On this beautiful Feast of the Immaculate Conception, we had our first-ever Solemn Mass at Saint Benedict Center in Richmond. The snow on the ground reminded me of the lines of this poem speaking of the snowy “surplice” worn by earth for the feast.
Father Ryan’s poetry is available here in a newly reprinted book. Select poems are also available online.
The Immaculate Conception
by Father Abram Joseph Ryan
Fell the snow on the festival’s vigil
And surpliced the city in white;
I wonder who wove the pure flakelets?
Ask the Virgin, or God, or the night.
It fitted the Feast: ’twas a symbol,
And earth wore the surplice at morn,
As pure as the vale’s stainless lily
For Mary, the sinlessly born;
For Mary, conceived in all sinlessness;
And the sun, thro’ the clouds of the East,
With the brightest and fairest of flashes,
Fringed the surplice of white for the Feast.
And round the horizon hung cloudlets,
Pure stoles to be worn by the Feast;
While the earth and the heavens were waiting
For the beautiful Mass of the priest.
I opened my window, half dreaming;
My soul went away from my eyes,
And my heart began saying “Hail Marys”
Somewhere up in the beautiful skies,
Where the shadows of sin never rested;
And the angels were waiting to hear
The prayer that ascends with “Our Father”,
And keeps hearts and the heavens so near.
And all the day long — can you blame me?
“Hail Mary”, “Our Father”, I said;
And I think that the Christ and His Mother
Were glad of the way that I prayed.
And I think that the great, bright Archangel
Was listening all the day long
For the echo of every “Hail Mary”
That soared thro’ the skies like a song,
From the hearts of the true and the faithful,
In accents of joy or of woe,
Who kissed in their faith and their fervor
The Festival’s surplice of snow.
I listened, and each passing minute,
I heard in the lands far away
“Hail Mary”, “Our Father”, and near me
I heard all who knelt down to pray.
Pray the same as I prayed, and the angel,
And the same as the Christ of our love —
“Our Father”, “Hail Mary”, “Our Father” —
Winging just the same sweet flight above.
Passed the morning, the noon: came the even —
The temple of Christ was aflame
With the halo of lights on three altars,
And one wore His own Mother’s name.
Her statue stood there, and around it
Shone the symbolic stars. Was their gleam,
And the flowerets that fragranced her altar,
Were they only the dream of a dream?
Or were they sweet signs to my vision
Of a truth far beyond mortal ken,
That the Mother had rights in the temple
Of Him she had given to men?
Was it wronging her Christ-Son, I wonder,
For the Christian to honor her so?
Ought her statue pass out of His temple?
Ask the Feast in its surplice of snow.
Ah, me! had the pure flakelets voices,
I know what their white lips would say;
And I know that the lights on her altar
Would pray with me if they could pray.
Methinks that the flowers that were fading —
Sweet virgins that die with the Feast,
Like martyrs, upon her fair altar —
If they could, they would pray with the priest;
And would murmur “Our Father”, “Hail Mary”,
Till they drooped on the altar in death,
And be glad in their dying for giving
To Mary their last sweetest breath.
Passed the day as a poem that passes
Through the poet’s heart’s sweetest of strings;
Moved the minutes from Masses to Masses —
Did I hear a faint sound as of wings
Rustling over the aisles and the altars?
Did they go to her altar and pray?
Or was my heart only a-dreaming
At the close of the Festival day?
Quiet throngs came into the temple,
As still as the flowers at her feet,
And wherever they knelt, they were gazing
Where the statue looked smiling and sweet.
“Our Fathers”, “Hail Marys” were blended
In a pure and a perfect accord,
And passed by the beautiful Mother
To fall at the feet of our Lord.
Low toned from the hearts of a thousand
“Our Fathers”, “Hail Marys” swept on
To the star-wreathed statue. I wonder
Did they wrong the great name of her Son.
Her Son and our Saviour — I wonder
How He heard our “Hail Marys” that night?
Were the words to Him sweet as the music
They once were, and did we pray right?
Or was it all wrong? Will he punish
Our lips if we make them the home
Of the words of the great, high Archangel
That won Him to sinners to come.
Ah, me! does He blame my own mother,
Who taught me, a child, at her knee,
To say, with “Our Father”, “Hail Mary”?
If ’tis wrong, my Christ! punish but me.
Let my mother, O Jesus! be blameless;
Let me suffer for her if You blame.
Her pure mother’s heart knew no better
When she taught me to love the pure name.
O Christ! of Thy beautiful Mother
Must I hide her name down in my heart?
But, ah! even there you will see it —
With Thy Mother’s name how can I part?
On Thy name all divine have I rested
In the days when my heart-trials came;
Sweet Christ, like to Thee I am human,
And I need Mary’s pure human name.
Did I hear a voice? or was I dreaming?
I heard — or I sure seemed to hear —
“Who blames you for loving My Mother
Is wronging my heart — do not fear.
“I am human, e’en here in My heavens,
What I was I am still all the same;
And I still love My beautiful Mother —
And thou, priest of Mine, do the same.”
I was happy — because I am human —
And Christ in the silences heard
“Our Father”, “Hail Mary”, “Our Father”,
Murmured faithfully word after word.
* * * * *
Swept the beautiful ~O Salutaris~
Down the aisles — did the starred statue stir?
Or was my heart only a-dreaming
When it turned from her statue and her?
The door of a white tabernacle
Felt the touch of the hand of the priest —
Did he waken the Host from its slumbers
To come forth and crown the high Feast?
To come forth so strangely and silent,
And just for a sweet little while,
And then to go back to its prison.
Thro’ the stars — did the sweet statue smile?
I knew not; but Mary, the Mother,
I think, almost envied the priest —
He was taking her place at the altar —
Did she dream of the days in the East?
When her hands, and hers only, held Him,
Her Child, in His waking and rest,
Who had strayed in a love that seemed wayward
This eve to shrine in the West.
Did she dream of the straw of the manger
When she gazed on the altar’s pure white?
Did she fear for her Son any danger
In the little Host, helpless, that night?
No! no! she is trustful as He is —
What a terrible trust in our race!
The Divine has still faith in the human —
What a story of infinite grace!
~Tantum Ergo~, high hymn of the altar
That came from the heart of a saint,
Swept triumph-toned all through the temple —
Did my ears hear the sound of a plaint?
‘Neath the glorious roll of the singing
To the temple had sorrow crept in?
Or was it the moan of a sinner?
O beautiful Host! wilt Thou win
In the little half-hour’s Benediction
The heart of a sinner again?
And, merciful Christ, Thou wilt comfort
The sorrow that brings Thee its pain.
Came a hush, and the Host was uplifted,
And It made just the sign of the cross
O’er the low-bended brows of the people.
O Host of the Holy! Thy loss
To the altar, and temple, and people
Would make this world darkest of night;
And our hearts would grope blindly on through it,
For our love would have lost all its light.
~Laudate~, what thrilling of triumph!
Our souls soared to God on each tone;
And the Host went again to Its prison,
For our Christ fears to leave us alone.
Blessed priest! strange thou art His jailor!
Thy hand holds the beautiful key
That locks in His prison love’s Captive,
And keeps Him in fetters for me.
* * * * *
‘Twas over — I gazed on the statue —
“Our Father”, “Hail Mary” still came;
And to-night faith and love cannot help it,
I must still pray the same — still the same.
Written at Loyola College (source of poem)