Simone Weil’s Metaxu: Interrogating Truth

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Dorothy Tuck McFarland (1983) views Simone Weil as a “writer with profoundly holistic vision of man [sic] and his [sic] relationship to the world” (pp. 168-169). This vision is demonstrated in Weil’s use of Attention, Decreation, and, most specifically, Metaxu to integrate her words into a singular and consistent corpus of literature that we find today. As a hysteric, Weil demands all the knowledge that she possibly can and then is not satisfied and desires more knowledge. The hysteric’s discourse demands knowledge beyond what is given by the master narrative, by the hegemony of the time, and this is exactly what Weil does in her discussion of Metaxu.

I understand the word Metaxu to refer to three main cognitive actions which Weil employs in description of the term: 1) Weil uses action when she postulates that a wall or veil is both a barrier and a way through, 2) She further uses an insistence on looking for and holding together contradiction, 3) And Weil intends the view of the idea of a means versus an ends. This demonstrates the ways I see Weil’s ambiguous use of Metaxu and its multiple, complementary meanings. These themes run throughout Simone Weil’s prose. I note work from Gravity and Grace, as well as The Power of Words.

Weil (2002) does acknowledge a Platonic understanding of Metaxu as a “between” which she refers frequently to “the distance between the necessary and the good” (p. 105). However, her concepts explored in this article demonstrate that Weil is concerned not with middle ground between two contradictories, but the bridge that allows one the means to travel back-and­forth between these points. This use is somewhat different that the traditional use of Metaxu.

For Weil, Metaxu has many different connotations including suffering, contradiction, impossibility, and certain contradictions that connect us to our humanity.  What is of premium importance in understanding Weil’s use of Metaxu is its process or action. Weil takes her action use of Metaxu to accept challenges, contradictions and power struggles as they lead her further along the path of the hysteric’s search for more truth or knowledge.

I have found Weil to be a hysteric, especially from the perspective of the psychoanalytic characterization of the hysteric based on the theory of Jacques Lacan.  The hysteric, in this conception, is the person who cannot accept authorities’ definitions.  The hysteric seeks the fill lack; it should be understood that in Lacanian theory lack can never be filled. Therefore, though not accepting truth Weil continues to seek it out.

Weil was a political activist and thinker who also used theological notions in her writing. Weil does not make a distinction between political and spiritual realms in her idea of Metaxu. The message of Metaxu refers to the transcendent or a “higher plane.” Therefore, Weil’s methods of Metaxu also lead her to an understanding of a move, which is never fully complete, which conflates the spiritual and the political.

The following quote expresses Weil’s statement about her intentionality and missionality toward seeking more and more knowledge of inviolability of God, while demonstrating her ambiguous use of the term Metaxu: In Weil (2002):

What is it a sacrilege to destroy? Not that which is base, for that is of no importance. Not that which is high, for even should we want to, we cannot touch that. The Metaxu. The Metaxu form the region of good and evil. No human being should be deprived of his Metaxu, that is to say of those relative and mixed blessings (home, country, traditions, culture, etc.) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, a human life is not possible. (p. 147)

This missionality is holistic in nature and she is speaking of that which cannot be put into language, which reaffirms Lacan’s acknowledgment that communication cannot truly take place. It is that dissonance of the Lacanian split subject and the dissonance of all experiences of difficulties, hardships and injustices which are approached by Weil through Metaxu.

Weil (2002) first cognitive action helps us to understand Metaxu with the metaphor of a barrier or a wall:

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us with God; every separation is a link. (p. 145)

Weil (2002) also writes, “This world is the closed door. It is a barrier. And at the same time it is the way through” (p. 145). This is a cognitive exercise of seeing obstacles as something more.  Necessity is a barrier and a bridge between us and the holy. Weil attempts to reach an understanding from the hysteric’s point of view, note here that this understanding can never be reached.

Weil uses the concept of “necessity” to apply this cognitive exercise on a grand scale, as demonstrated in the following quotes. Weil (2002) states that “God has committed all phenomena without exception to the mechanism of the world” (p. 104). The mechanism of the world rests on necessity and the obligation that the sun and all stars do shine and all matter does create gravity. These are necessary elements and fundamental to the continuous nature of the cosmos. Necessity is the subsistence of all things both finite and eternal, earth and heaven. Weil (2002) supposes that “There are necessity and laws in the realm of grace … Even hell has its laws (Goethe). So has heaven” (p. 92).

It is important to define what Weil means by “necessity.”  To Weil, necessity encompasses all the laws that the physical world we know are ruled by; these laws apply equally to all people. Weil repeatedly returns to the idea of necessity as a foundational concept in her philosophy and uses it in a variety of ways to resolve subjective angst.  In spite of her obsession with necessity, Weil is always in pursuit of more knowledge (as a hysteric).

From Weil’s point of view, the mechanisms of the physical and metaphysical world cause man great suffering; however these mechanisms also provide protection from being consumed by God’s full power and holiness. Again this is an illustration of how the barrier, or the wall, is also the way through, or the means of communication. Weil’s pessimistic views of necessity prove to be, according to McFarland, (1983) “no less threatening to the future of civilization now than they were in the 1930s” (p. 169).

McFarland brings forward necessity as the driving force for the whole cosmos, which is very fundamental to Weil’s work. Weil (2012) writes of it this way:

This universe where we live, of which we are just a particle, is that  distance placed by divine love between God and God. We are a point in that distance. Space, time and the mechanisms that govern matter are that distance. All that we call evil is only that mechanism. God made it so that His grace, when it penetrates to someone’s very center and illuminates their whole being, permits that person to walk on water without violating the laws of nature. But when someone turns away from God, they simply give themselves over to gravity. Then they believe they will and choose, but they are only a thing, a falling stone. (p. 39)

Without the protection of space, time, and matter humanity would evaporate as water in direct sunlight.  Per Weil (2002), “Necessity is God’s veil” (p. 104).  The veil is necessity which keeps humans from being scorched by God’s radiance; necessity perpetuates the universe in its increasing infinitude, necessity guarantees the ex-sistence of space, time, and matter (p. 32). For Weil (2002) “Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be” (p. 33), indeed, that which prevents our evaporation.

Metaxu, demonstrated as seeing obstacles and as something more, is perpetuated by the gravity of laws in the universe which preserve life. As I have said, Necessity is a barrier and a bridge (Metaxu) between us and the holy. Weil (2002) theorizes that “The distance between necessity and good: this is a subject for endless contemplation” (p. 105). This is an example of the way in which Weil thinks with Metaxu.

The mechanisms of necessity display ultimate obedience to divine Wisdom; therefore, being subject to necessity can be our bridge to obedience to divine Wisdom as well. In terms of the veil, it is used in the following way: “In such cases suffering, emptiness are the mode of existence of the objects of our desire. We only have to draw aside the veil of unreality and we shall see that they are given to us in this way. When we see that, we still suffer, but we are happy” (Weil, 2002, p. 23).

