I was fortunate, this week, to discover Eva Gore-Booth’s poem, “Secret Waters”:
Lo, in my soul there lies a hidden lake,
High in the mountains, fed by rain and snow,
The sudden thundering avalanche divine,
And the bright waters’ everlasting flow,
Far from the highways’ dusty glare and heat.
Dearer it is and holier, for Christ’s sake,
Than his own windy lake in Palestine,
For there the little boats put out to sea
Without him, and no fisher hears his call,
Yea, on the desolate shores of Galilee
No man again shall see his shadow fall.
Yet here the very voice of the one Light
Haunts with sharp ecstasy each little wind
That stirs still waters on a moonlit night,
And sings through high trees growing in the mind,
And makes a gentle rustling in the wheat. . . .
Yea, in the white dawn on this happy shore,
With the lake water washing at his feet,
He stands alive and radiant evermore,
Whose presence makes the very East wind kind,
And turns to heaven the soul’s green-lit retreat.
A few things stand out from this poem. First, it invokes a kind of internal Galilee, gesturing towards the place inside of us where Jesus walks. A specific historical event – Jesus’s transversing of Galilee – has become a matter for the soul. Our relationship to this holy land inside of us becomes, for believing Christians, the soil of thought which nourishes “high trees growing in the mind.” Our aspiration, ambitions, intricate thoughts, wouldn’t exist without the experience we have of Christ walking within us. And as he walks, he issues a call to us that is as powerful and commanding as the call that he issued to Andrew and Peter.
Seen from the outside, Eva Gore-Booth’s life was one of deep activity. She was born into an Anglo-Irish family in 1870 and spent a privileged childhood in Lissadell House, County Sligo. Her father was an arctic explorer and adventurer, but he was home when famine struck, and he gave his daughters, Eva and her older sister Constance, an example of the moral use of privilege by dedicating his time and resources to the county’s poor. At around the same time Eva’s grandmother died, and Eva began to look to spirituality as a way of staying in contact with her and seeing more deeply into the meaning and purposes of life.
She started writing poetry in her late teens, and attracted the attention of W.B. Yeats, who was always looking for talented people who could capture and relate the experience of being Irish. Yeats sent her books of Irish folktales and myths and cultivated her friendship. But she wasn’t destined to spend her life in Ireland. She became sick when she was twenty-five, and it looked like it was going to turn into tuberculosis. She went to Italy to recover in the home of the Scottish minister and writer, George MacDonald. It was there that she met Esther Roper, who would become her partner throughout the rest of her life.
Esther Roper was the daughter of a Manchester factory worker who later became a missionary to Africa. When Eva met her, Esther was already a well-established suffragist and activist. She had been among the first English women to earn a college degree, graduating with a BA from Owens College in Manchester. Eva followed her back to Manchester and joined her in her work.
At the time, the women’s suffrage movement was mostly about the concerns of middle and upperclass women who had property. Eva rejected this narrow idea of suffrage, and began organizing with women who were factory workers, flower sellers, circus performers, coal miners, and barmaids. In 1900, she helped organize the Manchester Trade Unions Council, connecting the suffrage community and the labor community in new ways. In 1901-1902, she petitioned for women’s suffrage by collecting 67,000 signatures from textile workers.
And all this time, she was writing poetry and exploring spiritual concerns. It couldn’t have been easy, all of this work on behalf of others, and often in the midst of unpopular causes. When England entered WWI, she and Esther remained committed pacifists, and worked to support the families of imprisoned conscientious objectors. And in 1916, her family became immersed in the trauma of the Irish uprising. Her sister Constance, now a countess, had become an Irish revolutionary and a leader of Sinn Fein, and was arrested after the uprising and nearly sentenced to death. Eva and Esther worked on her behalf while she was in prison.
In that same year, Eva and Esther published the first issue of a new magazine, Urania. Eva wrote, in this introductory issue, that “There is a vista before us of a Spiritual progress which far transcends all political matters. It is the abolition of the ‘manly’ and the ‘womanly.’ Will you not help to sweep them into the museum of antiquities?” The soil of Galilee within her had helped to nourish a high idea of justice, a vision of a world in which everyone was equal and no one was oppressed. She was right to frame all of her life’s work as a matter of spirituality, because everything she’d done – her organizing, the relationships she fostered, the communities she helped create – came out of her perception of that “happy shore” within her where Christ was always walking.
I’ll end with another poem, “The Quest,” which reads almost as an epitaph.
For years I sought the Many in the One,
I thought to find lost waves and broken rays,
The rainbow’s faded colours in the sun–
The dawns and twilights of forgotten days.
But now I seek the One in every form,
Scorning no vision that a dewdrop holds,
The gentle Light that shines behind the storm,
The Dream that many a twilight hour enfolds.