Joyce Kilmer was a shining example of what it means to be a Soldier of Christ. He was a man of courage, a man of strength, a man of conviction … but most importantly, he was a husband, a father of five children, and a deeply devoted and pious Catholic.
In the last days of World War I, Kilmer lost his life to a sniper’s bullet at the Second Battle of the Marne at the age of 31. He was renowned in the battlefield and hailed as a legend among the men who knew him. His bravery was unmatched, as he sought the most dangerous missions. According to Kilmer’s biographer, John Hillis, “He was worshiped by the men about him. I have heard them speak with awe of his coolness and his nerve in scouting patrols in no man’s land. This coolness and his habit of choosing, with typical enthusiasm, the most dangerous and difficult missions, led to his death.”
But Kilmer’s legacy rarely speaks of his time at war. He is more often remembered for his poetry. The poem which made him famous is a simple one called “Trees”:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
While this may be the poem that brought him the most attention, his possibly least known poem is very likely his best. This poem is a sharp diagnostic of the way the devil works to deceive men, and illustrates the most cunning tactic of the satanic, which is to impersonate Our Blessed Lord.
The name of the poem is “The Robe of Christ.” As you read it, consider carefully not only the ways in which the devil seeks to deceive you, but the whole Church.
THE ROBE OF CHRIST
(For Cecil Chesterton)
AT the foot of the Cross on Calvary
Three soldiers sat and diced,
And one of them was the Devil
And he won the Robe of Christ.
When the Devil comes in his proper form
To the chamber where I dwell,
I know him and make the Sign of the Cross
Which drives him back to Hell.
And when he comes like a friendly man
And puts his hand in mine,
The fervour in his voice is not
From love or joy or wine.
And when he comes like a woman,
With lovely, smiling eyes,
Black dreams float over his golden head
Like a swarm of carrion flies.
Kings, queens and crested warriors
Whose memory rings through time,
These are his prey, and what to him
Is this poor man of rhyme,
That he, with such laborious skill,
Should change from role to role,
Should daily act so many a part
To get my little soul?
Oh, he can be the forest,
And he can be the sun,
Or a buttercup, or an hour of rest
When the weary day is done.
I saw him through a thousand veils,
And has not this sufficed?
Now, must I look on the Devil robed
In the radiant Robe of Christ?
He comes, and his face is sad and mild,
With thorns his head is crowned;
There are great bleeding wounds in his feet,
And in each hand a wound.
How can I tell, who am a fool,
If this be Christ or no?
Those bleeding hands outstretched to me!
Those eyes that love me so!
I see the Robe—I look—I hope—
I fear—but there is one
Who will direct my troubled mind;
Christ’s Mother knows her Son.
O Mother of Good Counsel, lend
Intelligence to me!
Encompass me with wisdom,
Thou Tower of Ivory!
“This is the Man of Lies,” she says,
“Disguised with fearful art:
He has the wounded hands and feet,
But not the wounded heart.”
Beside the Cross on Calvary
She watched them as they diced.
She saw the Devil join the game
And win the Robe of Christ.
Kilmer, with magnificent and somewhat prophetic foresight, illustrated the devil’s use of Our Lord’s “seamless garment” to deceive him, and by extension, the faithful. In 1983, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin used the seamless garment as an example for what he called the “Consistent Life Ethic.” And while proponents of the Consistent Life Ethic claim a pro-life position against abortion, this position usually takes a back seat to fighting pollution, poverty, the death penalty, war, and a host of other issues.
How many times have we heard modern Catholics refer to the “Seamless Garment” approach to social action? The seamless garment is usually proffered as an excuse for minimizing action against the evil currents of this modern age, such as abortion, contraception and sodomy. Is there any wonder why the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has so many projects, lobbying efforts, and initiatives aimed at “social justice,” and a minimal effort regarding the fight for preborn children?
As Kilmer described the devil robed in the radiant Robe of Christ with a face, sad and mild. A crown of thorns on his head. Wounds in his hands and feet … bleeding hands outstretched with eyes full of love.
All of these efforts in the name of social justice bear a similar appearance. And the truth is, these efforts are good. But when these efforts are done by the devil, robed in the seamless garment, the help for the poor is not an action of the Church, but a call for tax-funded efforts by the government; the call for peace is actually a call away from fighting the enemies of Christ; the call for stewardship of the land is a call for socialist ecology; and the cry against the death penalty is actually the cry for Barabbas!
The only reason those bleeding hands could stretch out to Kilmer as they did in his poem is because they were NOT nailed to the Cross. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen said:
“The modern world, which denies personal guilt and admits only social crimes, which has no place for personal repentance but only public reforms, has divorced Christ from His Cross; the Bridegroom and Bride have been pulled apart. What God hath joined together, men have torn asunder. As a result, to the left is the Cross; to the right is Christ. Each has awaited new partners who will pick them up in a kind of second and adulterous union. Communism comes along and picks up the meaningless Cross; Western post-Christian civilization chooses the unscarred Christ.
Communism has chosen the Cross in the sense that it has brought back to an egotistic world a sense of discipline, self-abnegation, surrender, hard work, study, and dedication to supra-individual goals. But the Cross without Christ is sacrifice without love. Hence, Communism has produced a society that is authoritarian, cruel, oppressive of human freedom, filled with concentration camps, firing squads, and brain-washings.
The Western post-Christian civilization has picked up the Christ without His Cross. But a Christ without a sacrifice that reconciles the world to God is a cheap, feminized, colourless, itinerant preacher who deserves to be popular for His great Sermon on the Mount, but also merits unpopularity for what He said about His Divinity on the one hand, and divorce, judgment, and hell on the other. This sentimental Christ is patched together with a thousand commonplaces, sustained sometimes by academic etymologists who cannot see the Word for the letters, or distorted beyond personal recognition by a dogmatic principle that anything which is Divine must necessarily be a myth. Without His Cross, He becomes nothing more than a sultry precursor of democracy or a humanitarian who taught brotherhood without tears.”
And so, today we have Kilmer’s image of a Christ without a cross, wearing the seamless garment, and fueling the enemy camp with funds, supplies and prestige. This image before us comes in the form of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities USA, Caritas Internationalis, and many others.
Just as Kilmer was powerless to lift the veil and see beyond the robe, we too must turn to Our Blessed Mother for guidance, strength, protection and peace. She gave us the Rosary as the most powerful weapon against the devil and heresy. It takes only 15 minutes a day to say, but the rich graces we gain by reciting it are incalculable. Let us commit to pray our Rosaries for an end to the charade, and a restoration of the dignity, the beauty and the Glory of Holy Mother Church through Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
May you all have a very blessed Holy Week and a Happy Easter!