Weil’s approach to the somatic aspect of life is explained well by Charity K. M. Hamilton (2013), who refers to “the body [as] that space which can connect us with God or separate us from God” (p. 93). The body is a site of Metaxu for Weil according to Hamilton. It serves as a theological bridge between a person and God. The physical world was strangely inviting to a woman with such an emotional and physical struggle with anorexia.

Out of Weil’s compassion, she sees a different reality than that of the Lacanian discourse of the master; again, as a hysteric, she seeks knowledge beyond what is known even to experts. Weil’s political thought focuses on justice, morality and recognition of the hard-working individual who was oppressed and exploited. Fred Rosen (1979) reminds readers about “Weil’s insight into the double deprivation of the workers which consisted not only of low wages but also of loss of dignity.” (p.306) As Weil (2002) proclaims:

The true earthly blessings are metaxu. We can respect those of others only insofar as we regard those we ourselves possess as metaxu. This implies that we are already making our way towards the point where it is possible to do without them. For example, if we are to respect foreign countries, we must make of our own country not an idol, but a stepping stone toward God. (p. 147)

Weil’s approach is spiritual, humanistic and compassionate, not highbrow and elitist. She found herself in the factory with the worker and single-handedly negotiated a philosophy honoring what she refers to as Metaxu, man’s [sic] connection with “earthly blessing.” Weil is focused on the person one at a time; her compassion led her to the conclusion that she does not have comprehensive solutions but rather individual approaches.  Each works out justice through attentive labor and practice. Weil’s sense of Metaxu as involving contradiction plays out in her view that what is transcendent is also lowly. Weil believed that the entire world is contradiction.

In Howe’s (2009) estimation, “Weil’s conception of roots is heavily influenced by the Greek idea of Metaxu: in this case the existence of intermediaries that form bridges between earth and heaven. Weil placed such importance on these aspects of human [sic] existence” that the result was that she was inclined to embrace earth and heaven. Weil believes all of the cosmos is contradiction, and this contradiction is what grounds us, connects us to the transcendent, or gives us roots.  The world is the social and physical realm in which there is “baseness,” “lowness” and a “property of evil,” (p. 77) in Weil’s writing it is apparently the social realm that creates a barrier “which keeps evil away” from some.

For Weil (2002), Metaxu is acceptance of contraries, e.g. “every man is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior.” Weil (2002) conflates “necessity” and “submission” in “The only way to preserve our dignity when submission is forced upon us is to consider our chief as a thing. Every man [sic] is the slave of necessity, but the conscious slave is far superior” as well as stating Metaxu with the following: “if one day we are driven, under pain of cowardice, to go and break ourselves against their power, we must consider ourselves as vanquished by the nature of things and not by men [sic]” (p. 157- 158); here that Metaxu is applicable to “the nature of things” and “men [sic].” It again is seeing more when faced with a barrier, remembering that very barrier is our aid.

The second cognitive action Weil uses as part of her doing Metaxu is to retrieve a picture of the whole by looking at extremes. Weil as the hysteric (in the manner of the hysteric’s discourse) questions the master signifier. This is because the full truth can never be spoken; she considers truth as something to pursue, even though she can only get glimpses of it. The balancing of the challenges she faces include finding the complication with the use of dichotomies, or finding the contradiction in the way we typically think of opposites.

These typical notions have to be taken apart, which happens through suffering, so we can have a better understanding of the true relationship of these ideas. Weil seeks out the “right union” of opposites, which is not about a between, but about what is found on a “higher plane.” Dialectics for Weil are not seen as dichotomous, but rather as meeting and joining by way of a bridge for getting back and forth, and even in contradiction, often being in both places at the same time, which may appear as coalescence, but not a compromise.

This is the nature of Metaxu, to bring together contradictories in spite of their contrariness. Weil (2002) writes that “We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6). This plane might seem difficult to conceive of or even entertain cognitively, but Weil gives the following metaphor to assist in understanding “another plane” by stating:

If I am walking on the side of a mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest.  I have to choose either the lake or the forest.  If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher. (p. 99)

Weil kept her own philosophical position and did not give way to the thoughts of the day, especially political ones. Fiori attests to the potential contradictions and inconsistency in Weil’s ideas which only positions Weil as truly a human [sic] and unpretentious political figure. Fiori (1989) writes, “de Kadt declared at the same time that he did not at all share Simone’s ideas, which were drawing ever closer to Gandhi’s” (p. 93) approach to protest. According to Fiori, “The nonviolent editors of the Dutch monthly, Liberation, published a translation of her articles in the form of a booklet. They had quickly discerned her detachment from every separatist scheme and from all factionalism” (p. 93).

Weil was not a joiner, according to her friend Simone Pétrement.  Towards the last part of her “political life” Weil differed in opinions from many, an example, for Bataille, “(the Russian) revolution is the triumph of the irrational,” for Weil, it is the triumph of the “rational.” What for him is a “catastrophe,” for Weil is a “methodical action for which we should strive in every way to mitigate the damage.” While for him the revolution is “liberation of the instincts, especially those considered currently to be pathological,” for Weil it means the need for, as in Fiori (1989) “a superior morality” (p. 96).

Weil seeks to find truth when the opposite is true, and seeks the balance which opposites bring into the foreground. Weil’s likelihood to contradict theories in order to bed within the confines of the discourse of the hysteric is, which is indicated by her symptoms.  Those would be the desire to fight on the front lines while refusing to eat or stay healthy.  These problems did not prevent her from voicing and conveying her political-self.

Weil had particular understanding of the political era she lived in and she presented a holistic and unique perspective on the nature of revolution; one could say that Weil was not interested in the same sort of revolution than that which Trotsky had in mind. Weil didn’t fit into a particular camp of thought on the matters of political import. Whereas Trotsky was interested in revolution within the whole of social order, Weil understood the needs of the individual worker as more important than a revolution that would just instate a new rule.

Blum and Seidler (1989) contend that in Weil’s view “revolutionary insurrection has nothing to do with genuine radical change … [she also thought such insurrections] … do not touch the real sources of oppression and dignity, which concern the structure of work and work relationship” (pp. 62-63). Weil interprets change as illusory to the masses and theorists, a contradiction in their thought to the extent that Weil can see through it into the psyche and have a further knowledge, again as the hysteric seeking what is beyond the truth of theorist.

Again Blum and Seidler remind us that “Weil suggests that genuine radical change can come about without a violent insurrection” (p. 63). Metaxu interestingly is used by Weil to find the abolition of all political parties. Weil (1977) explains that “revolution is the opium of the masses” (p. 120).  It is quite clear that Marxism “constitutes an improvement on the naive expressions of indignation which it replaced, one cannot say that it throws light on the mechanism of oppression” (p. 127).

Weil again states that even the French Revolution left people standing by, “helpless, watching a new oppression immediately being set up,” (p. 127) even after the beheading of the aristocrats. Metaxu is an active way of understanding the moment of actual change, not a conceptual or cognitive construction of an understanding of a historical process. Metaxu is the active process of dealing with contradictions to be worked through starting with action-based awareness (which Weil terms Attention) on the part of the people with which she worked side-by-side.

