The Magnificent Cat

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.