They never should have shown me
those pictures: the man who
wore a long white robe, sandals,
his moist brown eyes always looking up,
his long silk hair surrounded by a mist of gold.

They told me it was he who changed the world.
He spoke wise words but never wrote them down.
With time I learned he was the one
who saved me. From what, I did not know.
He had to be killed in order to do it.

After that, no robe, no sandals.
Nearly naked, limp hair matted,
head hung low, he was nailed
to a hideous wooden cross. I was
too young to not look, to not listen.

I put the pictures, the story, the cross
away in a deep place where
things never let go. Even though
all of it happened when I wasn’t there.
Nor was anyone who told me so.

Originally posted October 2013

62 responses »

  1. This is so true – it happened this way for me too, and now at seventy those images still haunt and the mystery still eludes. Now, just as your words describe, I know better than to look and gave Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ” a pass. This is a very powerful piece of writing and your voice adds to it’s punch.

    • “The mystery still eludes,” indeed, Jane, though those images no longer have the power to haunt me. I, too, took a pass on that Mel Gibson movie. I just didn’t see the point, though many in my immediate vicinity thought it a “must see.” Thank you for your comment—I always look forward to reading what you have to say. (Happy Birthday!)

  2. …as always, there is great depth and much happening within and between these sage lines. One wonders, were it not those pictures, then which? For there are always images we receive when young that serve to confound, confuse, sear. As a very young boy I came across hidden LIFE magazines in the basement which contained photos from the liberation of WWII Polish concentration camps. We are, at those ages, vessels so very easily cracked when pressed too firmly by adult forces coming from all sides, no?

    • A very astute question, Lance….”were it not those pictures, then which?” As you, of course, recognize, this poem is not so much a critique of a particular belief as it is a questioning of how we come to hold beliefs. I think I also had an experience of coming upon photos like the ones you describe. Children are vessels easily cracked, indeed. And isn’t it a wonder we survive, each generation, to find good reason to continue on, with the next generation! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment.

      • …how thoughtfully you pursue life and death and probe whether we are here for purposes beyond our understanding, or are, really, just here. There is a Tolstoy-like quality in these lines, a feeling I got from ‘War and Peace’, where Orthodoxy was always about and near, blessings before battles, hand-and-glove with the Tzar, the blush long gone from its cherished, other-worldly rose. You make us think…and think some more.

    • it really is all in the title rather than casting aspersions on orthodoxy itself…what do we know, really, and how do we come to know it? I think living among animals helps toward an honesty about all that. Thanks, Bruce.

        • Thanks, Cynthia. It’s a very good likeness (but who said it was a goat? πŸ˜€ ) I’ve read all the comments to your excellent poem. Of course it all goes so much further/deeper than Xtianity. The horror and cruelty of witches and goblins, and so on for example. Personally, I would never shield children from such things, and I think it makes for a fairly sound epistemological psychology…

  3. You are saying something general about story here too, I think. For what is the truth of any story? The facts? The near facts, his moist brown eyes. It’s the kernel of the story that endures. I think we are hardwired to seek stories.

    I dreamed of being killed the other day, and it immediately struck me as absurd, as being impossible, since the story playing in the mind’s eye had to have the permanence of a narrator. Strange conceit, isn’t it?

    And there is no redemption here after the cross.

    “I was too young to not look” also fascinated me. I think I expected too young to look…

    • I’m glad the dream of being killed struck you as absurd. I would miss you. What you say here about story gives me a lot to think about. Truth? philosophically it’s a whole can of worms, though, more simply regarded, I think we can know it, in both facts and stories.

      “I was too young to not look…” A certain maturity in experience is required, I think, to go against the weight of authority and convention, to accept paying the price of that, and still live in service to actuality, fact, and the honesty of one’s own imagination. That’s at the core, I believe, of any real art.

      • Of course it does seem odd that those born in ‘Catholic’ countries are in the main sensitive to the suffering of Christ and that likewise those born in Muslims countries are partial to Muhammad. This tells me that religion has more to do with geography than anything else.

