Jessica Powers – “The Mercy of God”

In the late 1930s Jessica Powers from a farm in Wisconsin lived in New York, pursuing a career in writing. She tells how she sat on a New York park bench arguing with an editor for over two hours as to whether or not truth or beauty was the greater attribute in God. The editor sided with truth; she, with beauty. Several months before she died, she came to the conclusion perhaps both she and the editor were wrong. "In the end," she said, "all we have is the mercy of God. That is God’s greatest attribute." It is not surprising, then, that Jessica asked that her poem "The Mercy of God" be given prominence in her volume of selected poetry:  

In the dark night of the soul and of the senses, Jessica held tenaciously to the faith conviction that God was present in her soul. To believe that God abides in the deepest recesses of our being when there is no vision or when we know that we are morally unworthy of God’s love is a supreme act of trust. In this poem Jessica Powers shares something of her heart.

It is not the prayer of high praise or lowly contrition, nor one of joyful thanksgiving or humble petition, but rather the simple prayer of a child. She feels no need for assurance for her senses or intellect; she is firmly convinced that God will not abandon her.  Jessica Powers tasted the mystery of God’s immediacy and wrote of it often:  

"I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archive
the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear.
Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue
and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near?
Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly
That I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend,
that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence
of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end.
I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion
and defended with flurries of pride:

"I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy,
and here I abide. 

"There is greenness and calmness and coolness, a soft leafy covering
from judgment of sun overhead,and the hush of His peace, and the moss of His mercy to tread.I have nought but my will seeking God; even love burning in me is a fragment of infinite loving and never my own.

"And I Fear God no more; I go forward to wander forever
 in a wilderness of His infinite mercy alone."

Jessica Powers, a native of Wisconsin, was born in 1905 near Mauston. Following the death of her parents, she returned home to care for her siblings and the family farm after two one-year journeys. The first took her to Marquette University in Milwaukee as a student, the second to a job in Chicago. When her brothers and sisters were old enough to care for themselves, Jessica moved to New York in 1937 to pursue a career in writing. Her poems were published in a variety of magazines including Commonweal and America. Her first collected work of poems was published in book form in 1939.

Her literary and spiritual journey, based on themes of the nature she so closely observed and lived with on the family farm in central Wisconsin-along with her faith expedition through Scripture and into Carmelite spirituality-eventually led her to a new way of life. She responded to what she heard as an invitation from God to delve more deeply into the interior life. She became a Discalced Carmelite nun "and she reorients her poetic endeavors in an attempt to faithfully chronicle the inward journey this call entailed for her."3

In 1941 she entered the Carmelite community in Milwaukee, which moved a few years later to Pewaukee, Wisconsin. She became Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit and eventually the superior of the community. She continued to write poetry, which was collected into several volumes, including a book of poetry for children. Jessica Powers died at the Carmelite monastery in August 1988.

Leave a Comment