air.
She came to look on others
with His eyes,
The most disparate people.
He, who had died
To save the crossing-sweeper of Benares
Together with His multitudinous brothers
From Mozambique to Buenos Aires,
The athlete and the cripple,
Willed that the wildest beast of man be tamed -
And the latest spiritual zero,
Stalin and Hitler,
And President Attila
Of the Anonymous Bank of Distrust,
And the tiny tyrants too,
At home and office,
In factory and school.
Even the furtive salacious stock-broker
Must not shock her;
Nor the prized pornographic writer
To lump him with the calculating cruel,
As belonging to the few
She could not bring herself to love.
All must be seen as having cost
The last drop of Blood
That left God’s broken Heart,
Who was not crucified to
Save only the well-thought-of
In the front pew,
But also all who would be lost
If their salvation depended
On the distaste of those who
Had barely chosen the better part.
No one so vile
But God Himself would welcome with a smile
And heap Heaven on,
If he would on his side
Ask to be forgiven,
And be resolved
That this sorrow,
Today and not tomorrow,
A life spent picking over garbage
In the slums of sin.
Who was she, then,
To falter at loving
As she had lived herself -
Who might at any moment react to Love
As she, she thought, had never done?
Had not her sins been there to Prove
The feeding grounds
For wickedness in others?
Had they been given
Through Christ’s wounds
Her view of Heaven,
Would they be half so faint
At becoming a saint?
Those she had turned away from once
With the sharp disdain of terror,
As she thought of having herself been involved
In their catastrophic error,
She prayed for now
Always with feeling,
And never would allow
Herself to be too tired to plead
Whom she had known
At Herod’s court,
Hopeful she was not failing
Them in their need -
The far-off friends,
Whom now she loved
As not before.
So, while the pleasure-boats sailed in
Of jewel-like harbours up and down the coast,
And the poor sad rich in speeding cars
Went, heedless, by
The bitter and the destitute,
The red-haired woman at the world’s ends,
Kneeling below the stars,
Prepared to die.
Back through the ages raced her pulse:
The un-caged heart began to flutter.
Breathless a little
At the sudden subtle
Which Lucifer spun out
Of his red-hot
House in Hell
And tried to skitter
Over the light-reflecting sea
Of her soul,
She made it ricochet
In abasement of his pride
By asking the angels at her side
To give her comfort in the combat
‘I do not deserve,’ she said,
‘To pit my mind
Against this blind
Nor will I argue now,
But beg the Lord
To show me how
To thank Him, whom I have seen,
For giving me this grace
My faith, as though I had not been
Called by His own voice
To consecrate my everlasting choice
The day He rose, immortal, from the dead.’
The angels lifted her, encompassed in their light,
And took her to the chapel of Saint Maximin,
Where he received her,
Vested, on his way to Mass.
So Calvary recurred:
And Christ in form of bread and wine
Offered His Body and His Blood for all the world
And for this woman who had loved Him
Once more she heard
The Centurion’s self-forgetful words,
First spoken in the dust of Palestine:
I am not worthy.’
And Christ gave
Circle of Himself -
Proof of His never-ending Love -
To nourish her
Before the great journey.
‘Jesus,’ she whispered, ‘I have found
With my last breath
The way to sound
And at my death
How to start
To adore your Heart.’
‘Mary!’ He said.
So as a bride
To the wedding feast,
Her soul set out
All the planets in their seasons sang:
All the stars revolved through arcs of light:
All the galaxies flared up like torches set to guide her home.
She soared along
The avenues of angels
In her Father’s Kingdom –
Powers, Principalities, Virtues,
Choir upon choir,
Those myriad million presences who stand
And carry out the laws
By which the microcosms move,
Obedient in the ecstasy of thought’s unbodied nature
To their First Cause
And Unmoved Mover of their wills,
Each beatific creature
Wholly subservient to Him
Whose overflowing goodness fills
Their minds with truth,
To whom their poised magnificence reflects
Facets of that pure peace in which He acts.
From the world’s youth:
Her father, Adam,
The forgiven son,
And Eve, her mother,
And all the holy other
Ancestral people -
Who numbered her among his starlike children;
The evil poet who became
A contrite one,
Whose poems, embodied by
The Spirit who can never lie,
Had been the vivid
Means by which her will had grown more supple,
Down on that dot-diminished height
Of pale Provence,
In choosing to be chosen by
The shepherd king’s
To whom the happy future brings
Their ever-present joy,
As they experience all of its
Continuum at once;
Young fathers of the now triumphant poor,
From them in meritorious
Points of light;
Unnumbered holy ones from every land
Of every colour –
The darling boy
Snatched from his mother’s arms
And God-forseen terrible harms
By that unmerited convulsive pain
Which won the flying coward
An extravagance of valour,
Never even having to think of scaredness again;
And the old man
Who had served his grasping employers
Prompt to answer the bell,
Been a miser only
Of unkind words,
And with his pennysworth of goodness to the lonely
Bought several statesmen back from Hell;
Having both foregone
In going Heavenwards
The age they left behind,
The thought-resistant child
And the calm survivor with the thought-filled mind,
Now think together,
Each the youthful happy brother
Of one another:
And likewise all the lately
Separated centuries -
Those from the smoke-charred caves
And the imperial porcelain graves,
From Nizhni Novgorod,
From either Thebes,
Palmyra, Cuzco, and Peking,
Athens and Atlantic City,
The pigmy palaces among the trees,
The glass-lined laboratories,
And the mud huts raised in bee-hive stories,
Christmas and Easter Islands –
Making up the number
Of the rebels,
Those who thought that they were wrecking
In their failure
For poor man,
So much lesser
Than each deep damned angelic creature
After his relentless
Like a counterfeit of lead
On the hard fact
Through God’s humility in having died
Like consecration candles
On the walls of Christ’s own home
To burn forever
Their brightness kindles
That pours about them as they praise
In the never-ending happy days
The dream of childhood
They have wakened to,
Whose crowns were cast
In the fire of suffering here on earth.
Circle on circle
Of these loved kinsmen passed,
As she rose
Towards the height
Of all their songs.
Coruscating like the sunlit sea,
Who welcomes each arriving soul,
Took her to
Who, standing, in the radiance of his youth,
The Queen of Heaven,
With the regal innocence of a child,
And looked at her with love.
Whom the world will ever praise,
Virgin and Mother,
Who listens for the slightest casual prayer,
The faintest hopeful mention of her name,
And answers with the best
Thing needed by the sinner in his lair,
The grace to leave it for the open air
Of God’s forgiving Heart,
Mere Jewish village girl,
Exalted by her Son above
The loftiest creations of His love,
Whose purity no sin had dared come near,
Threw out her hands in greeting
To the sometime mistress of so many men
The sometime courtesan from Magdala,
To comfort her
Beside the Cross,
In the dark afternoon
His life that men might live.
The King, the Conqueror,
Seen in the splendour of His risen glory,
On the right hand of His Father,
And with the Holy Ghost,
‘Mary!’ He said.
And she was home.
Her body waits its joyful resurrection.
Sancta Maria Magdalena,
ora pro nobis.
Saint Mary Magdalen,
pray for us.