Czeslaw Milosz was born in Szetejnie in 1911 and raised in Wilno, both of which are in present-day Lithuania. His family was part of the large Polish-speaking population of that city. For this reason he identified himself as a Polish writer. Living there through his university education, he was present in 1939 when the Soviets invaded Lithuania, while Hitler simultaneously invaded Poland. At great personal risk, he escaped through the Soviet borders and worked for the Polish resistance in Warsaw throughout the war. Once the war had ended, he tried to make a life for himself in his own nation and was part of the diplomatic corps of Communist Poland’s postwar government. He was posted to the consulate in New York and the embassy in Washington. In 1951, while he was serving as the cultural attaché at the Polish embassy in Paris, he defected. He remained in France until 1960, when he took a position at the University of California, Berkeley, as a professor of Slavic literature. In 1980, at the age of seventy, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Having lived in exile for fifty years, he moved from the United States to Krakow in 2001 and died there this summer at the age of ninety-three. He had remained productive until the end; a final book of poems, Second Space, is being published in English this fall.
This bare-bones summary of his life shows that Milosz’s personal history included almost the whole of the twentieth century. He participated in some of its most dramatic episodes and lived within several of its colliding cultures, carving out homes in Lithuania, Poland, France, and the United States. These are the contexts in which his Christian vision was shaped and delivered. Although he often expressed this vision obliquely, he was relentless in his criticism of those who despised faith as an anachronism: “I am not afraid to say that a devout and God-fearing man is superior as a human specimen to a restless mocker who is glad to style himself an ‘intellectual,’ proud of his cleverness in using ideas which he claims as his own though he acquired them in a pawnshop in exchange for simplicity of heart . . . . The sacred exists and is stronger than all our rebellions.” Milosz believed that the role of the poet is crucial in any society—regardless of how little poetry is appreciated or its importance understood. Consider his apologia for the poetry he was writing during and after World War II, when the world was undergoing a shock and disillusionment perhaps unparalleled in human history. How should the poet react? Here is Milosz’s proposal:
As is well known, the philosopher Adorno said that it would be an abomination to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz, and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas gave the year 1941 as the date when God “abandoned” us. Whereas I wrote idyllic verses, “The World” and a number of others, in the very center of what was taking place in the anus mundi, and not by any means out of ignorance. . . . Life does not like death. The body, as long as it is able to, sets in opposition to death the heart’s contractions and the warmth of circulating blood. Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life; they are the body’s rebellion against its destruction.
To retain simplicity of heart, to write verses for life against death—these gentle-sounding goals are not achieved without cost or without a sustaining faith. Yet here it is necessary to remind ourselves of the paradoxical way in which faith is practiced. Faith is practiced in the struggle with faith. Milosz had the courage to expose his struggle in all its intensity; thus the readers with whom he shared his troubles and doubts can trust, or at least consider with appropriate seriousness, his decision to stand within faith’s orbit. In a 1959 letter to the Catholic monk and writer Thomas Merton, Milosz wrote, “As to my Catholicism, this is perhaps a subject for a whole letter. In any case few people suspect my basically religious interests and I have never been ranged among ‘Catholic writers.’ Which, strategically, is perhaps better. We are obliged to bear witness. But of what? That we pray to have faith? This problem—how much we should say openly—is always present in my thoughts.” Two things stand out in this candid letter. First, his careful consideration of how best to treat religious themes in his writing. Second, the depth of his humility and poverty before faith.
In one poem, he addresses God wryly, saying, “It seems to me that people who cannot believe in you / deserve your praise,” and he confesses later in the same poem, “I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.” This struggle spanned his entire life. Only a few years ago, feeling his age, he wrote, “Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly, / And I am an old man lying in darkness . . . / Liberate me from guilt, real and imagined. / Give me certainty that I toiled for Your glory. / In the hour of the agony of death, help me with Your suffering / Which cannot save the world from pain.”
In a piece written in 1991 he mused at length about the difficulty of sharing thoughts like these. “I feel obliged to speak the truth to my contemporaries and I feel ashamed if they take me to be someone who I am not. In their opinion, a person who ‘had faith’ is fortunate. They assume that as a result of certain inner experiences he was able to find an answer, while they know only questions. So how can I make a profession of faith in the presence of my fellow human beings? After all, I am one of them, seeking, as they do, the laws of inheritance, and I am just as confused. . . .”
