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This week’s poetry page features two poems by Fr. Kilian McDonnell, founder and president of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minn. McDonnell, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, the 50th anniversary of ordination and 55 years as a Benedictine monk this year, began writing poetry five years ago.

Many of his poems, he told NCR, are inspired by German scholar Gerhard Von Rad’s Old Testament Theology.“It was an eye opener for me,” he said. “Especially the theme of struggling with God. Abraham, Jacob, the prophets. They were of course struggling with themselves, too.

“Struggling with the visions and the encounter. The meeting … was kind of thorny. It was glorious and magnificent and spiky. And that’s what drew me to it. And also the presence of God in history. That God was immediately involved in history, and its unfolding.

“I wanted to show the struggle but I wanted to show the ultimate triumph. What we do in the struggle, and how God eventually overcomes us. God makes us whole.”

Pelagius Undone
“You have accomplished for us all we have done”
-- Isaiah 26

No sudden Tabors,
No angelic visitations
Betrayals had not reached
a critical mass.

My fig leaf
had not fallen off
My sins had not been published
in the Morning Mirror.

I had not felt hounded.
The sun had not darkened,
The mountain of fire
had not fallen into the sea,

But as I turned
to hang my tan jacket
on the paneled wall
I knew.

In that light -- one moment
that November day
I saw my smudged
years, unsmudged.

Sure, I was captain
of my unconquerable soul,
standing at the helm,
hand upon the wheel.

Stupid groundings
were my own,
with all the clarity
of Greek necessity.

But there is a management,
like wildest love,
that leaves me free,
opens the gate.

Abraham Binds Isaac
“Go to the Land of Moriah”
-- Genesis 22:2

“Take me at my word,
trust my face, my hand.
Gather up the flock and herd,
leave your father’s house.
Quick now.

Though you be seventy-five,
Sarah ten years younger,
the son of your decay
will be great in the far land.
Fear not.”

Good to your word you brought
me to the soil of Canaan’s famine.
Eighty-eight and counting: no son, but
promises recycled in blood.
Keep faith!

Every promise is a test.
You have no past, no future, only Now. But
my life keeps
waiting for your dyspeptic will.
Do hurry!
Ninety-nine is past and Sarah weeps.
Still the covenant’s reissued,
signed in a snip off my manhood
(Puberty rites at two hundred?)
Steady boy!

Suddenly toothless Sarah blossoms. No one in
Ur of Chaldees,
no one in Haran has ever seen antiquity sit
upon the birth stool. Courage man!
We giggle in our lumpy bed as though we
discovered the cosmology of love. I lay my
ear upon her belly to hear his heart. It’s

Sarah spreads varicose
veins to whelp a roaring
beast whose howl is heard
beyond Beer-sheba and the sands.
He’s here.
When the boy is ten I hear:
“Go to the land of Moriah
to burn in offering on the mountain
your Isaac, the son you love.”
A trap?

As I said, every promise is a test,
every covenant a threat.
Yahweh lurks behind
each blessing like a fang. Beware
the Greeks.

Is there no end to tempting,
no honor among the gods?
After long delays -- and I mean long --
you sent a child of my loins.

Let me ask about fidelity,
promises, pacts thrice vowed.
Like a rug merchant postponing
delivery you might escape.

And now again you haggle,
with Isaac’s blood for barter.
After stops and stays, you ask this?
After years of smooth sayings?
Once more?

Woe to the chosen, to the elect.
You will die upon an abandoned hill
as a sign of contradiction
to that fierce and thorny love.
I go.

I bind my only son upon the altar
on Moriah, but you stay my hand.
I return to Beer-sheba, heavy
with the knowledge of God and wary.
I wait.

-- Fr. Kilian McDonnell
Collegeville, Minn.

2002 in Poetry

2001 in Poetry

2000 in Poetry

1999 in Poetry

Poems should be previously unpublished and limited to about 50 lines and preferably typed. Please send poems to NCR POETRY, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City MO 64111-1203. Or via e-mail to poetry@natcath.org or fax (816) 968-2280. Please include your street address, city, state, zip and daytime telephone number. NCR offers a small payment for poems we publish, so please include your Social Security number.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002