O Heavn’ly Poet, Pray for Us
Roman Triptych: Meditations
by Pope John Paul II
40 pages, $19.95
Available in bookstores
When he was a boy of 13 or 14, Karol Wojtyla had an outdoor thinking spot he liked to retreat to, alone. It may have been near a pond or in the woods.
He never spelled out the coordinates of any such place in particular, so how do I know this? I’ve been basking in Roman Triptych/Meditations, the only verse he both wrote and published during his pontificate. To re-read it on the first anniversary of his death is to be taken back to an old, foundational corner of this great man’s heart. And it is to recognize the place as a quiet, secluded refuge — one in which a cursory survey of the topography turns up unexpected artifacts that point, indirectly but unmistakably, to Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is human life itself.
The book is a breath of easy air, too. So spontaneous are the thoughts recorded here, so softly refracted through the filter of this apostle’s expansive intellect, that absorbing it unhurriedly is like taking a stroll with old Dr. Wojtyla, your favorite philosophy professor, on his day off. You walk along, pausing at a few points of interest along the way. At each, he surprises you by expressing, with startling transparency, a childlike sense of wonder.
Three poems are here. In “The Stream,” John Paul the outdoorsman guides us along a brook. He’s intent on finding out its mysterious and unseen source. In “A Hill in the Land of Moriah,” he ponders the Biblical story of Abraham, called by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, and what it reveals about God’s love for us. And, most intriguingly, in “Meditations on the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel,” he mulls his forthcoming absence from one of his favorite indoor places in the world.
“Those entrusted with the legacy of the keys gather here, letting themselves be enfolded by the Sistine’s colors, by the vision left to us by Michelangelo,” he writes. “So it was in August, and again in October, in the memorable year of the two Conclaves, and so it will be once more, when the time comes, after my death.”
Here, as in his earlier poetry, Wojtyla glides between detached, ontological abstraction (“How can we break beyond the bounds of good and evil?”) and private, first-person openings of the heart (“Let me wet my lips in spring water”) — and back again — without so much as a stanza break. We saw this in the verse he wrote as a young man minding the silence of his mother’s grave and, later, as a seminarian seeking God’s will amid the violence and chaos of Nazi-occupied Poland.
When he left us last year, we knew that this Holy Father was as gifted a thinker and as devout a disciple of Christ as ever sat in St. Peter’s chair. But we could only guess at his private interior life. Thank God he brought out one last burst of poetry before taking his leave. One literary critic, commenting years before this collection came along, wrote of the poet Wojtyla: “Thought itself seems to be the most vivid and authentic experience for him. His poems are really about solitude to a large extent, and the self being known, one on one with God in the act of contemplation.”
Talk about a sign of contradiction. The best traveled, most closely observed priest, evangelist and apostle in Christian history loved nothing more than simply getting alone with God. Well, okay. Maybe he loved, just as much, proclaiming God’s Gospel. In Roman Triptych: Meditations, he does both. Just as he did everywhere he went. Just as he’s doubtless doing right now in some eternal thinking spot thronged with saints and angels.
David Pearson is the
Register’s features editor.
- April 2-8, 2006