But let us come to the content of what he believed: “To put it very simply and bluntly, I must ask if I believe that the four Gospels tell the truth. My answer to this is: Yes. So I believe in an absurdity, that Jesus rose from the dead? Just answer without any of those evasions and artful tricks employed by theologians: Yes or No? I answer: Yes, and by that response I nullify death’s omnipotence. If I am mistaken in my faith, I offer it as a challenge to the Spirit of the Earth. . . .” Later in the same piece he asked, “Ought I to try to explain ‘why I believe’? I don’t think so. It should suffice if I attempt to convey the coloring or tone. If I believed that man can do good with his own powers, I would have no interest in Christianity. But he cannot, because he is enslaved to his own predatory, domineering instincts. . . . Evil grows and bears fruit, which is understandable, because it has logic and probability on its side and also, of course, strength. The resistance of tiny kernels of good, to which no one grants the power of causing far-reaching consequences, is entirely mysterious, however. Such seeming nothingness not only lasts but contains within itself enormous energy which is revealed gradually. One can draw momentous conclusions from this.”
Milosz believed that the religious question ought to be explored in the mainstream of literature and culture. As he grew older, he used the authority he had acquired to challenge those of his colleagues who believed that discussions of religion were beneath their dignity. “To write on literature or art was considered an honorable occupation,” he wrote in 1997, “whereas any time notions taken from the language of religion appeared, the one who brought them up was immediately treated as lacking in tact, as if a silent pact had been broken. Yet I lived at a time when a huge change in the contents of the human imagination was occurring. In my lifetime Heaven and Hell disappeared, the belief in life after death was considerably weakened. How could I not think of this? And is it not surprising that my preoccupation was a rare case?”
Czeslaw Milosz stood apart as a poet who dared to be preoccupied with such things. He believed that many of the horrors of the twentieth century had their roots in the effort to liberate people from religion. Milosz witnessed these efforts first-hand and reflected on their results: “Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.”
The evidence of Milosz’s Christianity is spread throughout his poems and essays in fragmentary clues. Rarely did he discuss the topic systematically. His faith was often a kind of secret which, once noticed, could explain at least in part his choice of themes and subjects. But sometimes it would come to the surface of his work. In 2002, Milosz published a long poem that was meant to function as a testimonial, A Theological Treatise. Milosz was aware that he was risking his reputation by venturing to write about theology, but he chose to use his credibility and clout to address a theme that literary fashion silently prohibited. “Why theology?” he asks in the first paragraph of this poem. (There are twenty-three paragraphs in the whole treatise, each containing varying numbers of stanzas.) He answers, “Because the first must be first. / And first is a notion of truth.” The paragraph concludes with a plea and a stipulation: “Let reality return to our speech. / That is, meaning. Impossible without an absolute point of reference.” In this testimonial poem, Milosz directly acknowledges God as the absolute point of reference. Many of the Christian themes scattered throughout his writings are here gathered together. One such theme is the frank expression of his own struggle with various elements of Catholic life. He always took theology seriously, but he sometimes wrote about theologians with bitter irony. He found the clericalism in some sectors of the Polish Church to be exaggerated and distasteful. “I apologize, most reverend theologians, for a tone not befitting / the purple of your robes. // I thrash in the bed of my style, searching for a comfortable position, / not too sanctimonious, not too mundane. // There must be a middle place between abstraction and childishness / where one can talk seriously about serious things.”
Milosz was wary of the comfortable abstract formulas offered by the academic theologian; they seemed to have little to do with the horrible questions his life story had forced him to confront. He recoiled from mechanical presentations of doctrine and easy explanations of suffering. When a clerical and theological style becomes stiff or sanctimonious, it cannot be taken seriously by people engaged in life-and-death struggles. But a poetry that spoke only of this-worldly things—a poetry that was “too mundane”—would fail to satisfy the deepest longings of the heart. Milosz rightly aims for a “middle place” where it is possible to “talk seriously about serious things.”
