The Catholic Thing
The Magnificent Cat Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Saturday, 03 September 2011

Like many readers of “The Catholic Thing,” I had the privilege of going to mass a few weeks back to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption. I was, thank goodness, spared this year the customary homiletic foolishness about how the Magnificat was a “stylized prayer,” likely inserted by some “later redactor” who brought the bits and pieces of various Old Testament texts together to express the particular theology of his Jewish-Christian community in the early Church. 

I call this “homiletic foolishness” not because I think the theory untenable – it has plenty to recommend it – but simply because, whether true or not, it could scarcely make any less of a difference to the poor souls who drag themselves out to a weekday mass mired in the worries of the day and the midst of their sins to wait patiently for some small sign of hope and spiritual nourishment from the priest.

There is, however, along with my generalized concerns about priests wasting the congregation’s time with finer points of historical-critical analysis (which are likely only to confuse them and diminish their confidence in God’s word) another reason I’ve often found this sort of “explanation” of the Magnificat so unsatisfying: to wit, it attributes to some later academic “scholar” – likely a man – the sorts of poetic diction I’ve more often experienced coming from the mouths of well-read, literary women.

It’s not all that unusual among my friends – more often than not, the women – to hear them quoting a bit of poetry they find relevant to a particular situation. Time to go home? 

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
And miles to go before I sleep.

is what you’re likely to hear. Going out with a friend at night? Then the first lines of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock may serve:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky 
Like a patient etherised upon a table;   
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,   
The muttering retreats        
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels   
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:   
Streets that follow like a tedious argument   
Of insidious intent   
To lead you to an overwhelming question …         
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”   
Let us go and make our visit.

It’s all good fun.  I don’t have many friends like this, but I do have some. 

The Visitation by Fra Angelico (c. 1433)

I’ve also known people who could recite the entire Twenty-second Psalm from memory:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters....

And of course there are still plenty of Benedictines (and more than a few Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits, as well as a not unimpressive number of Protestants) who can recite the Psalms and other key passages of the Bible from memory.

I also admit to be something of an admirer of Jane Austen novels. As other Austen devotees will know, Austen’s leading female characters are endlessly “going off,” “away from the others,” in “breathless anticipation,” so that they can unburden themselves of their latest joys and griefs and worries. I am not laboring under the illusion that all women who get together talk like Elizabeth Bennet and her friend Charlotte Lucas after the disturbing Mr. Collins has been dispatched to work in the garden. But I have known some who do. It’s probably more common than most men know.

It is likely due to these lamentable corruptions in my history and character that when I read the passage in Luke 1 where Elizabeth and Mary greet one another after a long time apart and after both of them have had, shall we say, some big developments since last they met, the text rings true to me. Certainly there may have been a few “hello my dears” and “how are things” left out of the Biblical version. That “realistic” sort of narrative won’t be part of the writer’s tool kit for many centuries to come. 

But that one pregnant women might actually say to another: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” – yes, I believe that. And that the other woman might respond with a bits and snatches of poetry memorized from the Old Testament (mostly from the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, but with others thrown in as well), I believe that too.  I believe it because I’ve seen it. 

People who love poetry but who don’t recite it for a living get bits and pieces of poems mixed up all the time, just as people who love songs can recite (or sing) part of the lyric, but then mistakenly veer into another.  I’m convinced this sort of delightful confusion is where “medleys” come from. Indeed (full disclosure), although I know the poetic passages I quoted above from memory, I copied and pasted them from the internet, so as not to reap the scorn of hyper-zealous critics with Google ready to hand, and so as to avoid two dozen comments all dealing with a misplaced “the” in line 3. When I hear these lines of poetry repeated orally from memory, they’re rarely word-perfect reproductions. But they’re usually close enough for the people who know the poems to get the idea.

I’m certainly open to the historical-critical explanation of the Magnificat (the prayer my wife the poet likes to call “The Magnificent Cat,” for no other reason than she likes the sound of it), but I continue to think some priests probably need to spend more time listening to the elegant conversations of educated women than reading the tortured explanations of contemporary historical-critical biblical scholars. 

Especially when they’re reading texts about the remarkable young Jewish woman who became the Mother of God.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (14)Add Comment
written by Grump, September 03, 2011
As a poetry lover, thanks for this piece.

Here's one of my favorites:

The Little Boy and the Old Man
Shel Silverstein

Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
Said the old man, "I do that too."
The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
"I do that too," laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, "I often cry."
The old man nodded, "So do I."
"But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
"I know what you mean," said the little old man.
written by JonDWhite, September 03, 2011
Given that: a) biblical literacy and memorization was highly valued in Jewish culture, b) the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) was, according to tradition, the daughter of a priest of the Jewish Temple, c) BVM's Son was, arguably, the most intelligent human to walk the earth, and, d) the BVM's Son probably got at least 50% of His smarts from His mother, then it is easily conceivable that the BVM - a highly-intelligent and well-educated Jewish woman - would be able to recall vital parts of Jewish scriptures from memory to produce an impromptu short speech such as the Magnificat. There is no need for the theory of a later writer putting words in her mouth if one is aware of the BVM's Jewish milieau and assents to her Progeny's intellectual magnificence.
written by qbee, September 03, 2011
Oh, I love this!
I was JUST doing this with a friend of mine...when God's Word is hidden in one's heart, it cannot help but come to mind and to do great literary lines come to the lover of great books. Mary had a journey with no iPod and no radio, so she had plenty of time to commune with her Spouse and hear His voice. She has reflected to us, and to Elizabeth, the One Who is within her.
THANK you for the delightful perspective!
written by Yezhov, September 03, 2011
The author makes an on spot point re the epidemic of homiletic foolishness, especially re scriptural accounts of Mary. In the mid Sixties a newly minted "scripture scholar" gave an expo of the annunciation to gathered priests in the archdiocese of Seattle [before the advent of Dutch Hunthausen (who later sold off the seminary where the event took place.)] The "scholar" denied the scriptural account of the annunciation - no angel, no comment by Mary, etc. and said she one day woke up pregnant. After a silent pause, Bishop Gill, an Seattle's peppy auxiliary, turned to the "scholar" and said, "Father, You're full of shit.!" [thunderous applause.]
written by Louise, September 03, 2011
Indeed, Mr. Smith, women do seem to have an affinity for quoting poetry, such as the examples above, but, more often than not, they are quoting male poets, such as above: Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. I don't believe that I have ever read a female poet whose work I admired. They are either saccharinely sentimental (Helen Steiner Rice if she even qualifies as a poet) or self-indulgent, self-pitying, or self-absorbed (Sylvai Plath), and their outlook is so narrow. Simone de Beauvoir said that women write within the confines of their own psyches and never get beyond them.

