Our Lady of the Sackcloth

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The twentieth in my ongoing series examining the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. The other posts in the series may be read here, here , here , here, here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here, here, here and here.  Kipling was something of a mystery when it came to religion.  He once jokingly referred to himself as a Christian Atheist.  However, religion not infrequently came up in Kipling’s poetry and prose.  For a Protestant he seemed to have a fondness for the Virgin Mary.  In his poem A Hymn Before Action we see this devotion in this stanza:

Ah, Mary pierced with sorrow,

Remember, reach and save

The soul that comes to-morrow

Before the God that gave!

Since each was born of woman,

For each at utter need —

True comrade and true foeman —

Madonna, intercede!

We also see this devotion in a poem Kipling wrote in the year before his death, Our Lady of the Sackcloth.  It is based on one of the stories in a 15th Century Ethiopian book, One Hundred and Ten Miracles of Our Lady Mary that had been translated into English in 1933.  At age 68 and his health declining I suspect Kipling saw himself in the role of the elderly priest who could only recall the daily prayer to the Virgin.  Note the reference to the Eucharist:  When the Bread and the Body are one.   Kipling’s poem reminds us that we are all beneficiaries of the love of the Mother of God, even though we are unaware of it:








There was a Priest at Philae,

Tongue-tied, feeble, and old;

And the daily prayer to the Virgin

Was all the office he could.

The others were ill-remembered,

Mumbled and hard to hear;

But to Mary, the two-fold Virgin,

Always his voice rang clear.

And the congregation mocked him,

And the weight of the years he bore,

And they sent word to the Bishop

That he should not serve them more.

(Never again at the Offering

When the Bread and the Body are one:

Oh, never the picture of Mary

Watching him serve her Son!)

Kindly and wise was the Bishop.

Unto the Priest said he:-

“Patience till thou art stronger,

And keep meantime with me.

“Patience a little, it may be

The Lord shall loosen thy tongue

And then thou shalt serve at the Offering

As it was when we were young.”

And the Priest obeyed and was silent,

And the Bishop gave him leave

To walk alone in the desert

Where none should see him grieve.

(Never again at the Offering

When the Wine and the Blood are one!

Oh! never the picture of Mary

Watching him honour her Son!)

Saintly and clean was the Bishop,

Ruling himself aright

With prayer and fast in the daytime

And scourge and vigil at night.

Out of his zeal he was minded

To add one penance the more-

A garment of harshest sackcloth

Under the robes he wore.

He gathered the cloth in secret

Lest any should know and praise-

The shears, the palm and the packthread-

And laboured it many ways.

But he had no skill in the making,

And failed and fretted the while;

Till there stood a Woman before him,

Smiling as Mothers smile.

Her feet were burned by the desert-

Like a desert-dweller she trod-

Even the two-fold Virgin,

Spouse and Bearer of God!

She took the shears and the sacking,

The needle and stubborn thread,

She cut, she shaped, and she sewed them,

And, “This shall be blessed,” she said.

She passed in the white hot noontide,

On a wave of the quivering air;

And the Bishop’s eyes were opened,

And he fell on his face in prayer.

But – far from the smouldering censers-

Far from the chanted praise-

Oh, far from the pictures of Mary

That had watched him all his days-

Far in the desert by Philae

The old Priest walked forlorn,

Till he saw at the head of her Riders

A Queen of the Desert-born.

High she swayed on her camel,

Beautiful to behold:

And her beast was belled with silver,

And her veils were spotted with gold!

Low she leaned from her litter-

Soft she spoke in his ear:-

“Nay, I have watched thy sorrow!

Nay, but the end is near!

“For again thou shalt serve at the Offering

And thy tongue shall be loosed in praise,

And again thou shalt sing unto Mary

Who has watched thee all thy days.

“Go in peace to the Bishop,

Carry him word from me-

That the Woman who sewed the sackcloth

Would have him set thee free!

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  1. That’s an old old story; it’s told throughout Europe, particularly in France and particularly about the Little Office of the Virgin Mary being the only Office the priest knew. Usually it’s either an old priest or one with very bad Latin who’s involved….

    But the sackcloth and the desert lady is different, and I’m glad you dug up the Ethiopian/Egyptian background on this one. I’d just assumed Kipling made it up to make it more palatable to his audience.

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