This can only happen through being-with the workers and educating them on the nature of the action-based awareness, “Attention,” which is state akin to mindfulness and concentration. Weil’s insistence on Metaxu as a cognitive action continues her search for truth, which leads her to the use of Attention. Weil agrees with Marx that oppression can only end if the structure of power has changed. However, Weil contends that what society sees as change is not genuine change, but further oppression.

When Weil uses Metaxu she works through oppositions and contradiction related to work life. This is a union of opposites not in the typical conceptual understanding, but rather through concrete happening. This is due to the political and public sectors being not as they seem. Weil dismantles both sides of the opposites and finds through active awareness that the right union of opposites happened on a higher plane. Weil (2002) writes to the worker, “The desire for vengeance is a desire for essential equilibrium. We must seek equilibrium on another plane” (p. 6).

There is another division in the thought of Weil which demonstrates the nature of dichotomies, as Weil understands it. Thus, she writes in Oppression and Liberty,

As Plato said, an infinite distance separates the good from necessity. They have nothing in common. They are totally other. Although we are forced to assign them a unity this unity is a mystery; it remains for us a secret. The genuine religious life is the contemplation of this unknown unity. The manufacture of a fictitious, mistaken equivalent of this unity, brought within the grasp of the human faculties, is an inadequacy as a philosophy through the description of Marxism as being a religion in the bottom of the inferior forms of the religious life. (p. 165)

Weil on the same page indicts Marxism as being a “fully fledged-religion,” in the “impurest sense of the word” (p. 165).

Weil continues to develop the notion that Marx is only a shade away from Plato’s spirituality in comparison to materialism (p. 165). Weil states elsewhere in the same work that “it is possible to say, without fear of exaggeration, that as a theory of the workers’ revolution Marxism is a nullity” (p. 175). Revolutionary Marxism is based on a reductive ideology, whereas Weil emphasized revolution is a hope that never fulfills its promise. Hence, the nature of the hysterics reality comes alive in the non-fulfilling nature of revolution.

In addition to seeing a barrier as a way through and seeking out contradiction, the third cognitive action that Weil frequently takes in this process of Metaxu is looking at the means versus the ends. The metaphor of the bridge illustrates the concept of means, nicely. The summarization of Weil’s use of the bridge comes in the following text from Gravity and Grace:

The bridges of the Greeks. We have inherited them but we do not know how to use them. We thought they were intended to have houses built upon them. We have erected skyscrapers on them to which we ceaselessly add stories. We no longer know that they are bridges, things made so that we may pass along them, and that by passing along them we go towards God. (p. 146)

Bridges are necessary in order to cross terrain that is impossible to cross otherwise; Weil was only interested in the means, the bridge itself, or the crossing over. Weil’s focus was not on the ends; for her that would be a trap, the end of knowing. Because of the hysteric’s need to continue toward truth, Weil felt nothing was as important as the bridge as the means not the ends.

Weil pictures the bridge as that which can readily be passed over to connect and investigate difference. Weil writes “Only he who loves God with a supernatural love can look upon means simply as means” (p.146). Weil’s concern that humans not use ends, but rather continue with means is for her as being of high importance. When ends come to be a prospect, as a solution to problems or as a way to complete a transaction or communication, this is the lowest of notions, it is the completion of desire.

Desire as means leading to desire as a means is the essence of beauty, because of the infinite nature of such; therefore, ends in themselves or means to an end are like blowing out candles in order to save wax, which is turning the world into darkness and bitterness (because of Weil’s anorexia, this concept of beauty makes sense).  Means is a significant philosophical and theological concept and can be applied to Weil’s representation of the human [sic] ends in the case of endeavors completed, finite, objectified or totalized. Weil saw great distress in a world of only ends.

The importance of means for means’ sake and means leading to further means emphasized synchronicity and spontaneity of the world. It was godly and noble to be of the understanding that means are fluid and related to the flux of life. Weil has numerous commentaries on power, money and resources; and on how they are indeed means that produce more means as they are applied correctly to life.

Weil speaks, the “miser’s treasure is the shadow of an imitation of what is good. It is doubly unreal. For, to start with, a means to an end (such as money) is, in itself, something other than a good. But diverted from its function as a means and set up as an end, it is still further from being a good” (p. 52). Good was for Weil a function or cognitive action entailing means only.

Weil maintains a moral sense which informs her political and religious scruples. She is strongly against what she considers harmful in the shaping of humans, individually and collectively. Weil states that “The Metaxu form the region of good and evil” (p. 147). For Weil, good and evil are equivalent when on the transcendent plane; they are separate otherwise in human [sic] existence.

In the discussion of good and evil, the work that Weil does covers the divide between good and evil which demonstrates a just and spiritual understanding of these realities. Weil reinvigorates those who would give her voice and delivers a sense of values that are above discriminatory morals and provides an approach toward a way of truer liberty. She had, again as Blum and Seidler (1989) have pointed out, escaped the terms of moral relativism that have become the common-sense assumptions within social theory and anthropology because they seemed to be the only alternative to nineteenth century rationalism, which tacitly judged other cultures in terms of the values and institutions of Western culture (p. 213).

Weil seeks to connect philosophy to concrete history. Weil’ s accumulation of writing as collected by Gustav Thibon, from Weil’s work which he entitled Gravity and Grace, amasses material that covers many topics; nonetheless, throughout Weil’s work there is the thread of material on Metaxu.

In various passages of her writings Weil comes close to a depiction of imagination which coincides with the Lacanian notion of the imaginary. For Weil as for Lacan, as Evans (1996) has it, “The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar.” (p. 16) A Lacanian understanding of the imagination sheds light on Weil’s understanding of the imaginary. As Evans (1996) puts it,

The imaginary is the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure. The principal illusions of the imaginary are those of wholeness, synthesis, autonomy, duality, and, above all, similarity. The imaginary is thus the order of surface appearances which are deceptive, observable phenomena which hide underlying structure; the effects are such phenomena. (p. 82)

Weil (2002) points to the aspect of evil which is the ”Monotony of evil: never anything new, everything about it is equivalent. Never anything real, everything about it is imaginary” (p. 69). All aspects of evil manifest in the same monotony participated in when on farm and in factory.  Weil honors work and the worker as doing the equivalent of divine work, when attended to in the proper way.

If the imaginary is filling the void, then it seems to follow that the cosmos is imaginary or illusion. This is why the image is so powerful in determining the outcome of one’s deliberation about subjectivity. This is where our values are implicated, as Weil (2002) says:  “Illusions about the things of this world (e.g. the image in the mirror, as I see it) do not concern their existence but their value” (51).  Again, Weil thinks positive outcomes of revolution are illusory, because the outcome is always the same; meaning a power structure is still formulated and a bureaucracy remains.  Within the filler of the void is where Weil’s words given capital letters come to play. For many would shed blood for this illusory state of affairs based on the perception of a greater good found in the revolutionary spirit, as defined by those words.