I once almost failed an English Lit. class at B.U. because I said that Emily Dickenson's metaphor in "The Chariot" was trite. Oh well. it seemed trite to me.

My personal one-line opener is this: "The sea is calm tonight." I once stood on that shingle beach on a calm fall night--we went to Dover for that express purpose, and the limits of the world were not defined by the limits of my unconscious mind.

Great essay. Thank you.

written by Dia, September 03, 2011
Louise: try the poetry of Anne Ridler and see what you think.
written by Vince C, September 03, 2011
It's a bunch of baloney that people can't or won't memorize lengthy poems or passages. My children can recite dialogue from ENTIRE MOVIES (like 'Toy Story' or "Willie Wonka") and they often do so to keep themselves entertained on long car trips. If something is meaningful enough to someone, they can memorize it. In a pre-television culture such as the ones ancient Jews lived in, memorization and re-telling was even more important.
written by Louise, September 04, 2011
Thank you, Dia. Anne Ridler is gentle and tender without being sentimental. She has a quietly consistent rhythm--an interior rhythm like a heartbeat or perhaps breathing.
Very nice.
written by Mark Kirby, September 04, 2011
Can't remember where I read that some saint or other always said the Magnificat to himself after receiving Communion. I was struck by how right that seemed -- our intimacy with Jesus then is analogous to that of our Mother to the Child inside her. So I started doing the same, and have committed the poem to memory. My experience recommends the practice.

Seeing how the soul is archetypically regarded as feminine, I don't even stumble over the line "...He hath regarded/ the lowliness of his handmaid." I memorized the Douay-Rheims version -- I just like it better.

To the point of the Randall Smith's essay, this phrase, "For He that is mighty/ hath done great things to me..." seems to me profoundly feminine; and its second part, said inside me, with its iambic, heartbeat rhythm intact -- "hath DONE great THINGS to ME" -- never fails to pierce me to the heart.
written by TeaPot562, September 04, 2011
When our children were small, I (the Dad) used to read them sections from Mother Goose, or poems from "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" as bedtime stories. Now in their 40s or 50s of age, they can still fill in the lines on "You are old, Father William" and "Jabberwocky" from memory. And we live in a culture with much printed material. Pre-printing press cultures were forced to memorize anything they wanted to use on a regular basis, such as the Psalms. So why shouldn't the BVM have synthesized the Magnificat from material already in her memory?
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, September 05, 2011
Oh! Louise

Try Elizabeth Barrett Browning -

"Napoleon! -- 'twas a high name lifted high:
It met at last God's thunder sent to clear
Our compassing and covering atmosphere
And open a clear sight beyond the sky
Of supreme empire; this of earth's was done --
And kings crept out again to feel the sun."

The kings crept out -- the peoples sat at home,
And finding the long-invocated peace
(A pall embroidered with worn images
Of rights divine) too scant to cover doom
Such as they suffered, cursed the corn that grew
Rankly, to bitter bread, on Waterloo.

That is poetry of a high order
written by Louise, September 05, 2011
Dear Mr. Paterson,

High order, indeed! "Waterloo" hits you in the head like a baseball thrown from left field. I was shivering by the time I reached the end. Thank you. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth Barretr Browning came to mind immediately as I read Anne Ridler's poems.

Thank you for this. I will add it to my collection. Maybe ALL women poets are not awful. Isn't the internet grand? And isn't The Catholic Thing grander?
written by Jenni, September 05, 2011
My homeschooled children (9 and 7 and a few more behind them) learn about a poem a month. They start with Robert Louis Stevenson and move on to bigger thing later.
written by Tony, September 10, 2011
One thing that amuses me about such Scripture scholars as Dr. Smith describes is that they rarely have much experience with literature, ancient or otherwise. So they make staggering speculations with no evidence at all. If Mary was at all aware of Scripture, um, don't you think that the Song of Hannah would naturally occur to her, given the situation? Then there are utterly unfounded assumptions, such as how literate a fisherman like Peter could possibly be. Um, er, a fisherman like Peter stood about as good a chance of being a genius as would any Levite around. Why not, when you were BORN into your profession? We can say the same thing about Saint John, who seems to have been a man of prodigious intelligence.

Just because we are amnesiac dumbos, that doesn't mean that people in past generations were. For instance: back in Appalachia, the shape-note leader would call out any one of a couple hundred hymns, and everybody would immediately know his or her part, and all the verses of the song, too.

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