National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Spring Books
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

Translated by Jerzy Peterkiewicz
USCCB Publishing, 40 pages, $19.95
A pope reflects on mysteries of creation


To have access to the mind and heart of another person is a privilege that deserves utmost respect. And when that person is a renowned world figure whose every utterance is carefully noted, attention should be paid to his personal, intimate writings. In Pope John Paul II’s Roman Triptych: Meditations, the reader is given access to the affectivity and imagination of the Holy Father as he reflects prayerfully on a favorite triptych. A triptych is a painting or carving consisting of three panels side by side.

The first panel deals with the mystery and majesty of creation; the second panel depicts how creation comes from a vision, the vision of Michelangelo’s artistic interpretation of God’s “seeing” of history; the third panel presents Abraham and Isaac as they make their troubling ascent up Mount Moriah.

The first meditation is short, just three pages. The central theme here is wonderment at the source of all creation. The human person is a creature of wonder, capable of standing in awe of nature and history. But creation is to be tasted in all “its life-giving freshness.” There is an emphasis on silence, both the silence of creation itself and the silence needed in the soul to be present to reality. If one’s meditation is full, the sense of wonder will lead us to the source of life, the eternal Word.

The second meditation, a series of reflections on the book of Genesis pictured at the threshold of the Sistine Chapel, runs 12 pages. Four themes are presented: “seeing,” pondering the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God, the notion of pre-sacrament, and the last judgment. The artist Michelangelo helps us to see that which is ineffable: “Here, in this chapel, Michelangelo penned it,/not with words, but with the richness/of a riot of colors.” In a series of conversations with God, self, Michelangelo and others, John Paul II ponders the enigma of human identity in its relationship to one’s creator. Before the sacraments (pre-sacrament) there lies the mystery of existence, that is, “the outward sign of eternal Love.” God’s interior, mutual self-giving (communion of persons) is the model for the human spirit and imposes the greatest responsibility upon each of us. The last judgment reminds us, “The End is as invisible as the Beginning.” In the end time, we stand before the Lord to review and give an accounting of our legacy.

In the epilogue to this second meditation, the Holy Father makes reference to the two conclaves held in August and October 1978, the second of which elected him pope. Then he comments on the fact that the cardinals of the church will gather before the vision of Michelangelo and elect his successor.

The third panel of this Roman triptych is “A Hill in the Land of Moriah.” Abram was obedient to the voice of God and “went where abundance beckoned.” Abram of Ur trusted in the God who was nameless and yet ever so present. Then, as Abraham, he and his son journeyed up Mount Moriah. The reader can feel the anguish that sacrifice demands of the human heart. The story is all about the covenant, this mysterious, loving relationship between God and humankind. It is the story of total, mutual self-giving.

On the cover of this volume, we see Pope John Paul II walking along a stream. Above the photo is the caption The Poetry of John Paul II. At the bottom of the cover is: Roman Triptych: Meditations. So do we have poetry or meditations in this slim volume? Poetry is the land of metaphor, images, condensed language flowing from the right side of the brain. Meditations, on the other hand, come from the left side of the cranium, giving us prose, declarative sentences, explanations instead of descriptions.

Two observations. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz is quoted on the inside blurb: “Great poetry … Underneath [the poetry] lies the whole of church teaching and Catholic dogmatics in their most concise form.” Do we have great poetry here or do we have a series of prayerful meditations published in verse style?

Ralph Waldo Emerson claims that the “poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty.” John Paul II does speak, name and articulate in words the beauty that he observes. According to Denise Levertov: “The task of the poet is to make clear to himself, and thereby to others, the temporal and eternal questions.” The pope does deal here with the large questions of existence, meaning, God and death. And according to poet David Whyte: “Poets write poetry as much to remember their primary relationships as they do to tell them to others.” This, too, is done in this volume.

However, Walter Bruggemann, the popular preacher and Old Testament professor, claims that the “poet responds precisely and concretely.” On the whole, the writing in Roman Triptych: Meditations is more abstract than concrete, though there are a few moments of precision. In his play “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce writes, speaking for Emily Dickinson: “When I see a tall pale snowstorm stalking through the fields and bowing at my window, I find I must translate my feeling into poetry.” One senses in this present volume more a translation of thoughts than feelings. In her Journal of a Solitude, poet May Sarton maintains: “Somewhere between the minute particular and the essence lies the land of poetry.” It would seem that we have more the philosopher than the poet in these pages.

A caveat: This book is a translation. Perhaps Czeslaw Milosz’s claim that we have great poetry here comes from reading the verse in its primary language and not the translation. Perhaps the translator, who has almost an impossible task, gives us more prose than poetry.

A second observation: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on pages 36-40, gives his own commentary on this volume and never once mentions the word “poetry” as the genre employed.

Regardless, we have in this text a view of how the pope ponders and articulates the great mysteries of our faith: creation, redemption and sanctification. We have here a man who believes completely in the Triune mystery, in the eternal Word of Jesus, in the power and presence of the Spirit. Here are meditations calling all of us to be filled with wonder at creation, to be grateful and responsible for our Christian calling and to renew our commitment to the covenant, ever ancient, ever new.

Robert F. Morneau, a poet, is the auxiliary bishop of the Green Bay, Wis., diocese.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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