Sunday, November 01, 2009

Upon the image of death - A Poem by English Jesuit priest and martyr, St Robert Southwell, SJ

BEFORE my face the picture hangs
That daily should me put in mind
Of those cold names and bitter pangs
That shortly I am like to find:
But yet, alas ! full little I
Do think hereon that I must die.

I often look upon a face,
Most ugly, grisly, bare and thin ;
I often view the hollow place
Where eyes and nose had sometime been ;
I see the bones across that lie,
Yet little think that I must die.

My ancestors are turned to clay,
And many of my mates are gone ;
My youngers daily drop away,
And can I think to 'scape alone ?
No, no, I know that I must die,
And yet my life amend not I.

If none can 'scape Death's dreadful dart,
If rich and poor his beck obey ;
If strong, if wise, if all do smart,
Then I to 'scape shall have no way.
Oh ! grant me grace, O God, that I
My life may mend, sith I must die.

St. Robert Southwell, S.J.  (1561-1595) was English Jesuit priest and poet, who was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn for preaching the Catholic Faith under the reign of Queen Bess. He belongs to the number of English Catholic priests who were determined not to abandon the Catholic laity during persecution of Catholics from 1535 to 1713, but to be with them and for the ultimate price of their own life to provide for them as long as possible the consolation of Catholic Sacraments. Robert joined the Jesuits in 1578 and after ordination left Rome for England with Henry Garnet. Both were arrested almost immediately upon landing but escaped capture and went on to work with the Catholics in London. Robert's writings were extremely popular with his contemporaries and the best known of his poems are The Burning Babe  and Saint Peter's Complaint  (1595), in which he made experiments with verse that were further developed by other poets, including Shakespeare. Robert spent six years in zealous and successful missionary work and moved under various disguises traveling from one Catholic house to another. Finally he was betrayed in 1592. Robert never gave any information about other priests or Catholics, even though for three years he was interrogated ten times under atrocious torture. He was transferred to Newgate prison where he was confined in a dungeon swarming with vermin and frequently chained in such a way that he could neither stand, sit nor lie down. His jailers were exasperated at his answers. When asked his age he would reply: "near that of our Blessed Savior." He was martyred at Tyburn on February 21, 1595. He was beatified in 1929 and canonized by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales on 25 October 1970.  

..."Though the resistance of the English as a people to the Reformation compares badly with the resistance offered by several other nations, the example given by those who did stand firm is remarkably instructive.
(1)They suffered the extreme penalty for maintaining the unity of the Church and the Supremacy of the Apostolic See, the doctrines most impugned by the reformation in all lands, and at all times.
(2) They maintained their faith almost entirely by the most modern methods, and they were the first to so maintain it, i.e., by education of the clergy in the seminaries, and of Catholic youth in colleges, at the risk, and often at the cost of life.
(3) The tyranny they had to withstand was, as a rule, not the sudden violence of a tyrant, but the continuous oppression of laws sanctioned by the people in Parliament, passed on the specious plea of political and national necessity, and operating for centuries with an almost irresistible force which the law acquires when acting for generations in conservative and law-abiding counties. 
(4) The study of their causes and their acts is easy. The number of martyrs are many; their trials are spread over a long time. We have in many cases the papers of the prosecution as well as those of the defense, and the voice of Rome is frequently heard pronouncing on the questions of the debate, and declaring that this or that matter is essential, on which no compromise can be permitted; or by her silence she lets it be understood that some other formula may pass"....(after Catholic Encyclopedia). 

More about English Martyrs and Confessors in Penal times (1534-1729) HERE