But according to Weil (1977) “when empty words are given capital letters, then, on the slightest pretext, men will begin shedding blood for them and piling up ruin in their name” (p. 270). For example, Greeks experienced frenzy for Troy; Christians retaliation for the sake of good over evil, Knights for chivalry, or Liberty for Americans. Means are the bridge that Weil envisions, while ends are the capital letters. Bracher (1993) suggests that “the more fully these master signifiers are exposed, the less capable they are of exercising their mesmerizing power” (p. 59). Weil exposes the master signifier in the moves which the powerful make in order for them to remain the hegemony.

Three cognitive actions are in place in Weil’s prose; they represent cause for a significant and meaningful understanding of revolution and work.  They help Weil deliver a message of hope, justice, and ethical politics.  These add-up to a move toward the illusion of the world found in contradiction.  This does not refer to paradox; Weil quite frankly understands opposites to stand side-by-side and not coalescing or forming some One notion.  Therefore, Weil can write about the abolition of all political parties, seeming disarray, and the revolution of work-practices.  The nature of Weil’s subversive thought indicates that “revolution is the opium of the masses” and that meaningful work is necessary for hope and justice.



Blum, L.A., & Siedler, V.J. (1989). A truer liberty: Simone Weil and Marxism. New York, NY: Routledge.

Bracher, M (1993). Lacan, discourse, and social change: A psychoanalytic cultural criticism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Evans, D. (1996). An introductory dictionary of Lacanian psychoanalysis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Fiori, G. (1989). Simone Weil: An intellectual biography. (R. Berrigan, Trans.). St. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press

Howe C. (2009). Cultivating hope: Simone Weil, Metaxu, and a literature of the divine. In J. Hochheimer (Ed.). Hope in the 20thcentury (pp. 61-70). Oxfordshire, UK: Interdisciplinary·Press.

McFarland, D. T. (1983). Simone Weil. New York, NY: Ungar Publishing Company.

Rosen, F. (1979). Marxism, mysticism, and liberty: The influence of Simone Weil on Albert Camus. Political Theory, 7(3), 301-319.

Weil, S. (1977). The Simone Weil reader. G. A. Panichas (Ed.). Wakefield, RI: Moyer Bell.

Weil, S. (2001). Oppression and liberty. New York, NY: Routledge.

Weil, S. (2002). Gravity and grace. New York, NY: Routledge.

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

A Review of “Women in the Church? A Historical Survey”

Magistra 21.2 (Winter 2015): 51-80


In her article, Women in the Church? A Historical Survey, Magdalena Kubow begins her conclusion with “the argument that women have historically participated in sacramental orders does not wish to eliminate the apostolic tradition; however, it does not regard the exclusivity of males to the apostolic tradition as a timeless truth. It sees it as purposeful exclusion, acceptable in the past but no longer acceptable in the present” (76). This is a succinct, yet pithy summary of her work. Her premise is that women were, along with men, founders and leaders of the early Christian Church, and the focus of her survey is to demonstrate how this process of exclusion developed over time, slowly eroding away the female role until all traces of it disappeared by the Middle Ages. Unlike other writers on this topic, Kubow does not spend much time looking at what Scriptures say about it but concentrates on examining the historiography of more current Church documents and teachings. The primary underlying factors to which she attributes this erosion include the shift of church ministry from the private to the public sphere, the development of market economy, and the influence of Roman law on the formation and establishment of Church law. All told, this is a good overview of a variety of influences that led to the demise of female leadership roles over the first few centuries of early Christianity. And it is the perfect resource for an audience who knows enough theology, history, philosophy and cultural development to understand the implications of what she covers in it.

While I found the majority of Kubow’s composition interesting, creative and well-founded, her opening six pages were not as strong as they could have been. First, she offers an opinion that misconstrues a foundational Church document. Then she presents several of the Church’s current arguments against women’s ordination to the priesthood, to which she simply counters with historical evidence that women had once participated in the diaconate. And, to support a later argument, she includes a citation that misrepresents the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass.

To my first point, that she misconstrues a foundational Church document, Kubow offers an opinion taken from someone else’s work in such a way that it is clear she shares it. She references Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII’s papal encyclical of April 1963, which she notes was interpreted as “opening just a crack the door to the priesthood for women” (51) based on his conclusion that man and woman have a right to “follow a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life” (51). In my opinion, either Kubow or Margaret Sittler Ermarth, whom Kubow cites, or both, are stretching to construe that the Pope’s comment refers woman-to-priesthood in this statement. Although Pope John XXIII often wrote about the Church looking to the future, and the Church is always referred to in the feminine, the correlations in his statement are meant to be read as man-to-priesthood and woman-to-religious life.

To my second point, that Kubow offers evidence that women were ordained to the diaconate in the early Church to counter the current arguments against women being ordained to the priesthood today, she is not comparing the same role. There is a major difference between being an ordained priest and being an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, and while that has not always been so, it has been for most of the Church’s history. A priest holds the second highest position in Holy Orders, with the bishop taking first place. He assists the bishop, serves as a mediator between God and the human person, and confers all sacraments except for Holy Orders (only the bishop can do this) – which includes celebrating Mass and the Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Baptism and Holy Matrimony. The deacon holds the third position in Holy Orders, serves to assist the priest but reports directly to the bishop. Seminarians become transitional deacons on their way to priestly ordination, and as of Vatican II, laymen selected by the diocese can become permanent deacons. Their primary responsibilities include proclaiming the Gospel, preaching homilies at Mass, ministering the Eucharist, and serving the parish. They can baptize, as well as marry and perform funeral rites that do not include a celebration of the Eucharist. Consecrating the Eucharist is the realm of priests and bishops alone, and it is this action that renders the Mass Heaven on Earth.

As I continued to read, it occurred to me that Kubow may have been trying to make the point that evidence exists of women being ordained as deacons, or more accurately deaconesses, during the time before the structural hierarchy of the Church was established, when the only role of formal ministry that existed was that of the diaconate. And as the hierarchy strengthened, the role of deaconess met its demise. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt, although I hesitated when I read the next few pages, as she cites dates that do not directly support the points she is trying to make. This tends to cause a bit of confusion and leads the reader to wonder which side of the debate she is advocating. This sense of uncertainty is disorienting and detrimental to the trust that should exist between reader and writer.

Kubow states in her opening paragraph that “the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith justifies their position by arguing that women have never been ordained into sacramental orders and that this has been the unbroken historical practice for the last two thousand years” (51). And she counters, but not for several pages, that “the constant tradition of which the Congregation speaks did not originate two thousand years ago, but was born in the twelfth century when the exclusion of women from the diaconate was formally established in canon law” (53). While her citations are factual, they are confusing as any student of Church structure knows the hierarchy was in place well before the twelfth century. And it is this hierarchy that eliminated the role of deaconess earlier than the twelfth century.

