When we encounter the beautiful, it always surprises us; it overtakes us and turns us around. So it was with me, as a boy, sitting in the pews for the Solemnity of All Saints. I am sure I was restless and distracted. But then something extraordinary happened. Amid the familiar rhythms of the Church’s prayer, I heard one unfamiliar:
Mary and Joseph, pray for us.
Michael and all angels, pray for us.
Anna, Joachim, Elizabeth, pray for us.
Elijah, Moses, John the Baptist, pray for us.
Isaac, Sarah, Abraham, pray for us.
Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, pray for us.
Ruth, David and Solomon, pray for us.
Isaiah, Jeremiah, pray for us.
All you holy men and women, pray for us.
I repeated the refrain, listening for the names I knew and wondering at those I did not. It went on and on and my boredom dissipated as the whole of me was fitted into those words. Music, like all beauty, surprises us—but it also seems like something we already know instinctively. To encounter beauty is to recognize an order of reality that transcends us.
In the decades after that early introduction to the Litany of the Saints, litanies became one of my favorite forms of prayer: a rare pleasure that I looked forward to on feast days, and a mystery that I would sometimes contemplate and try to understand.
When praying the Litany of Loreto, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, I wondered at these lines:
Mirror of justice,
Seat of wisdom,
Cause of our joy,
Vessel of honor,
Singular vessel of devotion,
Tower of David,
Tower of ivory,
House of gold,
Ark of the covenant,
Gate of heaven,
Health of the sick,
Refuge of sinners,
Solace of Migrants,
Comfort of the afflicted,
Help of Christians,
Queen of Angels.
Understanding the Litany of the Saints was easy enough. But what to make of those many epithets for the Blessed Virgin?
During my years in graduate school, I often reflected on how those terms express the myriad roles that Mary plays in the life of the Christian. She is the Mother of God, but that title is only the first of many. Human beings are naturally social; we can only be understood—and understand ourselves—in terms of our relationships with others. Mary has this much in common with us, and the litany helps us to enter into the intricate depths of her role, or many roles, in the history of our salvation.
It is helpful to ask: If such a litany were made for us, what would our names—the many roles we have played in the lives of others—be? “Queen of Angels” is taken, but could we someday be named as “comforters of the afflicted,” or “those who give solace to migrants”?
When reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I discovered yet another role that the litany might play. Joyce tells the story of Stephen Dedalus—a taciturn, shy Catholic boy in Dublin—who is mesmerized by the beauty of a Protestant girl named Eileen. Protestants, Stephen has been told, do not understand the Litany of Loreto, and make fun of it. But one day, while out playing with Eileen, Stephen makes a discovery:
Eileen had long white hands. One evening when playing tig she had put her hands over his eyes: long and white and thin and cold and soft. That was ivory: a cold white thing. That was the meaning of Tower of Ivory. . . and then all of a sudden she had broken away and had run laughing down the sloping curve of the path. Her fair hair had streamed out behind her like gold in the sun. Tower of Ivory. House of Gold.
Stephen appreciates Eileen’s beauty but does not know what to make of it. Then he feels the soft cool of her pale white hands over his eyes, sees her golden hair streaming behind her in the sunlight—and he understands the meaning of these things for the first time. The language of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin helps him find words for the surprising, even supernatural, presence of beauty in a little girl at play in the squalid streets of Dublin.
Stephen’s last word on the subject is decisive: “By thinking of things you could understand them.” The figurative language of the litany helps make the mystery of beauty intelligible to us. The language of the Church’s six public litanies draws us more closely into communion with the saints, and helps us appreciate the role Mary plays in our salvation. It even helps us to see and understand the beauty of reality with more perceptive eyes and a more articulate tongue.
These lingering thoughts were renewed in me some months ago, when the Benedict XVI Institute asked me to compose a Litany for the Patron Saints of the Homeless. As I began to study and reflect on the lives of Josephine Bakhita, Maximilian Kolbe, Theresa of Calcutta, and others, the incomprehensible beauty of holiness took me once more by surprise.
