POETRY: The Rosary by Frances Caryll Houselander

The Rosary by Frances Caryll Houselander

In the doorway of a low grey house,
built of stones as old as the Crusades,
a woman of Bruges sits in the sunlight,
among the flowers, saying her Rosary.

She seems to be carved out of season walnut
and polished smooth
by the constant touch of the hand of God,
and the beads that twine her crippled fingers
are scarlet berries on the thorny twigs.

The running rhythm
and the repetition
of the Paters and the Aves
is like the rhythm that in nature
moves through the seasons
from seed to harvest
with the unity
and the pause and stress
of music;
like the bloodstream of Christ,
that flows through the seasons
from Advent to Easter
in the Liturgy of the Church,
the ebb and flow of the tide of love
in the Mystical Body of Christ.


God has given His children strings of beads,
as we give strings of beads to our children,
to teach them to count.

We do not say,
“Learn from these the doctrine of numbers,
the measure of human life,
the dream of Pythagorus,
counting the pulse of the world.”

We do not say
to a child with a string of beads,
“learn the perfection of reason in mathematics.”

We say,
“Learn to count on the beads,
small for your hands to hold,
bright for your eyes to see.”
And he begins,
with one, two, three:
the spark is kindled
to light the flame of philosophy.

God has counted in fifteen Mysteries,
on the fingers of human creatures,
the singleness of the Undivided Love,
the simplicity
that we cannot comprehend
because our hearts are divided.


We are not all vessels of gold,
lifted up in virginal hands,
empty chalices to receive
from the perfect vine
and complete.

But the old woman of Bruges
is a round bowl,
lifted up to be brimmed
with pure wine.
and the Mysteries of the Rosary
concern familiar things
known in her own life.

Her mind, like a velvet bee
droning over a rose,
gathers the honey of comfort
from the story of God,
familiar as the things in her kitchen—
the shining pots and pans,
the milk in the jar of earthenware,
and the flags of the scrubbed floor.

The story told by the Rosary
is the story of primitive beauty,
true as the burden of folksongs.
It is a song piped on the hills,
by a shepherd calling his sheep.


The cradle of wood,
the wood of the cross;
from cradle to cross,
like a lullaby;
the wail of an infant,
lost on the wind—
the arms of a girl
in a circle of love,
rocking to rest;
a woman’s arms
in a circle of love,
the young Man dead
on His Mother’s breast.

The jewels that glow
low in the grass
on the feet of Christ,
risen from death,
touching the flowers
and touching the dust,
even in glory.

The dust of the earth
on the feet of God,
walking the soft blue meadows of stars.


In the doorway of a low grey house,
built of stones as old as the Crusades,
a woman of Bruges
sits in the sunlight, among the flowers,
saying her Rosary.

The story of Mary is her own story,
and her son was her life’s joy
and her life’s sorrow;
and for ever
her son is her life’s glory.

In a field in Flanders,
among the red poppies, he is sleeping:
he will sleep soundly
until the day of resurrection.

She has still the patchwork quilt
made, when her hands were nimble,
for the wooden cot:
now he is sleeping, and each year
he has a new coverlet
of delicate young grass,
and at the end of his cot
a wooden cross.

The cradle of the wood,
the wood of the cross:
from cradle to cross,
like a lullaby.

The story of the woman of Bruges
is the world’s story.
It is the story
of human joy and sorrow,
woven and interlaced,
like the blue and crimson thread
in a woven cloth:
the story of birth and death,
of war and the rumours of war
and of peace past understanding,
peace in the souls that live
in the life of Christ.

In the doorway in Bruges,
sitting among the flowers,
her mind like a velvet bee
droning over a rose,
taking the honey of comfort
out of the heart of Love,
the old woman is nodding
over her Rosary.

She has lived her meditation,
like the Mother of God,
living the life of Christ:
let her sleep in Christ’s peace.


Under the loud din
of the tramp of metallic feet
in the armed march of time,
like a river moving
under the dark hills,
the everlasting life
is flowing, eternally.

The measured beat of love,
with pure perfection of music,
timing the life of Christ
in the human heart
goes on.

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