A uniquely American spiritual voice

Jessica Powers, granddaughter of Irish-Scots pioneers in Wisconsin, was born in 1905 in a small town outside of Milwaukee. Life on the farm was hard. By the time she was twenty-one her sister and her father and mother had died She was a lively young girl fascinated by poetry, and nurtured in a religious environment with her Celtic heritage. She attended Marquette University for a year, and then worked in Chicago before returning to the farm to help her two brothers. Jessica eventually moved to New York City in the turbulent 1930’s following her gypsy muse. Here she established herself as a promising poet. When she was thirty-six she abruptly entered the Carmel of the Mother of God in Milwaukee and became a cloistered nun for the rest of her life. The story that begins her life, in many ways ends it.
She also became one of the greatest Catholic poets in the 20th century, and a uniquely American spiritual voice. Thirty- one years after her quiet death in 1988 her fame continues to grow. What brought her to the gates of the convent and the anonymity of the Carmel? How did Jessica Powers become Sister Miriam?  What possessed her to seek a life removed from the ordinary? The answers are in her nearly 400 poems. Each of them is as sturdy and well-made as a fence post. They are good poetry, and they are more than that, they are the autobiography of a soul given to God.
Jessica’s strong spiritual feeling began in childhood. She experienced the lyrical powers of nature in the changes of the Wisconsin seasons. Here she attended a tiny school run by the Dominican Sisters where a Sister Lucille recognized Jessica’s talent and encouraged her to write. It would begin a lifetime of contemplation. Jessica’s mystical gifts led her to a deeper vision of nature, one that directs the soul to God. She followed her spirit into the dark corners and bright light of a woman continually aware of God’s greatness and her own frailty. Excerpts of her poems don’t do justice to the beauty and depth of her work. Her poems record the “trackless solitude” of her cloistered life. On the eve of World War II she crossed the threshold of her own darkness into the votive light of the cloister.
Deep in the soul the acres lie
of virgin lands, of sacred wood
where waits the spirit. Each soul 
this trackless solitude.
Jessica’s solitude was far greater than most humans could bear, and she herself struggled with the relentless enclosure. Her life was one of prayer, service and meditation. Her Order allowed her to bring her typewriter and to continue to write poetry. She recorded the consolation and desolation of her solitary life in her work, but it was in the silence of the monastery that she learned to listen to God.
To live with the spirit of God
is to be a listener.
It is to keep the vigil of mystery,
earthless and still.
One leans to catch the stirring of
the Spirit,
strange as the wind’s will.
She wasn’t one to spare herself from criticism as many of her poems show. She kept her eyes on God but monitored her own weakness with the severe honesty of a saint. Her poems are reminiscent of the unsparing private thoughts of Mother Teresa. But she believed that a loving God would accept what she had to give.
No gift is proper to a Deity;
no fruit is worthy for such power to
If you have nothing, gather back
your sigh,
and with your hands held high,
your heart held high,
lift up your emptiness.
Jessica could also find great joy in living. She wrote archly, “That God made birds is surely in his favor.” She loved chickadees and identified with sparrows. When she heard a robin sing, she wrote, “O, that a song of mine could burn the air with beauty so intense.” There were childhood memories that set her imagination ablaze with happiness and wonder. She wrote that the soul is a terrible thing, but she could also recall idyllic scenes from childhood, “The creek was our joy; we pushed our naked toes into its kissing clearness where the minnows ran up the scale of silver…” All in all her poems present a full life and a profound faith. She gave every ounce of her energy to the life she had chosen, and she left behind a remarkable testament of her experience. Her difficult life led her to a rich treasury of spiritual verse for us. Reading Jessica requires reverence for the written word, and respect for the religious imagination.
God fills my being to the brim
with floods of his immensity
I drown within a drop of him
whose sea-bed is infinity.
Anyone interested in her work can readily find her “Selected Poems.” For shorter meditative prayer there is an excellent collection of excerpts, “Songs Out of Silence,” 99 sayings by Jessica Powers. Dolores Leckey’s biography of Jessica Powers, “Winter Music” is for the true fan (count me in), and a most informative study of her life and times.
By Barry Wallace