Sunday, 24 January 2021 11:04

Why did Pope Francis quote American poet Dickinson in homily?

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Pope Francis presided at the Christmas Mass during the Night in St. Peter’s Basilica the evening of Thursday, Dec. 24, 2020. In recent years, this Mass has been celebrated at 9:30 p.m. Because of pandemic restrictions, the Mass was rescheduled to 7:30 p.m. Rome is seven hours ahead of us, so I was able to watch the Mass as it began at 12:30 p.m., well before my 4 p.m. vigil Mass.

I turned to the Vatican’s English translation of the pope’s homily, and discovered that, toward the end, he quoted an American poet.

Emily Dickinson“God was born a child in order to encourage us to care for others. His quiet tears make us realize the uselessness of our many impatient outbursts; and we have so many of them! His disarming love reminds us that our time is not to be spent in feeling sorry for ourselves, but in comforting the tears of the suffering. God came among us in poverty and need, to tell us that in serving the poor, we will show our love for him. From this night onward, as a poet wrote, ‘God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love’ (Emily Dickinson, Poems, XVII).”

I think we can detect in Dickinson’s writing a sense of the incarnational, which I am sure appeals to Pope Francis. Here is the entire poem: “Who has not found the heaven below/ Will fail of it above. / God’s residence is next to mine, / His furniture is love.”

So, what was the religion of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)? She lived most of her life in Amherst, Mass., where Amherst College was the dominant intellectual and religious influence. Calvinist piety was the order of the day; religious revivals occurred in which religious students would move the less religious into the chapel and dress them down for lack of piety. In 1845, Dickinson found herself involved in a revival and noted: “I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my Savior.” The fervor did not last, at least with regard to outward observance. After her church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home.”

And yet we find in her thought and writing a very sharp awareness that God breaks into human existence. This is what I mean by incarnational. Heaven itself breaks into our existence. We can imagine the poet deep in thought as she recognizes the sacredness of everyday existence.

At weekday Mass, now through Saturday, Feb. 6, we are reading the Letter to the Hebrews. It was at weekday Mass, exactly 40 years ago, that Hebrews got through to me as I came to understand that Jesus, in his sacrifice of himself, has responded completely to our frustrations and our urge to “save ourselves.” We all can rest in Jesus’ personal gift to each of us, and we express our joy as, in the words of this letter, we do our best not to “stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another” (Hebrews 10: 25).