Friday, May 7, 2010


I’m fascinated by those who convert to Catholicism in adulthood. I am not surprised by the stories of addicts seeking recovery. Contrary to Anne Sexton’s Need is not belief, I suspect that when the need becomes extreme enough, it can lead to belief. Even Karl Marx, famous for his description of religion as “opium” for the people, had a much more complex and sympathetic perception of it:

“Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. . . . Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.” [Karl Marx,Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.]

But this does not address the poetics of religion, its seductive beauty. I am especially fascinated by Aleksander Watt's account of his conversion to Catholicism, in his hair-raising memoir, My Century. He said that, more than anything else, it was the beauty of Christ's face in the paintings that drew him. This made me realize that it's actually the "popular" religious art that has an enormous impact, with its idealized presentation of that beautiful, soulful, loving face. All those cheap, conventional paintings and figurines, all that art condemned as conventional and sentimental. This bad, conventional, sentimental religious art dares to be totally positive, and that can have a very deep impact.

I have a poem that speaks about the power of religious images:


After the storm, the clouds like blown
milkweed lie in the widening sky.
I still don’t know how we survive

our youth, how in a matchstick boat
we cross the wind-clawed sea.
When I look back, I see no boat.

I must have walked on water,
holding fast to false beliefs:
that I was strong; that the worst

had already happened;
that to commit suicide would disgrace
the memory of my grandparents,

who had survived Auschwitz,
so what excuse might I give
for not surviving America?

It is not the truth that saves us,
not the truth that makes us free,
but a half-remembered image:

dimly seeing in the dark
a luminous, familiar
figure walking on the sea.

And like Peter, you step
out of nothing as out of a boat,
and start walking across the storm –

not on water, not on air,
barely even on faith –
toward nothing you dare call love.

~ Oriana


At this point I cobble my own spirituality: a bit of Taoism, a bit of Teresa of Avila, nothing "organized." I've attended both the post-Vatican II mass and the Latin mass (the first time when it was officially forbidden, which appealed to my sense of underground resistance: archaic beauty against the hierarchy). Alas, old or new, the mass doesn't nourish me anymore.

How senile they are getting, how slowly they lean and maneuver on their walkers, the priests who can still say the Latin mass. It is depressing to witness this decline (though I was touched, once, by the expression of bliss on the age-ravaged face of a priest who just finished celebrating the Latin mass, once it became officially permitted again). Alas, I know I can't go home again, and must piece together whatever means of spiritual sustenance I can find.
My parents chose my name, Joasia, after the endearing heroine of Żeromski's The Homeless (Ludzie Bezdomni.) Żeromski’s title refers not to the homeless in the streets, and certainly not to that homeless feeling that’s part of the immigrant experience, but to spiritual and emotional homelessness. 

Naturally, soon enough I got to experience the church's secret: give us a child early enough, and s/he is ours forever. There is no deleting that giant imprint -- a lapsed Catholic is still a Catholic. And I've come to see it mostly as part of my mental wealth. For poetics, Catholicism is incomparable. The music, the art, the ritual as it used to exist before Vatican II -- what beauty, what splendor! Just the flowers at the altar, how gorgeous, luxurious, in unstinting abundance. Even in winter, flowers.


In the lobby of a luxury hotel,
someone passes through a false room –
a pretend fireplace, slippery love sofa,

the faux-marble mausoleum-like floor
strewn with wilted blooms –
someone says, “America is finished.”

I begin to pick up the dead flowers,
the hotel as empty as the streets outside –
only me, a stray housewife, limp petals

in my insufficient hands. “Your dream
of America is finished,” says Linda,
native-born, who calls herself Lucrezia.

And Daisy, formerly my musical Danuta,
Daisy says, “America is a good place
to make money, but – real life is over there.”

How do we know what we love?
Do we have to lose it first? Saint Yakub’s
church in winter, the snow-crusted coats,

a fugue of steam like breath –
the acrid smell of wet wool,
the borrowed animal human smell.

Some part of us ascended,
not the soul perhaps, but more real
than synthetic perfume sprayed

on the massive stiff bouquets, though by now
Warsaw’s Hotel Europa may have
adopted these scents and ways,

incense against the backward years,
that animal press of people,
no airy scallops of angels.