To my last point, that Kubow includes citations that misrepresent the theology behind a major liturgical element of the Catholic mass, she writes that women are not able to invoke the Holy Spirit for the celebration of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. She also states that the Church teaches that women are “incapable” of doing so as if to suggest that we lack the actual capability. She rightly clarifies that it is the Holy Spirit “who alone transforms the bread and wine into the Eucharist” (54). But then she quotes Fr. Bernard Haring as questioning, when speaking about invoking the Holy Spirit, “‘how are women inferior to men?’ Saying ‘this is my body’ has nothing to do with the priest’s own masculinity as he is not speaking in his own name; therefore women ‘can cultivate Eucharistic memory as well as a man’” (54). What Kubow has done in this one paragraph is cobble together a series of thoughts that do not belong together, and I will attempt to untwist them.

To her statement about the Church teaching that women are incapable of calling on the Holy Spirit, incapable is not the correct word. The Church teaches that this is not a question of capability but a question of role, which is evident in Kubow’s correct statement that transubstantiation – the change of the substance or essence of the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ – is the doing of the Holy Spirit. Then there are Fr. Haring’s quotes which look as if they are mixed in with Kubow’s own thoughts, and that makes me question whether she is trying to tie together bits and pieces of what he has said to support her point. The Church does not teach that women are inferior to men. While society may have been responsible at one time for that interpretation, bolstered by the misinformed teachings of a few church leaders, the idea of male-female complementarity – God’s deliberate design of male and female, which together comprise the covenant of redemption – is evident from the Book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation. The inclusion of Haring’s rhetorical question is as baffling as it is and distracting.

When a priest recites “this is my body” during the Eucharistic liturgy, he is quoting the

words of Christ to his apostles during the Last Supper. Throughout the whole act of consecration, the priest is serving in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and because Jesus was a man when he was on earth and charged his apostles, who were all men, with the power to sanctify, we believe the role of in persona Christi is inherently male. There is a reason God created men and women differently, but as that topic exceeds the bounds of this paper, allow me to simply say that as we are different, so are our gifts. To wrap up the dissection of the preceding paragraph and answer the last sentence, yes, women have the capability to cultivate Eucharistic memory, but it is simply not their role. The theology is deep and wide beyond this statement; suffice it to say those who protest to the contrary are not giving that theology the authority and detailed study it deserves. It is inaccurate to say what the priest is doing during the liturgy is merely reminding us of the Last Supper, when, in fact, what he is doing is calling on the Holy Spirit to bring us into the sacrifice of Christ.

Why did I keep reading after plowing through Kubow’s first six pages, which were wobbly at best? Because right in the middle of all of this, she made a statement that is at the heart of this and many other issues in Christianity: “Only since Pope Pius XII’s encyclical letter, Divino afflante spiritu, issued in 1943, have Catholic biblical scholars been liberated to use the tools of historical criticism to assess the biblical foundations of church teachings. This suggests that the question of the ordination of woman has been considered in its modern formulation for no longer than 63 years” (54). Bingo! So, while I would approach any commentary she presented on theology or liturgy with skepticism, I felt her command of history might prove to be stronger.

Kubow’s historiography focuses on two historical assertions of the Roman Catholic Church, also known as the Western Church: that a female diaconate did not exist, or, if it did, it was not authentically sacramental. To address the first, she reviews the destruction of the wealth of ancient libraries over the centuries, which is enough to make any historian cry. And she points out that much of what has been used as source material for the Roman Catholic Church’s contention is what it decided to adopt when the Catholic Church split in 1054 A.D. The richness, the details, and most of the writings of the Early Church Fathers come from the Eastern Church, which is a subtle but important detail when one examines the history of the relationship of the two churches over the last millennium. At this point, Kubow gets into some of the New Testament evidence in support of the female diaconate, and also cites a bit of what the Early Church Fathers wrote in support of it. Then she reaches 325 A.D., when Christianity was established as the religion of state under Constantinople. At this point, “the Church began attracting members of municipal ruling elites who were professionally trained for public life and experienced in public politics… the new leaders of the church were not as comfortable with women’s leadership in the churches. By shifting church practice and ministry obligations from a largely private sphere into the public sphere, which was largely patriarchal in belief, practice, and law, the role of women was drastically reduced” (60). This is a rather unique thread.

Kubow then follows a path I have seen elsewhere, which nonetheless intrigues me and is bound to provide rich detail on closer examination. “Roman law in effect during the time of Jesus shaped much of Church law in the Catholic Church… As the Church became publicly institutionalized, it adopted Roman law as its own and in spite of a slight relaxation in laws (in later years)… the overall inferior status of women remained in place” (61). She makes a pivotal observation that “during the Middle Ages priesthood was redefined as a role of privilege, power and authority, not a life commitment to ministry and service” (77). And as we enter the medieval era, when religion was the underpinning of daily life, we see the “changing social status of labour and a shift from a generally private to public economic market” (64), which impacted both the role of women in society and the practices of the Church.

The change in the market economy and its impact is an interesting dynamic to ponder. She writes that “the primary purpose of mentioning these complex changes in labor, production and gender dynamics occurring in the secular sphere… is to provide a general understanding of the framework in which misogyny has been built into the very foundation of the symbol systems of Western civilization, that the subordination of women comes to be seen as natural, hence it becomes invisible” (65). And Kubow ties up this section with “It was medieval thinkers who constructed the theological framework that underpins the structures of ministry and hierarchy that society continues to uphold. They moulded the sacrificial focus of the priesthood, the feudal power structures of the Church, the exclusion of women from all authority based on Roman law which they had made the basis of Church law” (67).

The rest of Kubow’s survey consists of familiar ground, covering some of the ancient texts and a bit more of the primary evidence. Within the Apostolic Constitutions, circa 380 A.D., we see that “the female ordination rite, when juxtaposed on the male ordination rite, is essentially identical. This aspect is crucial when addressing the question whether in fact the female diaconate was fully sacramental rather than a service which was merely blessed” (70). Thus, Kubow observes, “it is evident that the exclusion of women from sacramental orders is based on patriarchal tradition, which was strengthen by Roman law, rather than a clear and convincing argument based on historical tradition, Scripture, or theology” (72). She goes on to write about St. Olympias, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Catherine of Sienna, women she sees as having been particularly influential within the Church during their time (400A.D., 1098 A.D. and 1347 A.D., respectively). While none were deaconesses, the latter two are Doctors of the Church, a rare and distinguished title conferred to saints recognized by the Catholic Church as having particular importance, typically in their contribution to theology and doctrine. There are thirty-six Doctors of the Church, only four of whom are women (the others are St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, both Carmelite mystics – the former from the sixteenth century and the latter from the nineteenth century).

Kubow offers that “patriarchal religion supports and perpetuates patriarchy” (79). She concludes that “without the wisdom and collaboration of women in leadership roles, the church, a sign and instrument of unity with God and among all people, is diminished” (80). This echoes my sentiments exactly when I have written in earlier pieces that without the inclusion of women in significant, material leadership roles within the Roman Catholic Church, something will always be lacking.

In this article, Magdalena Kubow reiterated threads I am familiar with and introduced new ones. As this article is meant to serve as an overview, there is plenty of detail to uncover in the course of digging deeper. My only surprise in Kubow’s work was the absence of any commentary on the impact of ancient Greek philosophy on Roman law and society, as well as on the thinking of the Early Church Fathers. Regardless, Kubow introduces her readers to a handful of wonderful sources and authors, as well as presents several areas to consider when examining why women are not ordained in the Roman Catholic Church today.