Yet Milosz believed, somewhat problematically, that the most serious things resisted any kind of definition. The mysteries of the faith were to be praised, described, but not explained. “Catholic dogmas are a few inches too high; we stand on our toes / and for a moment it seems to us that we see,” he writes in the Treatise. “Yet the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the mystery of Original Sin, / the mystery of the Redemption are all well armored against reason . . . // What in all that can be grasped by little girls dressed in white for First Communion?”
Milosz’s long testimonial poem also reveals his gnostic leanings. The tendency makes for interesting poems, but it adds to his difficulties with Catholic theology. “Not out of frivolity, most reverend theologians, I busied myself with the secret / knowledge of many centuries, but out of the pain in my heart when I looked out / at the atrocity of the world.” Here Milosz is explaining and justifying his turn to gnostic texts for help. He addresses himself to the “most reverend theologians” to complain that his need was not being met by their pat assurances. The pain Milosz refers to in this poem is not merely an intellectual sorrow: he is writing not just about the universal tragedy; he is writing about the tragedies of his own life. Wounded by the betrayals and injustices he has witnessed, he longs to understand the mysteries of evil and innocent suffering: “If God is all-powerful, he can allow all this only if he is not good. // Wherefrom then the limits of his power? Why such an order of creation? They all / tried to find an answer, heretics, kabbalists, alchemists, the Knights of the Rose Cross.” Here he cites the gnostic sources to which he turned. Surely he was led in this direction by reading Jacob Boehme, who had so strongly influenced Adam Mickiewicz, the critical point of reference for all modern Polish poetry.
It would have been impossible for Milosz not to have gone this gnostic way, at least to some extent. In addition to the Mickiewicz influence, his own temperament inclined him toward it. The horrors he lived through caused him to pose the same questions as these gnostic texts, and orthodox Christianity was not giving him the spiritual answers he needed. But if the Christianity of his time and place was not delivering those answers, this does not mean that the answers were not there. And in Milosz’s struggle we see him betray an instinctive understanding that this may be the case. This explains why, in the midst of the Treatise’s lengthy discussion of gnostic questions, he also narrates his own practice of Catholic life. He is being driven by something larger than himself, and it is nothing less than his whole Catholic faith, whether he always chooses it or not. He admits, “Alas, an American saying has applied to me, though it was not coined with kindly intent: / ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.’” He is not always comfortable with his religious inheritance, and yet something compels him never to abandon it.
Milosz often sensed a lack in his own faith, and he confesses this in the Treatise, as elsewhere (see “Distance,” above): “Why not concede,” he asks, “that I have not progressed, in my religion, / past the Book of Job?” This can best be understood in light of something he tells us later in the poem: “Only a dark tone, an inclination toward a peculiar Manichean / strain of Christianity, could have led one to the proper trail.” Here “the proper trail” means the proper interpretation of his work. All this comes in the paragraph that begins, “To present myself at last as an heir to mystical lodges . . .” He is confessing much, disclosing much, at these points in his testament. He is providing his readers with clearer information about his spiritual life. Hence the “at last” which introduces this revealing paragraph. He is expressing relief as he finally reveals the sources and limits of his religious anxiety.
What is significant for Milosz’s readers in this kind of writing is that he names in himself what is a fundamental religious question of our times; namely, getting past Job. Getting past Job—or for that matter, getting past a Manichean Christianity—is a serious religious challenge. The Christian tradition is in fact equipped to take the serious searcher past Job, but it was precisely this part of the tradition that was somehow not delivered to Milosz and which does not appear in the poem. I would suggest that it is only possible to move past Job by going through Job.
There is a tradition of Christian exegesis which reads Job as a prophecy of Christ. One can even imagine Job’s complaint provoking the Incarnation and the cross as the response from God. The prefiguration becomes explicit at Job 10:4-5, where Job says to God, “Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees? Are your days as the days of a mortal?” In fact, in the Incarnation and the death of Jesus, God can now answer Yes to this question. This Yes is strongly underlined in the phrase from St. Paul in the Letter to the Philippians 2:8: “obedient unto death, yes, death on a cross.” In the same part of the poem where Milosz quipped about the little girls dressed in white for First Communion, he also warns, “And it will not do to prattle on about sweet little Jesus / in the hay of his cradle.” But, of course, sweet little Jesus in the hay is not the central announcement of Christian faith. The central announcement is Jesus Christ, “and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Milosz’s warning against a sweet little Jesus is equivalent to Job’s demand for a serious answer to his serious question. But the death of Jesus on the cross is God’s serious answer. In the end, Milosz’s Treatise does not grapple deeply enough with this divine answer.
