Yet Mine It Was To Call

Juan Fernández de Navarrete, “St. John the Baptist in Prison”

Spiritual Sunday

I was thumbing through A Sacrifice of Praise: An Anthology of Christian Poetry (ed. James H. Trott) and came across a lovely poem about John the Baptist, who is mentioned in today’s liturgy reading. I make special mention of my source because it provides the only biographical information I can unearth about Sydney E. Jerrold (1895- c. 1940), a nun in the Order of the Assumption. I was able to google her brother, Tory newspaper editor and fascist sympathizer Douglas Francis Jerrold, who published his sister’s poems after her early death.

“John in Prison” is told from the vantage point of the evangelist. Jerrold speaks up for those who prepare the way for others, as John did Jesus. Since that’s how I see my role as teacher, I identify with the sentiment.

If you need a John refresher, here are some of the Biblical passages that the poem alludes to:

–There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. (John 1:6-8)

–Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:13-17)

–Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples, And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Matthew 11:2-6)

John in Prison

By Sydney E. Jerrold

I hardly saw His Face.
I knew Him not till Heaven had given sign.
He passed, yet never did His eyes meet mine
For one short perfect space.

Yet mine it was to call
“Behold the Lamb of God”—and they who heard
Went from my side, sought Him, and at a word
Followed Him, leaving all.

I scarcely heard His voice–
Not me He called to Him from Jordan’s side—
Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride,
And I, His friend, rejoice.

And now—“What things you see
Relate to John,” He saith—“The prophecies
Are all fulfilled, and blessed be he who is
Not scandalized in Me.”

 Not blessed who baptized,
Watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way,
Bore witness to the Light—but blessed they
Who are not scandalized.

Lord, be it ever so–
Before Thy Face to show the way of peace
I go, a passing voice that must decrease
Whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow.

The ways of peace are mine–
Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home
The Spirit and the Bride shall whisper “Come”:
Then shall my eyes meet Thine.

 I wonder if Jerrold wrote the poem when she was dying since it sounds as though she is assessing her life and worrying that she came up short. She reminds me of Denise Levertov in the way she laments barely experiencing God’s presence—“I hardly saw His Face.” She grumbles that she is not one of the disciples, who were called to greater things, but consoles herself that she has introduced the Lord to others: “Yet to the Bridegroom have I led the Bride.”

As she sees it, the one who came to bear witness to the Light does not receive a blessing. Fighting resentment, at one point she sounds almost sarcastic: “Not blessed who baptized, watched, prayed and thundered to prepare His way.” Perhaps she is trying to write herself into acceptance: “Lord, be it ever so–.”

In some ways, she sounds like John Milton “On His Blindness,” another poet that kicks against the role God has assigned him. Complaining that his blindness limits his contributions, Milton hears Patience assuring him that “who best bear his mild yoke, they serve him best” and “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

I think Jerrold wrote this while dying because of the reference to decreasing “whilst Thou, the Lord, must grow” and the lines “the ways of peace are mine–/Though sharp and shining be the sword’s way home.” Sharp thought her disappointment may be, however, her consolation will be that, at last, she will be Christ’s bride herself.

Then, at last, she will see God face to face.

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