Books fortified Elizabeth Ann Seton. For much of her life poetry, scripture and spiritual texts imparted peace to her mind and soul.
Elizabeth was fluent in French and Latin, and in her desire to similarly fortify anglophone readers she labored at her writing desk translating into English the words of St. Louise de Marillac, St. Frances de Sales, and others.
Not only was she a translator in the literal sense, Elizabeth could also be described as a translator for the Holy Spirit. Thanks to her natural gifts, and later her years of experience as a counselor and writer, she could discern and record the value of her own spiritual experiences, both before and after converting to the Catholic Church and founding her community of women religious.
The writer Les Murray was also a translator in both these senses. The Australian poet lived from 1938 to 2019, and long before he was known as the “Bush-bard” of the outback, he was known for his knack for languages. Although he was an underwhelming student at the University of Sydney, Murray found work at the Australian National University as a technical translator because of his facility with classical and modern languages.
Murray would later leave this post to pursue poetry full-time, providing for his wife Valerie and their five children by giving readings, editing literary journals, and publishing poetry and essays. Having grown up in rural poverty, Murray never sought more lucrative prospects than poetry could afford him. He believed writing poetry was an answer to a vocation, and it provided him with a wealth of ideas worthy of remembering and sharing.
Murray, like Elizabeth Seton, was a Catholic convert, and this necessarily affected how he used his gifts of language. He became Catholic first by marrying one and then through his understanding of God’s love in the Eucharist. According to his friend Karl Schmude, through this conversion, “language itself became a channel of divine communion, not just an instrument of human communication.”
The poet shows something of this communion with God and creation in his collection Translations from the Natural World, wherein he “translates” the sounds, voices, and consciousnesses of places, plants, and animals. Speaking as a goose or cocklebur, the poet imagines creatures’ peculiar wisdom and communicates the vital presence within each. In his poem “Animal Nativity,” for example, animals register God’s incarnational activity on earth: “Cattle are content that this calf / must come in human form. / Spiders discern a water-walker.”
For the reader in search of it, Murray’s work offers spiritual physic: “You have to pray with a whole heart,” his titular character says in his verse book Fredy Neptune. Fredy is an ornery picaro from New South Wales, and he has become devoid of the sense of touch after witnessing the murder of innocents in WWI. He traverses three continents searching for a way to be human despite his emblematic loss of touch. This long poem asks a question that troubles many of us: How can we be moved, yet not overwhelmed, by human suffering? Praying with a whole heart reveals the way forward for Fredy’s healing and holiness.
Murray has had much to say on suffering, and, in this way, he is like Mother Seton. Each of these writers left us with a large, curated body of work, and neither shied from disclosing their Dark Nights of the Soul to the page. They each believed it necessary to put their suffering into words—to translate it, if you will, into phrases that could help them understand the experience and minister to others.
In one of his most well-known poems, Murray describes a man crying “not words, but grief, not messages, but sorrow / hard as the earth, sheer, present as the sea.” The poem is called An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow, and in it the man’s sobbing disrupts all commerce in downtown Sydney. People in cafes, bankers, and passersby hear that no one has been able to stop the man’s sobbing, and so they rush to him, crowd about him, and, unable to enter his sorrow, are bewildered by their reactions: Some “tried to seize him… and feel, with amazement, their minds / longing for tears as children for a rainbow.” The adults stand helpless; only children and dogs draw close to the man, who, when he finishes weeping, simply passes through the crowd and leaves. As its title insists, this event is an “absolutely ordinary” natural phenomenon, eliciting various responses from those who witness it. Murray wrote the poem in the late 1960s, and, twenty-some years later, like the sobbing man, found himself suffering in the public sphere.
Given that writing was an essential and valuable act for Murray, it seems natural that he would write as a way to face his crippling, years-long bouts of depression. He called his depression “the black dog,” and although this was not his original phrase, such a personification helped him speak of his sufferings. In his memoir Killing the Black Dog, he tells of his deliverance from rage and near insanity. Later, disappointingly, the black dog returned, and Murray struggled on.
Like Murray, and perhaps like many of us, Elizabeth Seton used memorable phrases to try to sum up her suffering. Catherine O’Donnell’s biography tells of a night when the teenage Elizabeth felt deeply alone and contemplated ending her life by taking laudanum. Her household was a great source of pain for her at that time, as she had lost her own mother and had an uncomfortable relationship with her stepmother. She called this episode her “Night of the Little Bottle” as a means of identifying this moment of almost irresistible temptation.
Such an episode can make us uncomfortable when considering the life of a beloved saint, yet had she not written of it, or had she later excised it from her writings, we would never know how God protected her as a young woman. Because she put this experience into words, we better understand God’s victory of love in her life.
Likewise, it reveals something of Murray’s spirit that, even with the black dog hounding him throughout his career, he dedicated his books: “To the glory of God.” This dedication is a devotional act, and by it he consecrated to God his time, labor, and his many poems. Regardless of Murray’s imperfections as a writer and human being—and he admits to these—on the first pages of his books he laid down this five-word dedication with the apostle’s hopes of growing in holiness and sharing the Gospel.
In her lifetime, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton translated the words of the saints because they compelled her to live for Christ. So many years later, her own idiosyncratic words and those of Les Murray have the power to move us because they wrote of their grief and of how they tried to “pray with a whole heart.”
In poetry and prose, they strove to communicate God’s intimacy with humankind, and showed us how, like Murray’s books, such writing and living can be for the glory of God.
ELISABETH KRAMP writes from Southern California. Her chapbook “Quickening” was published by Franciscan University Press, and she currently teaches writing at John Paul the Great Catholic University. Elisabeth is a Level 1 catechist in CGS and her first experience as lead catechist was in the Atrium at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Bothell, WA.
Image Credit: Murray, Leslie Allan, 10/1738, Australian author / INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo