What Joyce Kilmer Can Teach Notre Dame Students

“What are you doing to still celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection during this fourth week of Easter?” Fr. Haake’s voice boomed through the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Chapel in Knott Hall this past Sunday.

“How have you been celebrating the past few weeks? How will you continue to celebrate until the Ascension?”

I hung my head. “Let’s see,” I thought. “I’ve been working on a code to model regional unemployment in my home state… I’ve been researching and writing a 5,000 word essay on Paradise Lost…” My thoughts quickly devolved into my plans for the next day and how I was planning on tackling my big projects. Soon, stress consumed me.

Upon further reflection, the reaction I had to Fr. Haake’s question was precisely the opposite reaction he desired to instill. But how can I celebrate Easter when I have so much work to do? How can I truly grasp the gravity of the Resurrection when exams are stealing upon us like a thief in the night? All I can think about is papers, tests, projects, thesis proposals, details, details, and more details. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, but can’t we wait until May 19 — when exams are completed and dorms packed up — to celebrate?

Some 103-odd years ago, I imagine Alfred Joyce Kilmer was thinking similar thoughts. Kilmer (1886-1918) was an American Catholic poet who enlisted in the army in April 1917, mere days after the United States entered World War I. He was 30 years old, a father of five, and a recent convert to Catholicism, and he was immediately deployed to the Western front to fight with the famed 69th Infantry Regiment. While my concerns with papers and exams seem trivial in the face of his trench warfare, I find a companion in my frustration in this twentieth century soldier and poet.

During his deployment, somewhere deep in the muddy trenches of Picardy, he wrote one of the simplest and most elegant Catholic poems ever written, “Prayer of a Soldier in France.” It’s short, but it packs a punch. It begins:

My shoulders ache beneath my pack

(Lie easier, Cross, upon His back)

    Line by line, Kilmer lists some of his personal struggles with war (“I march with feet that burn and smart,” “My rifle hand is stiff and numb,” etc.). Following each struggle, however, is a parenthetical, a prayer, uniting each suffering to Christ in solidarity and charity. He concludes,

Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me 

Than all the hosts of land and sea

So let me render back again

This millionth of Thy gift. Amen.

Lent ended nearly four weeks ago, but life, unfortunately, continued. And life, to be frank, is Lent-like. Perhaps not as Lent-like as those terrible trenches of the Western front, but Lent-like all the same. The joy of Easter seems a near-lifetime ago and, as Fr. Haake reminded me, it is all too easy to forget that our celebration continues. Given that our sufferings are likely less than those of the gallant soldiers of World War I, we can and should take the lead of Kilmer: in order to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection, let us bear the crosses we have been given with the joy that only the Risen Lord can infuse.

If you hadn’t already guessed, Kilmer died during the last days of the war. He was shot by a sniper while on a scouting exposition,15 months after he enlisted and just over three months from the end of the war. His final resting place is signified by a simple white cross, next to a grave of an unknown soldier marked with the following:

“Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”

The memoriam, it seems, would be equally suitable to Kilmer himself. He was a man compelled by duty, who shared not only an undying love of Christ, but an equally striking love of Notre Dame. Known to visit campus frequently and having been close friends with many professors, one can imagine Kilmer standing at the Grotto contemplating patriotism, loyalty, and Mary’s “Fiat.” I imagine that if he could see us students now, walking around campus with overly burdened backpacks, physically distanced, fully masked, etc., he might offer words something like this:

Their shoulders ache beneath their packs

(Lie easier, Cross, upon their backs)

Their faces hid behind a mask

(Your grace, O Lord, is all we ask)

Between the budding flow’rs they tread

(Forgetting vict’ry over dead) 

They do not take the time to see

Your beauty, God, within a tree

But hold them still against Your breast

And shield them from their spirits stressed

May we bear the joy of Christ’s Resurrection in all we do.

John Burke is a junior from St. Louis double majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and Economics. John in a bad mood is almost assuredly a result of St. Louis Cardinals bullpen problems, but the burdens of the end of the semester may be contributing as well. He can be reached (on non-game days) at jburke23@nd.edu.