Advent with the Poets: ‘An Altogether Different Language’ by Anne Porter

Today’s Poet

Anne Porter never received the recognition of publication until she was 83. When her poetry was finally published, she took the literary world off their feet with the potency of her simple language that plumbs the depths of the soul. A Catholic Christian, Porter writes verse that often intersects with the seasons of the Christian year and the communion of saints.

An Altogether Different Language

There was a church in Umbria, Little Portion,

Already old eight hundred years ago.
It was abandoned and in disrepair
But it was called St. Mary of the Angels
For it was known to be the haunt of angels,
Often at night the country people
Could hear them singing there.

 

What was it like, to listen to the angels,
To hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices
Poured out on the bare stones of Little Portion
In hymns of joy?
No one has told us.
Perhaps it needs another language
That we have still to learn,
An altogether different language.

 

Why this poem belongs in Advent

Yesterday, the Sunday known as Gaudete or Rose Sunday marked a pivot in the Advent season. ‘Gaudete’ means ‘rejoice’ and Christians receive a foretaste of the Christmas celebration halfway through Advent. Repentance isn’t discarded the remainder of the season, but the focus takes on a particularly joyful character. In her wisdom, the Church trains us in Advent to the language of divine joy, which is a foreign language to us. ‘We are far too easily pleased,’ C.S. Lewis once said, with the small, temporary pleasures this world offers us. The Advent invitation to joy is the invitation to enter into ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory.’

Meditation and some probable poetic misinterpretation

Porter opens this poem placing an eerie image before her readers–an abandoned, dilapidated church. There’s good reason to believe Porter, a devoted Franciscan, draws on the story of St. Francis receiving this church from Benedictine monks in the 1100s. The present day church is quite impressive now, but the church was ‘already old‘ when St. Francis entrusted with its care in the 1100s.

Though this vacant, deteriorating church evokes a haunting scene, a heavenly presence reverses the course of further decline: ‘But it was called St. Mary of the Angels/ For it was known to be the haunt of the angels.’ Just as Advent pivots into joy in the third week of the season, so this poem pivots on this line. A vacant, hollow space now evokes a sweet song.

Yet the song is faintly heard. We desperately wish that the poem’s speaker will hear the angel’s song in all its fullness, ‘to hear those mountain-fresh, those simple voices‘ which resound in ‘hymns of joy.’ Such is the subtle force of Porter’s verse. She asks a question through the poem’s speaker that we must confront ourselves. Can we see any place, any circumstance as a meeting place with God, an occasion for worship and divine joy? Even more simply: are we strangers to joy in our world?

We cannot testify to the sounds heard by those who have gone before us. An echo resounds through the ages that is not entirely audible to our ears. Places sometimes evoke a silent witness, ‘another language that we have still to learn.’

Perhaps Advent is the very season we learn ‘an altogether different language.’ It is the language of divine joy. The mystery of this language is that it will transcend words, for words cannot adequately convey the mystery of love that comes to us in Jesus Christ. Though we be novices in this language, yet we learn to sing songs of joy, even when words are not adequate to capture our affection for the Son who was, and is, and is to come.