[Editor’s Note: This is the third of a seven-poem song cyle James Matthew Wilson wrote commemorating the Mass of the Americas. In it, he fleshes out what it would be mean to take America seriously as a country with a deep Catholic history. The entire book, The River of the Immaculate Conception, may be purchased from WisebloodBooks.com]
Presentation of the Gifts
What did they come for, those on bended knees
Who scrape their weight along the temple stone?
What did they come for, those retired in pews
With faces elevated toward the cross?
The crawling ceases in a posture of prayer,
Heads bowed before a woman clothed in sunlight,
And silence covers everyone with waiting,
Between the moment when the word is spoken
And that one still to follow when the Word
Will with a muttered word become our bread.
They came first with a gaze of jewel-eyed wonder
To find so rich a land—and one that grew
With every legend of a golden city.
De Vaca came for conquest, one hidalgo
In search of honor lost in time, but found
Himself a naked pilgrim marched in chains,
A blistered holy man who signed the cross
To drive the devil from the Indians’ wounds;
At last, a chaste colonial, dismayed,
As those he’d known rode north to sate their lusts.
We know Fray Cáncer came to preach, though all
His crew refused to land the boat, but watched
As his white habit struggled through the waves,
Emerged, then bowed to pray upon the sand.
Armed Indians watched as well, no less in awe,
Then dragged him to a grassy hummock, where
They beat him with their clubs till he was dead.
And, in the little grotto where Rose prayed,
Shorn of her glory, fasting, crowned with iron,
She suffered for the Christ and for this land.
Her friend, the bastard of a slave, the humble
Sweeper of floors, de Porres, took the leper,
The Indian stabbed and bleeding in the street,
And bathed their wounds and gave them his own bed,
Until it seemed the cat, dog, bird, and mouse
Would sit at the same dish of milk and dine.
And Serra, bitten on the Royal Path,
Would limp his passion’s way to California,
Extending with each step the Spanish Empire,
But planting, too, a vineyard for the Lord.
Why did we pass beneath the pilgrim’s shell
To step inside the Mission of San Xavier,
That day, my wife and little girl and I?
We stared up at the spread of florid columns,
The drapery of stone about the Santos,
Their plaster faces stilled in holiness
And lean forms gowned in gaudy iridescence.
The northern march of missions halted here,
Exhausted, foiled, but sure they’d come, not chasing
Gold cities, but to build of prayer and clay.