        • There may be something to your geographical theory. What’s really odd always turns out to be the facts: Jesus is said to have been born in a geographical area now mostly populated by non-christians…..he himself wasn’t even a christian!

  4. I’m reminded of that old Christian hymn “Yes, Jesus loves me”, a song I learned at Sunday school along with the Lords Prayer and a simple goodnight prayer that begins “Now I lay me down to sleep…” Like pictures, they stick with you and pop into your head at strange times and never let go.

    • I remember my mother’s causing my little brothers and me to kneel beside a bed in our pajamas and say our prayers each evening. “Now I lay me down to sleep” was the main feature. We delivered it in a thoughtless sing-song, but now that I think of it, I laugh at the line…”if I should die before I wake…” I’m sure we never entertained that possibility for a minute, in our tiny minds.

  5. I have come late to this poem – and enjoyed reading the ensuing conversations as much as listening to your voice read these haunting words.

    I have questioned for many years why children are exposed to the images of the Crucified Christ – for me it was an horrific experience. [A rhetorical question Cynthia – for it is the whole concept / idea of original sin I guess.]

    I think you may open for many the wounds of childhood with these words – for it is not just these things that enter in so deeply to the young soul, but also the words, the voices, the images, the deeds, that are indelibly written into the bones of a child by the adults who surround them. We were once all ‘too young to not look, to not listen’.

    • I think you’re right, Pauline. Children are like sponges…wanting to know, wanting to learn, wanting to please, and much harm can be done by the adults who surround them. I am always amazed at the resilience of human beings, and happy to know when that balance of honesty to one’s own perception and experience and yet sensitivity to what others think and need is finally achieved in a human heart. Would that it could always be so. Thank you for your very thoughtful comment.

    • Grazie, Margherita Rosa…..and I wonder if there’s some kind of universal truth attached to the fact that the more exposure to an orthodoxy in childhood, the greater likelihood of turning away from it with time and experience of one’s own life. I was immersed in church, catechism, rituals, surrounded by priests and nuns….and here I am now….not. As Jane said, above, the mystery still eludes.

      • I’m so with you on this point Cynthia. I too was immersed in catechism, rituals, the schools – nuns and priests . . . and here I am now . . . not. While my Mother and Godmother to this day pour on the catholic guilt about not going to church, my nights hear my silent voice and prayers – it is my time w/o the layers of an institution overpowering my thoughts.

        • Yes. It’s usually the institutionalizing that gets in the way. Then it becomes more important to protect and continue the institution than to stay with the core and original reasons. My own grandmother stopped going to church after Vatican II. She used to go to church to be quiet and pray: she loved the Latin, the statues, the priest facing the altar, etc…… but when all the more social practices came in, she no longer wanted to go. I never thought I’d see that day, but it happened.

  6. This is on a bunch of levels, but what I see mostly is narrative (story) and memory. What do your see/hear and what do you remember and how does the first impression change? How does it get processed? Most Protestant churches don’t have a lot of crucifix imagery, so I don’t carry that from childhood, but there is a lot of talk of blood (of the lamb) and I remember a few years ago a friend of mine being set off by the imagery as described to a group of children. She was concerned about the kind of thing you describe–having that imagery come back to haunt. Somehow, the image I carry most is the ‘good shepherd,’ which is not violent. Also, I like your delivery of the last line–very clarifying.

    • Yes, all that talk of blood has always been off-putting to me. I’m glad the last line seems clarifying, because that’s really how I intended the poem—not so much to criticize any given orthodoxy, but to speak to the fact that so much of what we believe, or think we know, is really based on authority, and we forget to realize that maybe the expert or authority doesn’t truly know, either, at least not from their own authentic experience.

