Magdalen, I - IX       

 
                             I

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.

 

                             II

Music and laughter and the subtle

Deceptive wine:

‘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!’

 

                             III

Behind the lattice

From the terrace giving on the street,

She waited,

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.

 

                             IV

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.

 

                             V

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

     Who reads?

 

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.

 

                             VI

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.

 

                             VII

At Baume the years had passed in stillness

And many prayers been said.

 

The dying woman who had lived alone,

Poor,

And blessedly obscure;

Unafraid

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,

Who fled

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,

She gazed

Out on the gorgeous future

Which all the politicians praised,

And watched

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.

 

Those

In that vast obedience

Whose own

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,

Hidden behind

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.

 

Then,

As she further sickened at the dense

And acrid smell

Of sin,

She prayed

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,

And prize

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 -

Nero,

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

Excite her

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,

Ended

A life spent picking over garbage

In the slums of sin.

 

Who was she, then,

To falter at loving

Those living

As she had lived herself -

Who might at any moment react to Love

Truly

As she, she thought, had never done?

Had not her sins been there to Prove

Daily

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

For anyone

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

And out

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.

 

                             VIII

Back through the ages raced her pulse:

The un-caged heart began to flutter.

 

Breathless a little

At the sudden subtle

Doubt

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

Of humility;

‘I do not deserve,’ she said,

‘To pit my mind

Against this blind

Seraph;

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

To testify

My faith, as though I had not been

Called by His own voice

To consecrate my everlasting choice

Of Him

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

Splendidly.

 

Once more she heard

The Centurion’s self-forgetful words,

First spoken in the dust of Palestine:

‘Lord,

I am not worthy.’

And Christ gave

The white

Sunlight

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

Your Name,

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

In peace.

 

                             IX

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.

 

Incomparably bright,

She soared along

The avenues of angels

In her Father’s Kingdom –

 

     Angels, Archangels

     Thrones, Dominations,

     Powers, Principalities, Virtues,

     Cherubim

                   and

     Seraphim –

 

Choir upon choir,

Afire

With love,

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.

 

These,

And those

From the world’s youth:

Her father, Adam,

The forgiven son,

And Eve, her mother,

And all the holy other

Ancestral people -

Abraham,

Who numbered her among his starlike children;

David,

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

Divine Inheritor;

Prophets,

To whom the happy future brings

Their ever-present joy,

As they experience all of its

Continuum at once;

Patriarchs,

Young fathers of the now triumphant poor,

Who radiate

From them in meritorious

Points of light;

Unnumbered holy ones from every land

And time,

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

Without blame,

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

Domiciled

In greatly

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 –

 

Countless,

They sing

Among

The angels,

Making up the number

Of the rebels,

Those who thought that they were wrecking

Heaven

In their failure

To remember

God’s pity

For poor man,

So much lesser

In nature

Than each deep damned angelic creature

Who fell

After his relentless

Un-nimbussed

Leader

Like a counterfeit of lead

On the hard fact

Of Hell.

 

Now magnified

Through God’s humility in having died

For them,

Graced

With glory,

Placed

Like consecration candles

On the walls of Christ’s own home

To burn forever

With love,

Their brightness kindles

The cataract

Of light

That pours about them as they praise

God

In the never-ending happy days

That last,

The dream of childhood

They have wakened to,

Immortal kings

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.

 

Saint Michael,

Coruscating like the sunlit sea,

Seneschal,

Who welcomes each arriving soul,

Took her to

                   Saint Joseph,

Who, standing, in the radiance of his youth,

Beside

          The Queen of Heaven,

                                      smiled

With the regal innocence of a child,

And looked at her with love.

 

She,

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,

She,

Mere Jewish village girl,

Now

Exalted by her Son above

The loftiest creations of His love,

She,

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,

Whom Christ,

Her Son,

Had drawn

To comfort her

Beside the Cross,

When

In the dark afternoon

He gave

His life that men might live.

 

To Christ,

The King, the Conqueror,

Seen in the splendour of His risen glory,

     On the right hand of His Father,

     And One

     With Him

     And with the Holy Ghost,

She knelt.

 

‘Mary!’ He said.

And she was home.

 

At Baume

Her body waits its joyful resurrection.

 

Sancta Maria Magdalena,

                                    ora pro nobis.

 

Saint Mary Magdalen,

                               pray for us.