The Powers of Poetry: Story, Symbol, and Incantation

The Power of PoetryPDF icon


The healing power of poetry has been apparent to many throughout the ages. Arguments to this effect can be made by informed poets at the drop of a feathered quill. The complications we face in life: the suffering associated with failed relationships, sickness, the deaths of love ones, and so on represent, in a sense, the beginning of the healing process. Writing or reading poetry can mark a commencement to such healing. Healing through poetry begins, as Gregory Orr contends, “when we ‘translate’ our crisis into language—where we give it symbolic expression as an unfolding drama of self and the forces that assail it” (4). That is, by putting our suffering to page, we have given it a healthy distance from us as well as allowed a sort of reshaping rather than bearing it in an unresponsive way. A single step marks the beginning of a journey. Probing more deeply, however, it becomes evident that collective elements within the personal lyric serve to enhance and fine tune a poem’s healing power. In the following investigation, I will consider the questions of what these poetic rudiments are and how they work, both independently and cooperatively. Orr has it that “there are three abiding and primordial powers that shape language into poems: . . . story, symbol, and incantation” (94). The journey from the chaotic effects of trauma to an ordered understanding, or making meaning, is accomplished through setting symbolic stories to incantatory rhythms. I would argue that a study of these fundamentals may reveal some instructive possibilities concerning the making of lyric poems. Following Orr, I shall explore the poetic essentials of the power of story, the power of symbol, and the power of incantation.


The Power of Story

An examination of the element of story may offer clues as to how we can create our lyric poems to be more powerful. Perhaps the most revealing and persuasive means of communication between people is the relating of stories. For instance, I could tell you that my Uncle Larry is a great car salesman. At this, you might shrug as if you are not convinced. Or I could tell you the story of how he sold twenty cars in one day, two of them to passersby who did not even know how to drive. In this case, the focus of the story is Uncle Larry’s prowess as a salesman, and focus may be the central element of story. This story not only lets us know something about Uncle Larry, it also lets us know a little something about the world in which we live, of our societal values, of how we in the U.S. tend to honor those who perform well in their occupations. As the theorist Jerome Bruner might say, it helps us to “make sense of the world” (qtd. in Orr 95), which is another way of saying that through storytelling, we are establishing an ordered mindset in the face of disorder. In writing lyric verse, opposed to prose, the focus of our poems is particularly important because, as Orr points out, all that does not reflect the focus is “stripped away, and meaning is compressed into action and detail that reveal significance” (95). The final version of the lyric poem, then, is a scaled down portrait of the poem’s thematic focus.

While maintaining focus is imperative, conflict is another essential element of story. In personal lyric, nearly always there is conflict, often with someone. Someone close to us has hurt us in some way, is sick, or has died. This conflict does not have to be that outlaw meets sheriff at the O.K. Corral kind of dramatic action. In the words of Orr, “Merely introducing two pronouns into the opening line of a poem creates the tension essential to story” (95-6). That “I” and “you” tends to have the effect of drawing readers in because they naturally place themselves and their own situations into the equation. Cindy Goff’s “Turning into an Oak” is a good example of the merging of focus and conflict:

I looked down at my husband leaving me.

I’m seventy feet taller than he is now.

The bones in my arms splinter into thousands of twigs;

my legs grow together and twist

into the ground. It doesn’t matter

where my car is parked or where my house keys have fallen;

I no longer care what I weigh.

I am sturdier than a hundred men.

From up here I can see Cape Cod,

shaped like a lobster tail.

I watch my husband become a speck

and consider how I’ll miss

being touched. (108)

Nearly anyone could relate to the “I” and “you” in the first line of this poem; that is, any lover who has suffered the pain of a breakup. The conflict becomes apparent in line 1 and lies with the speaker and her husband. The focus begins to reveal itself as the message from each of the following lines meld into a single shattering idea: that empty, disheartening feeling we get when we are suddenly alone after having become used to being together with someone. Not a single line or word in this poem veers from this focus. If one did, as Aristotle reasons, it should never have been there in the first place, “for that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole” (1463). The conflict between speaker and husband is not resolved in the poem; rather, the conflict merges with the focus. The husband becomes “a speck” and is gone. That which remains is the speaker with an inner conflict, which could well describe the true nature of the heart of all personal lyric.

It is true that the focus of a lyric poem is usually on an idea, but this idea, however tragic, would do well to be grounded on a metaphoric center. While it is true that the story in a lyric poem evolves in a narrative fashion, it also, as Orr insists, “wishes to disclose meaning by focusing on something central and leaving out peripheral details unless they reinforce the central subject” (98). Goff’s title, “Turning into an Oak” offers a barefaced clue as to her metaphoric focus. In line 2 of Goff’s poem, her speaker has suddenly grown to an enormous height. In line 3, her arms transform into branches. In line 4, her “legs grow together and twist / into the ground” (108). Goff’s thorny language, that of splintering arms and nothing matters anymore confirm that she considers the metaphor of becoming an oak to equate with the hardhearted nature of her speaker’s newly found single situation. In reflection, Ariel, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was not turned into a tree, but was confined “into a cloven pine; within which rift / Imprisoned [he] didst painfully remain / A dozen years” (1.2.77-79). I bring up the Bard because of the possibility that becoming a great oak could be seen as a metaphor for a good thing; however, this is not the way I read Goff.

While abstract ideas have their merit in certain forms of narrative, it is the concrete details that give lyric poems their power. William Blake emphasizes this idea in verse: “Labour well the Minute Particulars:” he writes, “attend to the Little Ones; / . . . / He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. / General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer; / For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars” (Blake). It is usually crucial that lyric verse be written using specific details from title to the final line. Goff’s title is not only precise, but it suggests the metaphoric center of the entire poem. As for concrete sensory details, her depiction of seeing “Cape Cod, / shaped like a lobster tail” presents a visual image that is novel and unique. As Orr notes, the “who, what, where, and when” (100) is organic to most all good writing. This includes lyric poetry! Goff shows in very specific detail the who: speaker and husband; the what: husband left speaker lonely as a tree; the when: the present; the where: at their house near Cape Cod. All these minute details merge to form a cohesive, barebones, and stirring portrait of experience. But they do so much more: such as, fill with affirmative narrative the place where silence might turn into shame or fear and rob us of our present experiences.


The Power of Symbol

While story is often the primary vehicle that carries lyric verse right through to its ending, the narrative is commonly rife with symbolic meaning. Some poems, however, seem to state only the trauma of an experience, offering no solution, no enlightened realization, no healing. In fact, these personal lyrics would seem to affirm the disorder, letting it into our minds and lives. Yet Orr insists “that it is precisely by letting in disorder that we will gain access to poetry’s ability to help us survive. It is the initial act of surrendering to disorder that permits the ordering powers of the imagination to assert themselves” (47). In essence, the mind, when it confronts chaos in narrative, begins to allow compensation to occur, like a person who loses one eye, and the remaining one compensates naturally by developing a wider peripheral range of sight. As Fox asserts, there may be some growing pains to deal with here, but “poetry can be a safe guide, a wise presence, so you don’t feel alone while moving through the inevitable dark place in life” (29). Bottom line, in lyric poems, such recompenses happen due to the symbolic language in the narrative. Marie Howe’s “The Dream” is a good example of just this kind of personal lyric:

I had a dream in the day:

I laid my father’s body down in a narrow boat

and sent him off along a river bank with its cattails and grasses.

