Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

Happy Columbus Day! I’ve a poem to share with you on the day on which we celebrate Christopher Columbus’ completing his voyage to the New World.

Ignatian spirituality tries to find God in all things. Many take issue with that premise, especially when stuck knee deep in the mire of day-to-day problems. I don’t claim to be Ignatian in my outlook (nor Franciscan, Benedictine, etc) on events or things. As a Catholic, I’m a little bit of all of those charisms, and more. But I do believe God works through the secular, just as I have faith that all things work for the good.

Here’s an example for you from the Pantheist, non-Catholic, and everything else wrong with the world pen of Walt Whitman. It’s from his book of poetry entitled Leaves of Grass. Truth to tell, it’s the first time I’ve ever read this particular poem. But it won’t be the last time, I assure you.

Prayer of Columbus

A batter’d, wreck’d old man,
Thrown on this savage shore, far, far from home,
Pent by the sea, and dark rebellious brows, twelve dreary months,
Sore, stiff with many toils, sicken’d, and nigh to death,
I take my way along the island’s edge,
Venting a heavy heart.

I am too full of woe!
Haply, I may not live another day;
I can not rest, O God—I can not eat or drink or sleep,
Till I put forth myself, my prayer, once more to Thee,
Breathe, bathe myself once more in Thee—commune with Thee,
Report myself once more to Thee.

Thou knowest my years entire, my life,
(My long and crowded life of active work—not adoration merely;)
Thou knowest the prayers and vigils of my youth;
Thou knowest my manhood’s solemn and visionary meditations;
Thou knowest how, before I commenced, I devoted all to come to Thee;
Thou knowest I have in age ratified all those vows, and strictly kept them;
Thou knowest I have not once lost nor faith nor ecstasy in Thee;
(In shackles, prison’d, in disgrace, repining not,
Accepting all from Thee—as duly come from Thee.)

All my emprises have been fill’d with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep, or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine—leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really come from Thee!
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens, whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

By me, and these, the work so far accomplish’d (for what has been, has been;)
By me Earth’s elder, cloy’d and stifled lands, uncloy’d, unloos’d;
By me the hemispheres rounded and tied—the unknown to the known.

The end I know not—it is all in Thee;
Or small, or great, I know not—haply, what broad fields, what lands;
Haply, the brutish, measureless human undergrowth I know,
Transplanted there, may rise to stature, knowledge worthy Thee;
Haply the swords I know may there indeed be turn’d to reaping-tools;
Haply the lifeless cross I know—Europe’s dead cross—may bud and blossom there.

One effort more—my altar this bleak sand:
That Thou, O God, my life hast lighted,
With ray of light, steady, ineffable, vouchsafed of Thee,
(Light rare, untellable—lighting the very light!
Beyond all signs, descriptions, languages!)
For that, O God—be it my latest word—here on my knees,
Old, poor, and paralyzed—I thank Thee.

My terminus near,
The clouds already closing in upon me,
The voyage balk’d—the course disputed, lost,
I yield my ships to Thee.

Steersman unseen! henceforth the helms are Thine;
Take Thou command—(what to my petty skill Thy navigation?)
My hands, my limbs grow nerveless;
My brain feels rack’d, bewilder’d; Let the old timbers part—I will not part!
I will cling fast to Thee, O God, though the waves buffet me;
Thee, Thee, at least, I know.

Is it the prophet’s thought I speak, or am I raving?
What do I know of life? what of myself?
I know not even my own work, past or present;
Dim, ever-shifting guesses of it spread before me,
Of newer, better worlds, their mighty parturition,
Mocking, perplexing me.

And these things I see suddenly—what mean they?
As if some miracle, some hand divine unseal’d my eyes,
Shadowy, vast shapes, smile through the air and sky,
And on the distant waves sail countless ships,
And anthems in new tongues I hear saluting me.



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