To come back to Milosz’s words at this point in the poem, he notes a difference between himself and Job—namely, that Job thought of himself as innocent while the poet is not. “I was not innocent, I wanted to be innocent, but I couldn’t be.” But in the end it was not Job’s innocence that was important but rather the majesty and mystery of God, before which Job bowed down and became silent. In an earlier writing Milosz had shown himself to be aware that this was the key insight of Job, even if, in the poet’s version of the story, God says things that are rather more severe than anything to be found in the book of Job. In a little essay titled “Misfortune” in Milosz’s ABCs, Milosz writes, “To create a universe like the one we have is not nice. ‘And why should I have to be nice?’ asks God. ‘Where did you get such ideas?’” This is strong thinking. It is acquiescence to the impenetrable mystery of God, an acquiescence to whatever of God the death of Jesus on the cross is meant to reveal.
When in the Treatise Milosz refers to his own practices as a Catholic, he speaks with a remarkable humility, contrasting his own weakness with the strength of the communion to which he belongs. This humility is especially striking since Milosz was, by temperament, a proud man, as he himself often acknowledged. His fine mind and his natural sophistication caused him to hesitate before the requirements of faith. But in the end he rejected the option of turning his sophistication against more simple believers. Near the very beginning of the Treatise he states, “The opposition, I versus they, seemed immoral. / It meant he [Milosz] considered himself better than they were.” At the end, having agonized through much of the poem over the questions posed by his gnostic favorites, he comes back much more strongly to a defense of the categories of Christian worship. “Treat with understanding persons of weak faith. // Myself included,” he writes. “One day I believe, another I disbelieve. // Yet I feel warmth among people at prayer. / Since they believe, they help me to believe / in their existence, these incomprehensible beings. . . // Naturally, I am a skeptic. Yet I sing with them, / thus overcoming the contradiction / between my private religion and the religion of the rite.”
This confession repeats a theme that Milosz has accented frequently in his poetry. Let three poems suffice as examples. In one he speaks approvingly of “Helene’s Religion”: “On Sunday I go to church and pray with all the others. / Who am I to think I am different?” And yet, familiar disappointment in the Church rises to the surface as Helene says, “Enough that I don’t listen to what the priests blabber in their sermons. / Otherwise, I would have to concede that I reject common sense.” Then, speaking for and with Milosz himself, she continues: “I have tried to be a faithful daughter of my Roman Catholic Church. / I recite the Our Father, the Credo and Hail Mary / Against my abominable unbelief.” Here the solid regularity of Catholic practice faces down Milosz’s reflexive skepticism.
In “With Her” Milosz speaks of hearing a passage from Scripture during Mass at St. Mary Magdalen in Berkeley: “A reading this Sunday from the Book of Wisdom / About how God has not made death / And does not rejoice in the annihilation of the living.” We should not be surprised that the words catch his attention. They directly address the key question that he and the gnostics often posed: how to reconcile death and innocent suffering with the notion of a good God. The poem continues: “A reading from the Gospel according to Mark / About a little girl to whom He said: ‘Talitha, cumi!’” Then, with an unselfconscious humility, the poet witnesses to how he has received these words. He writes, “This is for me. To make me rise from the dead / And repeat the hope of those who lived before me.” Here Milosz is exactly a Christian— the scriptural word is received as a word for him in that moment, together with all those who have believed before him. The theological term for this is “communion of saints.”
The poem “In a Parish” can serve as a third example of Milosz’s understanding of Catholic practice. He begins, “Had I not been frail and half broken inside, / I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself half broken inside. / I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church / To get rid of my self-pity.” Here again is Milosz involved in Catholic practice, the visiting of cemeteries being an especially strong part of Polish Catholicism. But he is also bringing to explicit expression what is implicit in any Christian gathering, whether among the living or the dead—namely, the recognition that we are all frail and broken. This is, among other things, what brings Christians together across differences of background. As Milosz looks at the names on the tombs, from his own “half broken inside” he begins to establish a communion with those buried there, musing ironically on the meanings of the names he reads: “Crazy Sophies, / Michaels who lost every battle, / Self-destructive Agathas.” When a child is born we name him or her with an uncomplicated hope. But then the child grows up and a sadder story must be told. Still, Milosz sees all these lives under the sign that, for a Christian, ultimately explains existence: they all “Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death.” And in this moment the poet feels his vocation again. He asks, “And who / is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation?” Milosz does not answer this question in the poem, but his work as poet has always been to give voice to precisely this: all the sad, neglected stories of so many men and women.