And the boat (it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)

took him to his burial finally.

But a day or two later I realized it was my self I wanted

to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed

—oh, the light coming from down there,

the sweet smell of the water—and finally, the sense of being carried

by a current I could not name or change. (83)

In Howe’s poem, the speaker dreams of sending her father off on a watery burial, but the conflict becomes apparent when, “a day or two later [she realizes] it [is her] self [she wants] / to lay down—hands crossed, eyes closed” and cast off upon the river of expiry in that small boat. The speaker and her father exist in a state of dramatic tension, connected undeniably by the poem’s focus: the idea of letting go to that impenetrable death experience. As far as the narrative alone is concerned, this is all we have to go on. However, to come to an understanding concerning the healing effects of the poem, we can look to the symbolic language for clues. The biblical story of baby Moses comes to mind. As an infant, in order to save him, he was placed in a small boat and hidden among the grasses and cattails “beside the bank of the Nile”. (Complete Bible, Exod. 2.3). Is Howe’s poem, then, about saving the speaker’s father? I think not because it is the speaker herself who desires death, so she really wants to save herself, but from what? The symbolic language Howe uses to describe the father’s death ark may provide clues: “(it was made of skin and wood bent when it was wet.)”. This wood covered in skin could be symbolic for the body, and the fact that it is wet and bent could describe some form of trauma (both wet and bent tend to possess negative connotations) which would explain the speaker’s obsession with death, both her father’s and her own. The death Howe describes for the speaker is not a dark and scary death; on the contrary, it is one of surrendering to a state of illumination accented by the sensory image of “the sweet smell / of the water.” Howe’s speaker puts her faith in an afterlife myth associated with being carried along safely on a river of patriarchal benevolence, an experience she had not found in life. So, the poem confronts a trauma associated with the speaker’s father and fills the vacuum of silence allowing her to regain her identity, or create one. Having reinterpreted her trauma metaphorically centered on a slow ride down the tranquil river of death, the trauma now has less power over her. The writing or reading of the poem stands in the place of an actual death. The speaker is free to live and write another day. What sort of trauma is Howe really writing about? I’d say there is not enough information to say for sure. Abuse, neglect, the father not living up to the speaker’s expectations of what a father should be? Who knows? In basing such speculation on a few symbols, it would be entirely possible to get off the mark concerning Howe’s meaning. Symbolic meaning tends to vary from reader to reader, and readers tend to respond to symbolic language in accordance with their own unique experiences.

It is very likely that most any given symbol will possess more than one meaning, or that the meaning remains ambiguous. The small boat among the reeds and grasses is an ancient symbol, one that could hold a multiplicity of meanings. “All the meanings,” Orr writes, “do not and cannot emerge; they lurk still in the object/symbol, refusing to give up all their mystery to the need for understanding and explanation” (104). There could be a hidden meaning within an ancient symbol that we cannot recognize, or, moreover, meaning of which society no longer makes use. For instance, Isler, et. al point out that poetic incantation has been used throughout the centuries for not only relief of headache, but for the general maintenance health of all the body parts. Here’s a poem from an 8th century monastery at Lake Constance in Switzerland:

O King, o ruler of the realm,

o friend of Heaven’s hymn,

o persecutor of turmoil,

o God of the Heavenly Host!

In the first stanza, the poem repetitively and rhythmically invokes and calls on the Christian God. Today’s society certainly has a very good idea of the symbolism connected with God, but our ideas are very contemporary. The 8th century Westerners were very likely, as a whole, way more conservative in their outlooks concerning dogmatic Christianity, and so the symbolism, from their points of view, would necessarily be interpreted differently than most conservatives would interpret it today. Not to mention our societal liberal progression. I’ll move ahead to stanza 2 where God is called upon to cool “the noxious fluxes / that flow heated in my head.” We do know something of the symbolism concerning the “fluxes,” those excessive and flowing discharges associated with various health problems. But, again, medical conditions are looked at differently today than they were in past centuries. The third stanza of the poem takes the healing theme beyond the headache to other parts of the body:

that he cures my head with my kidneys,

and with the other parts afflicted:

with my eyes and with my cheekbones,

with my ears and with my nostrils. (Isle, et. al)

God is beseeched to heal and protect the individual parts of the body. Today, doctors would check all these parts but rely on scientific medicine rather than the spiritual for healing. I wonder if we have, in following science exclusively, found ourselves off the mark. At any rate, no one knows what all the body parts may have been symbolic of for the people who used this poetic remedy. Such symbolism is no longer needed. As society evolves, the minds of the people expand. As we learn more about the past, old meanings may become increasingly clear. New meanings will be discovered throughout the generations. Bottom line, we do not know all there is to know about symbols, but grappling with a poem’s meaning in light of its symbolic language is certainly one way of coming to a subjective understanding of it.


The Power of Incantation

While story and symbol merge to make powerful and healing expressions, it is through implementing incantation into our lyric poetry that we, like our ancestors, can confront the more serious traumas that come our way. Incantation, that rhythmic replication of poetic reverberations, according to Orr, “is like a woven raft of sound on which the self floats above the floodwaters of chaos” (106). The incantatory effects of a poem have to do not only with repetitive language but also with rhythm. Rhythmic or musical verse alone can be described as incantatory, but when the element of linguistic repetition is added in the spirit of high emotion, the personal lyric becomes forcefully and dramatically puissant. American poet Edward Hirsch observes that “Incantation [is] a formulaic use of words to create magical effect” (Hirsch). “Healing Incantation,” performed by Mandy Moore in the Disney movie Tangled is a good example of incantatory verse:

Flower, gleam and glow

Let your power shine

Make the clock reverse

Bring back what once was mine

Heal what has been hurt

Change the Fates’ design

Save what has been lost

Bring back what once was mine

What once was mine (Healing Incantation)

In the movie, the animated character Rapunzel, voiceover by Mandy Moore, uses this incantation to heal the character Eugene’s injured hand. I deliberately chose it because it presents an unobstructed view of incantatory verse; that is, it possesses no story and very little symbol and can be a universal panacea, effective in healing just about any trauma one could name. With her opening line, “Flower gleam and glow,” Moore summons the healing light; common in many of the light religions such as Paganism, the light is representative of an omnipotent healing force. Right away, readers sense the rhythm or musicality evident in the prosody of the metered lines. Flower, of course, is symbolic of beauty, so the poet healer confronts trauma with the combined powers of light and beauty.  “Make the clock reverse” seeks to bring the injured person back in time to where the trauma had not yet occurred. Here I get a sense that this poem could be used as a charm against aging. Many feel traumatized by the effects of getting older, our beautiful bodies sagging and wrinkling before our eyes. The poem probably would not stop this natural process, but it could possibly help to slow it down and certainly help a poet or reader to make the psychological adjustment to the change. After all, is it our young bodies that we miss, or is it really our youthful outlooks? We come to the beginning of the repetitive incantatory effect of the poem with “Bring back what once was mine.” Here, Moore is referring to ownership of wholeness. Things were good before, and she wants them to be good once again. The following lines all reiterate that which has already been stated: “Heal what has been hurt,”  “Change the Fates’ design,” “Save what has been lost” are all just other ways of claiming that ownership of wholeness that was the norm before the trauma set in. In a sense, the repetition occurs throughout most of the poem, and then we get toward the ending with the reoccurrence of “Bring back what once was mine.” And then the final haunting, echoing ending: “What once was mine.” As powerful as Moore’s poem is, I cannot help but wonder if it would be all the more prevailing written in concrete terms and ripe with symbol.