  7. I loved this first time around Cynthia and love it still. I may have said before but this one brings to mind a painting that hung on the wall for years in the Sunday school room of the church I was brought up in. The eyes on that damn picture would follow me wherever I went in the room. I hated it! 😊 xx

    • That’s funny, Chris. The pictures—and for us Catholics, the statues—-were an important part of making the teaching more real for unsophisticated minds, I guess. I wonder who all those unsung artists who produced them were. In my parochial school kindergarten there was a huge, roll-down wall map of “heaven” complete with the old man, the young man, and the dove, to represent the Holy Trinity. On the front blackboard, permanently painted, was a triangle with a huge eye in it—-talk about that thing following you! There were also “flash cards” that Sister Mary Alma used, to teach us about sin and sinlessness. Each of the flash cards had a heart shape drawn on it and was painted either pink, red, black, gray,or white, for all the stages of venial and mortal sin that the soul might be in. The nun would hold up a card and we little five-year-olds would yell out whether that soul was going to heaven, hell, purgatory, or limbo. It was all quite elaborate, now that I think of it!

      • Oh my goodness, how scary for five year olds. Although was it scary or did you just take it for granted?

        When I met John I changed from Methodist to Catholic just to keep it easier for getting married.
        Mum and dad had mellowed in many ways by then and weren’t bothered either way, which surprised me as dad was a lay preacher., as long as they were introduced in advance to the priest. So he made several visits to our house etc etc. and they got to know him. But when I left the Methodist church the minister turned up at our house one day with a form for me to sign saying I was no longer a member! Crazy stuff or what?! I find it all quite amusing now.

        John’s family were very Catholic if you know what I mean, mantillas and rosary beads and his mum looked after the priests, cooking and all that stuff. The one thing I hated was all the statues and strange (to me) framed pictures at their house. But they were really lovely people and I couldn’t have wished for lovelier in-laws, very loving and caring.

        I was never a proper Catholic though; when I went for instruction before I joined the church, I disputed the immaculate conception which the priest accepted and I could never bring myself to go to confession or genuflect! They still let me join! The old priest was quite ahead of his tim I think 😊

        Now I have my own concept of g.o.d and Im still not sure what it is 😊 xx

        PS shall I pop round for a cup of tea so we can discuss… πŸ˜„

    • Thank you, Jalal. You know from your own experience that discussions of our beliefs are sometimes difficult. I’m glad my commenters have understood what I was trying to say, here, and did not think I was putting down anyone’s religion, only speaking about how we learn things in childhood.

      • Yes,what people learn or experience during childhood remains with them a life time.Faith is 100% personal.One day every one will meet his creator..Best regards.Jalal

  8. I was unlucky enough to spend three years in an Ursuline convent boarding school, but I was lucky enough to have this sandwiched between my atheist father and a later Quaker boarding school. I imbibed all the same images and stories, and they haunted me, but I guess I had a layer of protection too.

    • Dear Hilary.. I do know something about being in a nun’s boarding school. Quakers are a mystery to me, both good and….too collective. Atheists, now there is a challenge. I find myself in old age not wanting any labels, not caring to say what I believe, but trying to make sense out of today and my memories of yesterday, all the while hoping not to get too discouraged.

  9. This is very interesting Cynthia, I’m sure many have specific ideas of what that holy man looked like based on certain art. I can’t think of anything more annoying than someone creating an image and saying this is what I looked like. If I was looking from afar from heavenly realms, I think I’d wish those people gone for spreading such a lie about me, but maybe ‘He’ has more patience than me! πŸ˜‰

    The church I was brought up in (slightly weird in it’s ways) at least refused to let us dwell on paintings of what Jesus might have looked like. It was considered idolatry to do so. A bit extreme, but prevented me from entering a fantasy world of what the great man had actually looked like. And as for his words, I wonder how accurately they have been recorded too?

    I especially like the way you have ended your poem.

    “I put the pictures, the story, the cross
    away in a deep place where
    things never let go. Even though
    all of it happened when I wasn’t there.
    Nor was anyone who told me so.”

    No, they weren’t there, and never did know. Couldn’t be said more truthfully! πŸ™‚

    • I’m glad you liked this, Suzy. Images are very powerful and easily engender idolatry. Then there are the stories that we believe, in order to find comfort in all the difficulties of our lives. This little poem is just an attempt to set right ideas of what we really do know, and what we really don’t know. πŸ™‚

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