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Walt Witman

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I once celebrated a funeral Mass for a woman who was one of the first to drive across the Walt Whitman Bridge. Her father was one of the bridge builders, and she was entrusted with the task of motoring over the Delaware River. Her first of many such peregrinations from Philly to the Jersey Shore, but probably the only one without gridlocked traffic. She always enjoyed telling the story of the construction of the Walt Whitman Bridge and the memories that she and her family made “down the shore.”  At her burial I noticed how her family’s plot was between two others – one for a Whitman family and the other for the Story family. God was smiling that day, as he always does. 

It is so appropriate that a bridge honor the legacy of Walt Whitman, and that this bridge features prominently in the Memorial Day weekend memories of so many. 

Walt Whitman was born on 31 May, 1819 in Brooklyn. Whitman, during the American Civil War, volunteered his services to assist those wounded by war. His poem “The Wound Dresser” recalls his loving service offered to the soldiers. “Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals, the hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand, I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young, some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad. Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have crossed and rested, many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.” This poem, along with “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, “Dirge For Two Veterans”; “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, and “O Captain, My Captain!”, are but a few of Walt’s responses to the devastation of war and those affected by it. Such an apt companion on our Memorial Day journeys. Stop by the Walt Whitman, Molly Pitcher, or Joyce Kilmer service plazas on the New Jersey Turnpike for more inspiration.

Notice the movement evident in Walt’s recollections. He returns, resumes, threads his way through corridors and hospitals; the soldiers are restless; his hand soothes. Much of Whitman’s work involves movement. The destination may not be clear, certain, or definitive but there is a movement in search of an indescribable something.

Today, as we honor our war dead and acknowledge and praise the members of the military, we also recognize the Solemnity of Pentecost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit. 

The Holy Spirit is the mover and shaker drawing us into a deeper communion with The Holy Trinity. It is the Holy Spirit who comes as a great driving wind, and as tongues of fire. Yet, it is also the Holy Spirit who descends as gently and tenderly as a dove seeking to perch upon the areas of our life whose movements are indescribable. 

Stephen Langton, a thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury, attempts to describe what is indescribable in his poem to the Holy Spirit: “Veni Sancte Spiritus” – “Come, Holy Spirit.” “Heal our wounds, our strength renew; on our dryness pour your dew. Wash the stains of guilt away. Melt the frozen, warm the chill; guide the steps that go astray.” Langton originally planned this piece to be an accusation against an absent Spirit. Yet as he wrote he realized the absence was not on the Spirit’s part but on ours who failed to accept the Holy Spirit’s invitation to enter into that which is indescribable. 

Fast forward to the nineteenth century and again we find Walt Whitman, in his poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider”  searching for the indescribable. “A noiseless patient spider… it launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself, ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.” You can almost see the images of that first Pentecost with the Holy Spirit unreeling filaments of fire, energy, strength, confidence, and hope upon the followers of Jesus. Finally, Walt compares the work of the spider to the promptings of the Holy Spirit upon his own being. “And you O my soul where you stand, surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them, till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.”

Blessings to all on this Memorial Day and Pentecost Day. May you acknowledge the goodness of the Holy Spirit dwelling within you. Allow the Spirit’s thread to catch somewhere this Pentecost, moving you along the bridge the Holy Spirit is forming, leading you to the wounds you are invited to dress.