Later-in-life poet: Joining religious society sparked Rooney's inspiration

June 30, 2003

POETRY OFTEN IS associated with youth. Young people have the emotional intensity that easily channels into poems about lost loves, poems about life's cruelties, poems about despair. Witness Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke and Emily Dickinson -- all began writing when they were young.

That's not how it happened to the late poet Elizabeth Brigham Rooney. She didn't write poetry until her second half-century, and then only after she felt God called her to it.

When she was in her early 50s, Rooney was busy tending the gift shop at Cave of the Mounds in Wisconsin, a limestone cavern and tourist attraction

Oblation

I hope each day
To offer less to You,
Each day
By Your great love to be 
Diminished
Until at last I am 
So decreased by Your hand 
And You, so grown in me, 
That my whole offering 
Is just an emptiness
For You to fill
Or not
According to Your will.

 that had been discovered on her family's farm when she was a child. Poetry was not on her mind.

"She was involved in the business. She was a perfectionist," said Patricia Rooney, her daughter and the youngest of four children.

Something, however, apparently was missing.

"Mother had been trying all different routes to satisfy her spiritual hunger," Patricia Rooney said in a telephone interview from Blue Mounds, Wisc.

It was not as though Rooney lacked a religious affiliation. An Episcopalian since she was a student at Smith College, she was married to the Rev. Michael Rooney, an Episcopal priest who served parishes in the Northeast and worked at the Episcopal Church Center in New York before the couple moved back to Blue Mounds to run the family business. The couple met in New York when she was studying for her master's degree in Christian education at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University and he was a student at General Theological Seminary.

In 1978, at age 54, Rooney joined the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. It was a life-altering experience.

Poems 'flowed out'
The admission ceremony brought an "inrush of feeling, and the poems just flowed out," said Janet Woodhull, a lifelong friend who attended both Smith and Union with Rooney and sponsored her for membership in the society.

Chimney Swifts

The chimney swifts cut great patterns in the sky.
They snip, snip, snip
Great soaring circles of the hanging blue 
And carry them away to line their nests
So fledgling chimney swifts,
Born in the dark, soot-blinded,
Will be reminded of the sky 
And know which way to go 
When they begin to fly.

 

Luci Shaw, a poet who met Rooney when she attended Shaw's poetry workshop, recounted in the book "Bright Legacy, Portraits of Ten Outstanding Christian Women" that Rooney told her, "I fell in love with God. It was as if my veins were bubbling with champagne."

The poems kept flowing, sometimes four or five a day. When she died in 1999 at age 74, there were more than 700, according to Patricia Rooney.

Rooney's poems appeared in magazines, including "The Living Church" and "Weavings," and in poetry anthologies. Friends urged her to publish a book, but she had trouble finding a publisher.

After Rooney died, Patricia Rooney decided to publish her mother's poetry. Working with a book-design firm, she organized the poetry into four soft-cover books, one for each season. "I didn't want it to be devotional, but thought it would give it a framework."

Many of the poems delight in evoking the natural world. "The chimney swifts cut great patterns in the sky," a 1979 poem begins.

Other poems address theological themes but contain a down-to-earth quality, like the poem about a boy standing by the side of the road and seeing Jesus "swinging along with his friends."

"She was not weirdly mystical," Patricia Rooney s

Meaning

Something within me
Longs to know you, Lord,
and is not satisfied
With emptiness.
Without you, I am bored.
With you, the smallest thing
Holds significance
So sharp, so deep,
Its very littleness
Can make me weep.

 aid. "She was very grounded in reality."

Yet the poetry came from somewhere. 

"I think that when you let God take charge of your life, he picks something most appropriate for you," Rooney told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1983.

Not unusual
That Rooney began writing poetry after a religious experience isn't unusual, said sociologist Robert Wuthnow, who directs Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion and has written about artists' experiences with spirituality.

"It sounds like that was something she valued, and probably it was a language in which her sense of spirituality and her sense of truth could be expressed," Wuthnow said.
Patricia Rooney said her mother loved the poetic form. "Emily Dickinson was a role model." 

The poems also came from other people's experiences. Norma Madsen, who became friends with Rooney after she read Shaw's account, often turned to the older woman for advice and solace.

After Madsen had confided in her one day, Rooney wrote: "I don'tthink she always understood the reason for my tears."

Concluded Madsen, "She really felt her poems were gifts of the Holy Spirit, and she delighted in them." 

"All Miracle," the four-volume set of Elizabeth Brigham Rooney's poetry can be ordered from Brigham Farm Publishing, www.brighamfarm.com, or by phone, 608-437-3588. The set costs $46 plus tax and shipping. Individual volumes cost $12.95.

Paula Schaap is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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