Paul Hamill

December 4, 2008

A Mid-Century Advent

Filed under: Uncategorized — paul @ 1:30 pm

(In honor of the darkening season before Christmas: St. John the Baptist Church, Quincy, Mass., the 1950’s.)


Time in this house was thick-woven, like the wool

of the old workmen’s caps doffed in the dark

for early Mass in early winter: spare Advent,

purple over black, wax-and-wood smells, bump

of heavy doors, whisper of heavy coats.


The night watch at an ancient city’s gate

where neither kings nor foes had yet arrived

had nonetheless known wonders: darkness and dawns,

moonlight and storms, with cries for births or deaths

and rivers of torchlight at the feasts.  We, too,

in winter wool, expecting the same wonders

as last year, took the morning watch, put on

the harness of resolution.   Though were conscripts

alike to sin and grace, we knew the world

had need of prayers as we did, and slid in

to turn our rooted circumstance to gift.


Oddly, the half hour’s inwardness was a way

of being in the world, the Christian’s earth

of dappled light and shade where the poor labor,

children play, the prideful strut their follies,

a few saints keep the path, and in the pasture

crows are scavenging a fallen lamb. 


Before Mass started, the aisles filled with thunder

As the parochial kids filed into pews

And dropped the kneelers loudly as they dared.

The nuns who steered them took up posts, moving

a step or two to give some kid the eye

as seabirds pace a few steps, ruffle, then settle

back on a clutch of eggs. Something in that

repeated straggle and settling of the savage, 

some depth of patience impervious to fact,

became a sign: the ordinary anchors

the good, and duty is simple black-and-white,

though it be hard and bare as an oak pew.


We prayed for all of us and the mind riffled

at random across the day or year to come.

The elders hoped for as little of grace as one day

a pension from the shipyard, not much but something. 

God’s something would be plenty, full of ease

we did not calculate. We were the sort

who always would stand loyal, for steadiness

should count in kingdom come, as in the world. 


And yet how operatic the place was!

                 As if the worst and best that souls can face

are the most precious.  The somber chasubles

were lined in gold; the pastel saints in niches

were like a chorus waiting to crowd a tenor;

fleurs-de-lis, the Virgin’s heraldry,

bulged from the ogives, and the high altar,

bared for penance, gleaming with a hundred years

of waxing.  Odors of myrrh and frankincense

lingered, the same gifts that in a month

the Magi would lay down for a doomed child.  

Along the sides, for indoor pilgrimage,

tableaus of a man tortured, the cynical state

colluding with his church as the two will.

In life-size porcelain, He was hung in front

As well.  We hardly saw, but then by counting

of wounds, we tried to.  On gates of ancient towns

when heads of traitors were impaled, by-passers

Eventually ignored them, another kind                    

of treason.   We, complicit since our seed

Was planted in our mothers, had grown dull

But came to flog our guilty minds, to take

To heart that which we’d known too long, unseal

the glazed impervious vessel, wake the watchman

past whom time flows and dissipates like night.



(Published in Winning Writers 2007, on line)

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