Many popular poets write in just this rhythmic, incantatory style, Walt Whitman among them. Further, many of Whitman’s poems are also written in story form and packed with symbolism. Here is scene 18 of Leaves of Grass, which inspired Martin Espada’s latest book, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed.

With music strong I come—with my cornets and my drums,

I play not marches for accepted victors only—I play great marches for conquer’d and slain persons.


Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?

I also say it is good to fall—battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.


I beat and pound for the dead;

I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.


Vivas to those who have fail’d!

And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!

And to those themselves who sank in the sea!

And to all generals who lost engagements! and all overcome heroes!

And the numberless unknown heroes, equal to the greatest heroes known. (18.353-63)

In the area of story, Whitman celebrates not the “winners” as many do in the U.S.—America, it is said, does love a winner—but the losers. The way I read Whitman, he does not celebrate the losers of battles because he believes such people are ethically or morally superior. Rather, he celebrates them because he has realized the value of seeing everyone as being the same. He sees men as being the same as women, a very enlightened concept for his time, 1819-1892. He sees the so called physically normal as being the same as those with deformities. Those of color being the same as those of no color. Those of same sex sexual orientation being the same as those of opposite sex orientation. The list goes on and on. The man was a social justice warrior! I believe he realizes this sameness not because we do not have our differences, we do, but because, when we look to our likenesses, we begin to heal our differences.

Whitman’s sketch is also packed to the brim with symbolism. Cornets and drums are symbols of music, that marching band sort of music played as a call to battle. Whitman describes it as strong music. Marching bands at sports events play fight songs to rally the spectators for the benefit of the home team. During the American Civil War both the North and the South used drummers and buglers on the battle field. Those sounds had the power to move soldiers emotionally to the place where they were willing to kill or be killed with musket, sword, or bayonet. In modern warfare we no longer bring marching bands onto the battle arena. But in the ceremonies before and after, those bands are still playing those celebratory songs. All this from Whitman in one symbolic line. Whitman, of course, gives us a new slant on old symbolism. His idea is to raise readers’ spirits for the benefit of those who lost their battles, that ship of a person’s life that sank into the sea of oblivion, that forgotten soul. Whitman seems to believe that the losers of battles are just as important to remember and celebrate as the winners, that, effectually, those who lost are the same as those who won because they share a commonality of spirit.

The incantatory effects of Whitman’s verse begin in the first lines with the rhythmic ordering of words. “The presence of rhythmic patterns,” according to Harmon, “lends both pleasure and heightened emotional response, for it establishes a pattern of expectations and it rewards the listener or reader with the pleasure of a series of fulfillments of expectation” (416). Whitman seems to very generally use a rising rhythm beginning with his own combination of iambics followed by anapests, terms which refer to particular schemas of stressed and unstressed syllables. I would say this rising rhythm works so well in this case not only because of the repetitional effect of the metering but because those reoccurring couplets also raise the scene to a final climactic quintet. And, in that last stanza, Whitman uses actual repetitive language: And to those, And to those, And to all, And to accented by three exclamation points drives the incantatory effect of the entire scene to an explosive peak.



I have followed Orr throughout this inquiry, and it seems on point to relate, in conclusion, his personal statement concerning the healing effects of poetry. Early in his life, he experienced a great trauma; being responsible for his brother’s death. Of course, he suffered emotionally for a number of years before he found poetry. On finally finding his way to poetics, he gives the following account:

I wrote a poem one day, and it changed my life. I had a sudden sense that the language in poetry was ‘magical,’ unlike language in fiction: that it could create or transform reality rather than simply describe it. That first poem I wrote was a simple, escapist fantasy, but it liberated the enormous energy of my despair and oppression as nothing before had ever done. I felt simultaneously revealed to myself and freed of myself by the images and actions of the poem.

I would certainly argue that such liberation from the energy of despair could only promote healing. Continuous worry without reprieve seems like a sickness in itself. This might well be another topic to take up in a future study citing healing poems from various sources.

At any rate, in considering story, the question comes to mind of which comes first, the abstract idea or the concrete details describing it. Good poems possess both. Perhaps this is not an either/or question. Perhaps in looking through the prism of our poet-self, it is essential that we remain open to discovering a priori ideas as we experience life in the concrete. I think, however, that every particular experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, is in reality central and necessary. It is the poet’s job to understand this and help others to understand as well. With an idea and a set of details in mind, as we write within the scope of some particular metaphor, those rudimentary symbols will appear quite naturally. In revision, we can shift those raw stones of symbolism into likely places where they can be polished to a glossy finish. Last, as we set our verses to a rhythm for incantatory effect, it may be helpful to be familiar with the various metering techniques, but it is through sounding out our lines that the arrangements are composed. We must write in a solitary cave in order to do this else we be thought insane by passersby.


Works Cited

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Blake, William. “Jerusalem.”, 2015. Web. 24 Oct. 2016.

Espada, Martin. Vivas to Those Who Have Failed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2016. Print.

Fox, J. “Heart, who will you cry out to? Giving silence words.” In Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-making.  Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1997. 1-31. Print.

Goff, Cindy. “Turning into an Oak Tree.” Gorham and Skinner 108.

Gorham, Sarah, and Jeffrey Skinner, eds. Last Call: Poems on Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance. Louisville: Sarabande, 1997. Print.

Harmon, William. A Handbook to Literature. 12th ed. Boston: Longman, 2012. Print.

“Healing Incantation.” Perf. Mandy Moore. Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Disney, 2010. Film.

Hirsch, Edward. “Incantation: From a Poet’s Glossary.”, 2015. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

Howe, Marie. “The Dream.” Gorham and Skinner 83.

Isler, H., H. Hasenfratz, and T. O’Neill. “A Sixth-Century Irish Headache Cure and its use in a South German Monastery.” Cephalalgia. 16.8 (Dec. 1996): 536-40. EBSCO.Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Orr, Gregory. Poetry as Survival. Athens: U of Ga. P, 2002. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1611. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.

The Complete Bible. 1939. Ed. J.M. Powis Smith and Edgar J. Goodspeed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1975. Print.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass., 4 July 1855. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.