But for Christian faith, under every cross and every sad story lies the hope of resurrection. It is this that Milosz ultimately expresses as he gives voice to the dead. The poem ends with him addressing them all: “Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners.” We may call this a sad story, but we should also note the communion expressed in going down to death with “fellows.” And how do we all go down? “With the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names.” Christian faith teaches that such a call will not summon us to some vague eternity. Instead, we shall be renewed as the particular persons we were meant to be, expressed mysteriously in our names, their deepest, truest meaning now revealed in the “judgment that will call us by our names.” And this in the “new heavens and new earth” promised by the Scripture (2 Peter 3:13). And so Milosz concludes, “Instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds. / They rise then, thousands of Sophias, Michaels, Matthews, / Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews. / So that at last they know why / And for what reason?”
These three poems may help us to understand Milosz’s ultimate message in the Treatise—namely, his choice to “sing with them,” his fellow Christians, despite the fact that he is naturally a skeptic, and despite his lengthy grappling with gnostic theories.
In the last stanza of the Treatise, Milosz addresses himself directly to the “Beautiful Lady, you who appeared to the children at Lourdes and Fatima.” Such a direct invocation involved a great risk; Milosz knew it might alienate many of his readers. They would wonder how such a serious writer could take seriously the Marian apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima. Believing in the authenticity of such apparitions is not even a requirement of Catholic faith. And yet here is Milosz admitting, “I too have been a pilgrim in Lourdes / by the grotto,” and further, “Lady, I asked you for a miracle.” And if these revelations of common piety upset his nonreligious admirers, he, too, was somewhat upset by the experience: “My presence in such a place was disturbed / By my duty as a poet who should not flatter popular imaginings, / Yet who desires to remain faithful to your unfathomable intention / When you appeared to children at Fatima and Lourdes.”
We must take this as his last word in this long poem (that is in fact what it is). After rehearsing all his anguished questions and the gnostic solutions to which he had sometimes turned along the way, he finishes with a serene prayer to the Beautiful Lady and takes children as his model. He no longer demands a transparent solution to the problem of innocent suffering. Instead, he expresses a humbler aim: to remain faithful to the “unfathomable intention” of the mother of Christ. Milosz had suggested earlier in this stanza that part of this intention has to do with beauty: “As if you wished to remind them that beauty is / one of the components of the world.” The Lady herself is beautiful, as is the place where she appears, “in Lourdes / by the grotto, where you hear the rustle of the river and, / in the pure blue sky above the mountains, a narrow scrap of moon.”
Milosz wished to bear witness to the great Christian insight about beauty, so memorably expressed by Dostoevsky: beauty will save the world. For Milosz this was not an insight arrived at late in life; the Treatise presents us with the mature version of what we already saw in the poetry he was writing during the darkest period of the Second World War: “Gentle verses written in the midst of horror declare themselves for life.” As a young poet, Milosz knew that it was always the poet’s job to record and praise the world’s passing beauty. In the Treatise, the older Milosz reminds us that the poet receives this beauty from a permanent source beyond the world.
If this message about beauty was indeed part of the Lady’s intention, we might go on to ask whether her intention might ultimately concern the revelation of her Son as the secret of her own and the world’s beauty. After all, everything about Mary leads us in this direction. Non-Catholics often worry about an excessive Catholic devotion to Mary, and in some cases the worry is justified; but in Catholic teaching and tradition—and here Milosz is typically Catholic in making Mary his last reference—Mary, though beautiful in herself, leads us first and last to Christ, who is beautiful even in his dying. He is the Beauty that will save the world.
Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., is a Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. He teaches theology both at Mount Angel Seminary and the Pontifical Atheneum of St. Anselm in Rome.
At a certain distance I followed behind you, ashamed to come closer.
(Translated from the Polish by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass. From the book New