But at altars candles and blossoms
prayed in tongues, the petals’ wings
trembled, the tall glow of flame mirrored

in chalices’ silver and gold. Pipe organ
shook the stone pillars. Roses, lilies,
peonies – what it must have cost,

in winter. Back then in communal breath,
the church gave us splendor.
Now it’s finished, hellfire and flowers.

~ Oriana © 2010


But now I am beginning to see that I can build my own spiritual home, and it has nothing to do with whether or not native-born Americans accept me or reject me, or whether the mass is in English or in Latin (an ex-Jesuit priest said to me, “Maybe we should stop saying the mass for three years or so, to see if anyone will miss it”).

To my surprise, creating a personal spirituality (actually I prefer the term "life philosophy") has not been all that difficult. It’s been evolving within me all along. This morning I was thinking about a project I'll probably embark on in the Fall. It's likely to bring its share of suffering, whatever uncertain joy it may also bring. It's still time to call it off. But instead, on a beautiful automatic, I remembered "Thy will be done." And I realized that one doesn't have to believe in God to say that! It's obedience to something large and strong within, something that makes most suffering trivial, really.

Is it the "spark of the divine" within us, the invincible human spirit? The Inner Christ, the Buddha Spirit, the Higher Self? What we call it doesn't matter any more than a person’s religious denomination matters, as long as there is that connection to something that rises above the petty stress, the thousand little humiliations. What do these matter? In the end our grudges and grumbles will be forgotten, utterly forgotten. Only the "eternal moments" (as Milosz calls them) will survive – and ultimately only those translated into art.


Janet Baker's luminous poem, "Shine," shows how "lapsing" from an outgrown religious orthodoxy can make us see the divine in other ways as we evolve our personal spirituality.


To shine is to be god is to be clear blue sky is to be enough.
And night is the time the shine is held by stars in the blackness. 

And I can allow that god is the same as shine
since the beginning of my tribe, and I can imagine shine

as the god I dance for, and I might imagine during night
with no blue sky the moon glow shines softer.

I am dancing my words around the church, quivering at Christ,
I am dancing sex and shimmers, dancing sweat and glisten,

and since Christ is a man, he shines at the dancer,
slips money in her belt, dances his hips into hers round the room.

No need to harden shine into solid gold of Buddha, no need to climb
skyward to be closer, carry prayers to the highest mountains,

so the Hindus have blue-skinned gods to remind
how blue disappears each night returns each day.

If blue enters my heart, this dance will be enough,
blue sky shining with no need for my words, blue

beyond the need to word, beyond the need to poetry. Shine
this god of the beginning of my tribe when god and shine were one.

  ~ Janet Baker © 2010



Janet's poem is magical.


Absolutely. There are so many wonderful poems out there that deserve to be more widely known. In a small way, I hope to introduce some of them to the readers of this blog. 


  1. Marjorie RosenfeldMay 15, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    In her poem “Shine,” Janet alternates between the word "shine" as a verb and "shine" as a noun. For me, though, the more interesting thing Janet has done with grammar involves working with ellipsis to effect compression and even suggest a secondary meaning. The first line, “To shine is to be god is to be clear blue sky is to be enough,” could have been written, “To shine is god-like, since a clear blue sky shines and we think of God as up there in heaven; so shining seems to me to be a sufficient way to think of God.” But then you wouldn’t have had a poem! Another interesting part of the poem grammatically is, “. . . the Hindus have blue-skinned gods to remind/how blue disappears each night returns each day.” The reader seizes upon the most obvious meaning of the last line here as, “Blue disappears each night and [blue] returns each day.” But leaving out the conjunction "and" suggests a second meaning. “. . . each night returns each day” means that night also brings back the day. This made me chuckle, as I actually saw Night as a small man wheeling in Day, a young girl hunched in a quaint little wooden cart.

  2. Thank you for this interesting analysis. Of course I love the final image. This is a poem in itself. I'm trying not to think of a "quaint little wooden cart" as the kind of cart that was used to transport prisoners to the site of execution -- here you can see that darkness never leaves me. That's what comes from having grown up in Poland, "a very haunted place," as Cecilia Woloch says.