As I was reading Sr. Betty Ann McNeil’s little book 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, I kept being reminded of Vassar Miller’s superb poetry.
In all of her published collections, from 1956 to 1981, Miller includes explicitly Christian poems. In fact, it’s partly because of this that she’s not well known. She was writing religious poetry in the second half of the twentieth century: a decidedly secular era, when religious work was scorned. Further, suffering all her life from severe cerebral palsy, she was unable to do the traveling that would have allowed her to network with the larger poetry community.
Vassar Miller’s poems express a deep spirituality in many ways similar to Elizabeth Seton’s. I want to touch on a few of these ways.
For both of them, trust in God was the very foundation of life. Elizabeth often wrote—when speaking of her children’s plans or her own—of “trusting all to Divine Providence.” And of trusting in the promises of Heaven: “There we shall be always joyful—always beholding the presence of Him, who has purchased and prepared for us this unutterable glory.”
Vassar Miller’s poem “To Jesus on Easter” expresses this trust in delightful images:
Not that I comprehend You, who are simpler
than all our words about you,
and deeper. They drop around you like dead leaves.
Yet I can trust you. You resembling me—
two eyes, two hands, two feet,
fine senses and no more—will cup my being,
spilling toward nothingness, within your palm.
And when the last bridge breaks,
I shall walk on the bright span of your breath.
Our words about Jesus, the poem says, are as worthless as “dead leaves.” What matters is that He “cups” our very being within his “palm.” And then comes the astonishing final image: of “walking” into heaven on a bridge which is the “span” of Jesus’ breath.
Trust in God implies that He is always present to us, present in our everyday lives. Elizabeth Seton wrote about this (poetically, I’d say): “As birds in changing their places find the air wherever they fly, and fish who live in the water are surrounded by their element wherever they swim, so wherever we go we must find God everywhere.”
Vassar Miller also finds God everywhere: in all the moments of the day. Her prayer-poem “On Opening One Eye” ends with a marvelous image of her dressing in God’s lusciously “satin” day:
I will wake before too long,
and over my lean and Lenten ribs
put on, more delicate than spiders’ webs,
dear Lord, Your satin day,
and go my way.
Another similarity between Elizabeth Seton and Vassar Miller is that both lived with pain: Miller with the physical pain of cerebral palsy, Elizabeth with the emotional pain of the death of so many loved ones; and both accepted their pain as a sharing in Christ’s cross. Elizabeth wrote that we receive Christ not only in the Eucharist but also “in the communion of the cross.” And here’s Vassar Miller in the poem “Accepting,” making metaphors for this communion:
Lord, serene on your symbol,
you plant your flag
on pain’s last outpost.
Your arms span its horizons,
your feet explore it,
your eyes are its seas.
You, pioneer in pain,
reclaim its wastes,
and so you prove it
no more an alien planet,
only our earth…
Here Christ rules the kingdom of pain, planting His flag on “pain’s last outpost.” Then comes an image of the Crucifixion (“your arms span [pain’s] horizons”), in which Christ is the “pioneer of pain”—the first to explore pain’s territory. And so in Christ, pain rules the earth. This is the “Accepting” of the poem’s title: Vassar Miller can accept the pain of her disease because it gives her citizenship in Christ’s kingdom.
But still, she has to continually beg the Lord to accompany her in the extremities of her pain, as in the start of another prayer-poem, “De Profundis”:
Oh Lord, defend me when I go
Through the dark in daylight.
Be with me when I smile peaceably
though tigers tear at my guts.
As if in consoling reply to Vassar’s prayer, Elizabeth writes: “We are never strong enough to bear our cross, it is the cross which carries us.”
What also carries us through our days, whatever suffering they bring, is Holy Communion—the essential Bread of Life for both women. Miller worshipped at an Episcopal church, but Communion is just as crucial for her as the Eucharist is for Mother Seton.
Elizabeth wrote that “This Heavenly Bread of Angels removes my pains, my cares—warms, cheers, soothes, contents, and renews my whole being.” Vassar Miller puts this sentiment into poetry in “Receiving Communion,” which begins:
The world of stars and space being His bauble,
He gives me, not a toy
which were I to destroy
would be no waste that caused Him any trouble,
rather, into my fingers cramped and crooked
entrusts His body real
as spitted on a nail
as are my own hands piteous, naked…
Here Christ “entrusts” his very body to her fingers, which are “cramped and crooked” from cerebral palsy. In another poem, “Thanksgiving after Holy Communion,” Miller strikes a lighter note:
You come to me like a bird
lighting upon my palm,
nesting upon my tongue,
flying through the branches of my being
into the forest of my darkness.
It’s as if Vassar is offering images for Elizabeth’s fervent prayer: “Live always in me, and let me live perpetually in You, and for You, as I live only by You.”
Elizabeth Seton’s life in Christ was lived out through her ministries: her founding of the country’s first free Catholic school for girls, her founding of the country’s first congregation of Sisters, her passion for serving the poor.
Vassar Miller, her body limiting what she could do in the world, lived out her life in Christ through her poetry. But despite such different lives in such different eras, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and Vassar Miller are soul sisters, linked by the spirituality that they shared.
PEGGY ROSENTHAL has a PhD in English Literature and has published many books and articles on the intersection of poetry and spirituality.
Image: Fair Use