My sojourn in the wilderness lasted forty years, from 1967, when I left the Episcopal Church, until 2007, when I wandered into a Catholic one. Many things tried to pull me apart during those years, and many meanwhile sustained me. One of the latter was the poetry of Walt Whitman, which I used to memorize and recite while out walking, striding along much as he did 150 years ago.
I know, I know. Walt Whitman was both an egotist and a pantheist. Whitman was no Catholic. He was homosexual, too—although if we throw out every poet who shared that characteristic, we lose Auden’s “Ballad of Barnaby” and Dunstan Thompson’s “Magdalen” and (who can say?) maybe even Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty.” It’s a sure thing that with Whitman you have to pick and choose, but then the Great American Poet gives you the whole universe to choose from. What follows are a few of my favorite pickings and choosings.
You can dip into Leaves of Grass almost anywhere and find lines to inspire your faith. Here, for example, from “Starting from Paumanok”:
Each is not for its own sake,
I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion’s sake.
I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough,
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain the future is.
I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be their religion,
Otherwise there is no real and permanent grandeur;
(Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion,
Nor land nor man or women without religion.)
Whitman envisions America as a great Christian nation. Pantheist, Christian, proto-Buddhist, whatever you call him, Whitman lived in awe of the Creation and his poems inspire awe. Even “Song of Myself,” which is far from my favorite, has lines like these to ponder:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is a miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Awe at creation and skepticism at science are encapsulated in one of Whitman’s great short poems, just eight lines long and all one sentence:
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
When I was in fifth grade my family moved from Minnesota to Connecticut, and I was plunked down mid-year in a new school, where I was a fish out of water. My saving grace was being a pretty good athlete—and winning the public speaking contest with Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”—Whitman’s ode to Lincoln after the assassination. But that’s not a particularly religious poem, so if you’re interested, I’ll let you look it up here.
Instead, I’ll close with my favorite lines from Whitman, the final lines from “Song of the Open Road.” The beauty of Catholicism, for me, is in the companionship it offers—of friends in my parish, of that great big fraternity known as the communion of saints, and finally of Jesus Christ. Together, we walk the road of salvation, leaving everything behind. That’s what Whitman describes at the end of his great poem. Perhaps you can imagine Jesus of Nazareth saying the following words to the Twelve. I hope I would have followed Him too:
Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe—I have tried it—my own feet have tried it well—be not detain’d!
Let the paper remain on the desk unwritten, and the book on the shelf unopen’d!
Let the tools remain in the workshop! let the money remain unearn’d!
Let the school stand! mind not the cry of the teacher!
Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law.
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?