One of my favorite 16th century recusant poets is Saint Robert Southwell, an English Jesuit who preached the gospel in very trying circumstances. Southwell chose the obedience to be a Catholic priest in a country that outright persecuted Catholics and their priests. Ordained a Jesuit priest in 1584, his personal, theological and ministerial imagination, his human and divine calling, was to respond positively to a letter of the Superior General of the Society of Jesus of February 20, 1585 looking for missionaries to England. Southwell knew that his positive response to his religious superior would very likely end in martyrdom. Saint Robert Southwell’s poetry is challenging for the 21st century ear but worth the work of coming to understand his art and message. One such poem is “New Heaven, New War” expressing the Mystery of the Incarnation of God in history, the birth of Jesus.
Come to your heaven, you heavenly quires!
Earth hath the heaven of your desires;
Remove your dwelling to your God,
A stall is now His best abode;
Sith men their homage do deny.
Come, angels, all their faults supply.
His chilling cold doth heat require,
Come, seraphim, in lieu of fire;
This little ark no cover hath,
Let cherubs’ wings his body swathe;
Come, Raphael, this babe must eat,
Provide our little Toby meat.