A Sudanese slave girl whose sanctity inspired modern Italy; a Franciscan who gave his life for the sake of another in the Nazi death camps; an Albanian girl who lived among the poorest of India for half a century, helping them to live and die with dignity—how can one hope to comprehend the lives of persons who poured themselves out amid a century of atrocity? How, finally, could I do justice not only to their lives but to the lives unfolding in sorrow and squalor before us on the streets of San Francisco?
I suppose I should have known the answer. I could not do justice to these things. The most I could hope to attempt is what the other litanies of the Church accomplish. I could gather together words that, with modesty, point toward—but do not fully express—the beauty of holiness, the mystery of God’s providence amid suffering, and the role his saints play within it.
I tried to find words that would remind us of the lives of the six patron saints of the homeless. When I had written these, however, I sensed that I was not yet done. I remembered walking past long lines of the homeless, as they waited for a meal or night’s shelter, while visiting San Francisco in the months before quarantine. I remembered the homeless of northern California I met as a teenager; they saw I was down on my luck and invited me to join them for dinner at a local soup kitchen.
I remembered also a woman I encountered nearly two decades ago on a bright and crowded sidewalk outside the Vatican museum. She was bent over upon a small rug as if in prayer. Her clothing resembled the habit of St. Theresa of Calcutta. She offered holy cards with an image of a saint on one side, and a prayer to the saint on the other, to passersby. As I bent down to take one and leave a few coins, I noticed the large, open, and festering sore upon her head, where hair ought to have been.
Thinking of her, I realized that we all need the patron saints of the homeless to pray for God’s people, especially those “surrendered to the streets.” But we also need to beg the prayers of those same people. We need the prayers of those “who ache with hunger.” We need the prayers of “women with opened wounds.” The Litany of the Saints tells us that we are already in communion with holy men and women, that we pray to them and they pray for us. I wanted the litany I composed to remind us that we are also already in communion with those for whom we pray—that we must not only remember them, but beg of them their prayers, that all of us may someday stand within the gates of the city that is the one, true home to us all.
On November 6 at 10 a.m. in the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, I will join Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone and hundreds of other Catholics for the Requiem Mass for the Homeless. We will pay our respects to those who died on the streets this year and pray for the souls of our departed brothers and sisters. We will then gather on the Cathedral Plaza, and I will experience with gratitude something rare: hearing my brothers and sisters in Christ pray using words I was asked to craft, a Litany for the Patron Saints of the Homeless.
O Kidnapped slave and mother, pray for us.
Forgotten one, beaten and aching, pray for us.
Sister of all in freedom, pray for us.
St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for us.
Ragged and swooning beggar, pray for us.
Fool of the freezing threshold, pray for us.
O vigil-keeper of thorns, pray for us.
St. Benedict Labre, pray for us.
Finder of all lost things, pray for us.
Beholder of the Christ Child, pray for us.
Blesser of broken bread, pray for us.
Saint Anthony of Padua, pray for us.
Knight of the Mother’s Heart, pray for us.
Builder in eastern mountains, pray for us.
Martyr of the death camps, pray for us.
St. Maximilian Kolbe, pray for us.
Mother of total silence, pray for us.
Companion of the trash heaps, pray for us.
Nurse of all the dying, pray for us.
St. Theresa of Calcutta, pray for us.
O naked fool and poet, pray for us.
Bearer of holy wounds, pray for us.
Servant to brother earth, pray for us.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
Surrendered to the streets, pray for us.
All nameless and self-forgetting, pray for us.
Women with opened wounds, pray for us.
All you who ache with hunger, pray for us.
James Matthew Wilson is Cullen Foundation Chair of English at the University of Saint Thomas and Poet-in-Residence of the Benedict XVI Institute.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?