Wednesday, December 12, 2007

THE WHITE DOVE by Jane Candia Coleman

In a time when early Christian mission work in the United States is often interpreted as empire-building at the expense of the indigenous people, how is it possible to admire a Jesuit figure like Father Kino, though he might be a builder of beautiful churches and originator of excellent agricultural practices as well as the breeding of fine animals like the famous “Barb” horses? Where do we find sympathy with a theologically conservative celibate loyal to his Pope?

For Jane Candia Coleman in her poetry epic celebrating his life, after studying his papers for a decade, sees the answer in the land. Her insight is that Father Kino -- whose name means “China” -- really wanted to take the same path as Teilhard de Chardin took later to the broad lands of China but literally drew the short straw. Another monk went to Asia and Father Kino was assigned to the American Southwest. His reward was finding that what he thought would be in China was also present in the southwest: the land as access to God.

Coleman’s poems, meditative and full of praise, capture the experience of worship in psalm-like moments of insight. Often her reference is to de Chardin, another Jesuit who lived a century later. For instance, for her poem “Therefore I Am,” the epigram is a de Chardin quote: “If I should lose all faith in God, I think I should continue to invincibly believe in the world.” Then the poem:

Why, here also is music!
The rest between notes,
the interminable breath
between sound and sound.

Is not silence
as much a language
as any other
and filled with possibility?

As when God enthroned
in thunderous silence
looked upon a void
and knew these stones
still warm beneath my hand
though it be night.

Father Kino was known for two main things: his warmth and kindness in persuading the Indians of northern Mexico and the SW United States to come to the church and the Mission ways of living, and his great interest in cartography which led both to road-building that connected remote villages and to sea routes, including an understanding of Baja California as a peninsula instead of an island. One might more accurately locate him as a father of de Chardin than the other way around, but both were great lovers and appreciators of the land, creation as access to the Creator. Kino got into trouble with the authorities when he opposed the use of forced Indian labor to mine silver for Spain and he lost colleagues in uprisings. His was a life of risk and effort, but that is not the emphasis of this book.

By supplying Father Kino with vivid poetic epiphanies of relationship that illustrate ideas about spirituality, Coleman makes him real and convincing to modern people, whatever their ethnicity or politics. Coleman’s cover and title, “The White Dove,” comes from the familiar name of the Mission San Xavier del Bac near Tucson. A gorgeous moonlight portrait by Helga Teiwes of the present building is on the cover. Made of local earth, given a voice by a Spanish bell, it makes an excellent metaphor.

I’m not qualified to discuss poetry as poetry, but these individually whole poems remind me quite a bit of the work of Mary Oliver -- clear, simple, and penetrating. Here’s one of my favorites, entitled “Offertory

He is many-colored,
startling in his swiftness
this lizard that darts across the altar.
He is seen, then unseen
like the edges of thought.

As I offer the Host
I am silenced
by the incongruity
the simple trust
of all things living,
even as I celebrate
the Word made flesh.

Halted in the act of prayer
I ponder for one moment
the universality
of gesture, action, belief,

Tell me, I say to both
creature and Creator,
tell me for whom miracles
happen. Tell me that even the smallest
are blessed, and that I may indulge
in delight at the sign of one quick,
flickering lizard upon this humble altar.

A practiced and award-winning writer of history and fiction, Coleman steps easily into poetry. These poems are worthy of use as daily devotions, contemplations, yet they’re simple and whole as smooth stones. They’re not “churchy” nor dogmatic. This modest and valuable book would make a cherished gift.

The White Dove” by Jane Candia Coleman. Published by High Plains Press. ISBN 978-0-931271-83-0

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