Old Sister Paul [poem by John O’Brien, 1954]

[Editor: This poem by John O’Brien was published in The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, 1954.]

Old Sister Paul

O Salutaris Hostia, the Alpha and the Omega
Within the monstrance fair;
How sweet the maiden voices ring while to and fro the censers swing
And incense fills the air.
Adown the convent chapel aisle the sisters kneeling file and file
Show all that’s noble, pure and good in radiant valiant womanhood.
And where the shadows fall
There kneels a feeble silent nun whose useful working-day is done:
With human hopes and earthly needs, and so she tells her rosary beads —
Old Sister Paul.

All wrinkle-seamed and bending low; and yet I mind long years ago
At that same altar rail
I saw a group of maidens stand — no better, finer in the land —
To ask the holy veil.
And worldlings wondered much that they should vow their fresh young lives away,
So dowered with every human grace, alert in mind and fair of face;
And one whom I recall
Was first in poise and beauty — yes, and more than earthly loveliness —
’Twas Sister Paul.

Tonight in her appointed place the shadows hide her weary face
And fall across her heart;
And I have known what things, forsooth, have worn away the bloom of youth:
The treadmill grind from day to day — the hard exacting price they pay
Who choose the better part.
A draughty schoolhouse long ago perched somewhere near the line of snow,
Or on the Plains where simmering heat had buckled every desk and seat
And warped the timber wall
Through which the wind blew grit and grime on book and slate at lesson-time —
A dreary outpost blank and bare, the only brightness smiling there
Was Sister Paul.

Her world a class of eight or ten; but purpose fired her pulses then
And mantled on her cheek,
For all her ardent woman’s love was drawn to serve her God above
And succour here the weak.
But that’s all counted with the past, and only Love survives at last.
The tapers stir tonight and flick a gem on vase and candlestick,
And sparkle on the altar set, and dare to climb the gold lunette
To wave a twinkling bannerette
Before the Lord of All.
The censer swings with rhythmic beat, the incense curls about His feet,
The organ trembles in His praise, while she her silent homage pays
As on her rosary’s loom she weaves a lover’s crown of autumn leaves —
Old Sister Paul.

Oh, sweet the Sisters sing tonight, their soft true voices clear as light.
But down the lane of memory across the years there comes to me
A tender children’s hymn:
A simple thing in tune and words they sang as artless as the birds,
Yet strong men’s eyes grew dim.
The organ whispered tenderness beneath an artist hand’s caress,
And here a voice would come anon to cap the pitch they faltered on,
While hushed folk hoped, and hoped in vain to hear that golden voice again;
But Mary’s praise was all
That stirred that full corrective note; and 1 have heard in years remote
Old people tell with phrase afire the wonder of that children’s choir —
And Sister Paul.

Her school’s dismissed for many a day, the scholars scattered far away:
They’re changed and chastened now,
With grown-up cares that warp, and wreak the tell-tale wrinkle on the cheek
And thin the hair; but yet, to her they’re still the bonny things they were
With curls upon the brow.
Tonight with all their winsome ways they troop around her as she prays.
’Tis hers to guide their heedless feet on open road or city street,
So wheresoe’er they are,
Against their trespasses she pleads — defends them with her rosary beads,
And many a fervent Ave’s said for that poor erring tousle-head
Whose steps have wandered far.
And I have seen him, at the last, redeem the squalid tragic past
Before the curtain’s fall:
He turned to pray; no prayer he had save one she taught him when a lad
Before his head was bowed with shame; and hot tears gathered at the name
Of Sister Paul.

If books were balanced only here, such things as these would appear
As “Sundries”. This I know:
That He Who had the hundred sheep and left the ninety-nine to keep
Upon the track that tiresome day of one poor weakling gone astray
Would not account it so.
The trampled corn, the smoking flax, the frail defeated melted-wax,
The lost lamb’s plaintive call
Were never scorned at Nazareth; and mercy is no shibboleth
To her who loves His bruised reeds and tracks them round her rosary beads —
Old Sister Paul.

So while today the long hours through she gets the loose odd jobs to do
She “takes” the convert, or with joy instructs the wayward backward boy,
Or (but tell it not in Gath)
Outsits the tedious “sitter-on” who always seems to pick upon
The busiest hour to occupy the Reverend Mother’s time, and try
What self control she hath —
She questions not, for fair is fair, she makes it all a holy prayer.
Nor need she care at all:
Bright blooms along the paths she trod are footprints on her way to God.
A veteran she, with duty done, and more, an ever faithful nun,
Old Sister Paul.

Oh, “Adoremus Evermore” they sing; the Benediction’s o’er,
The chapel empties pew by pew, the Sisters passing two and two.
She moves to join the train,
But here where once with queenly grace, the morning freshness on her face,
She stepped His radiant chosen Bride, she falters now at eventide
And genuflects in pain.
Still be it so, what’s writ is writ; ’tis twilight and her lamp is lit
Against the Bridegroom’s call;
Oh, may the road she yet must meet lie easy to her tired feet;
’Tis but a step, for angels wait to welcome at the Eternal Gate
Old Sister Paul.

Published in:
John O’Brien. The Parish of St Mel’s and Other Verses, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954

Editor’s notes:
Adoremus = Latin for “let us adore” (in this context, to worship God)
dowered = in this context, a natural endowment or gift
Gath = see “tell it not in Gath”
genuflects = to touch the knee to the floor in an act of reverence or worship (to genuflect can also refer to just a bending of the knee in homage or respect, or being deferential in a servile manner, or obedient or respectful)
O Salutaris Hostia = Latin for “O Saving Host”; “O Salutaris Hostia” is a section of one of the Eucharistic hymns written by St Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi
tell it not in Gath = a phrase which means “don’t let your enemies hear it”, originating from a passage in the Bible, “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice” (Samuel 1:20); Gath was one of the five city-kingdoms of Palestine in biblical times and the home of Goliath
tousle-head = a child; from the often tousled (rumpled, disheveled, in disarray) state of a child’s hair, or from the affectionate tousling of a child’s hair by an adult

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