The visions and poetry of Little Miriam (1846-78)
Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 19.10.2008:
Little Miriam and her imaginary
Parts of this writing are from the Bethlehem Community Book published by AEI-Open Windows in Bethlehem in 1999, and parts are typed over from the book of Amedee Brunot, Mariam, the Little Arab. Carmel of Maria Regina Eugene, Oregon, 1981.
P.S. I think this is interesting for showing connections between traditional Palestinian peasant poetry, the poetry of semitic religions, and modern Palestinian poetry such as Mahmoud Darwish’ and modern Palestinian songs – Toine van Teeffelen.
In September 1999, the Greek-Catholic or Melkite community in Palestine came to celebrate in Bethlehem the lustrum of the beatification of the ‘little Miriam’, the founder of the imposing Carmel Convent there. Bishop Lutfi Laham spoke about her poverty, suffering, traveling and love for the land – a life in which every Palestinian could recognize his or her own plight. After the mass, the community, especially the women, kissed the place where Miriam’s skull was on display. Who was she?
Miriam Bawardy, the “Little Miriam,” came from a poor family in the Galilee who was struck by the misfortune of having to witness each of their twelve sons dying in infancy. After the twelfth, the parents decided to follow Mary and Joseph’s example and to go by foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey of 170 kilometers. In 1846 their wish was fulfilled. The newborn girl whom they called Mary stayed alive.
Mary had a difficult youth. At an early age she was destined to marry a cousin but she refused after receiving a vision telling her that she needed to devote her life to Jesus. She lived a roaming life working as a servant; traveling from Alexandria in Egypt, to Jaffa and Beirut, then on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She could neither read nor write. One patron made it possible for her to go to Marseille in France, and subsequently to the Carmel of Pau, where she stayed for some years. Back in the Galilee, she joined the Carmelites in Haifa where she received the name of Mary of Jesus Crucified. A great many different miracles or “charisms” seem to have occurred to her, like the “stigmata,” the blood flowing from hands and feet, reminiscent of Jesus. She would later help to found Carmelite convents in India, and, at the end of her life, in Bethlehem. There she died in 1879 at the age of 33. Some hundred years later, on 13 November 1983, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her beatification.
Mary showed a remarkable closeness to the land, which she expressed in the many poems, hymns and sayings she wrote. The land and its creatures come alive in a visual and narrative way. When she was still a child and sitting on the shore of the Mediterranean, a vision of Jesus came to her: “You see this immense sea! Very well, you should use only the amount of its water that you need. Even though the sea cannot be drained, use only as much of it as is necessary. This is to give you an example of the poverty you ought to practice.” At another moment she observed a winged ant and a giant in a dream. The ant, symbol of humility, carried without problem the weight of a house, while the giant, symbol of pride, was crushed under the load of a few straws. A voice said to her: “I love this ant, because it is little; that is why I will build a large house over it.” After this vision, she came to be called the “Little Nothing,” or the “Little Miriam.”
Nature rendering glory
Many other visions of nature occurred to her, such as the following:
“I saw a field of wheat that bowed before me, as if to greet its Creator, and in this wheat field I saw written in large letters: ‘This is my body’. Then there was a vine encircling it and on the vine were these letters: ‘This is my blood’. I saw a tree that had its roots planted deep in the damp ground; it bore much fruit and seemed to rejoice in rendering Glory to the Creator by bearing its fruit. I saw the sun, the moon, the stars, everything that is in the sky and on the earth, rendering Glory to God. And each thing was singing a canticle more beautiful than any I have ever heard. It was not as I express it, I know, but it was so beautiful, so beautiful! And I saw what was like a high wall, that fell to dust, and let me see my Creator.”
Her biographer tells that she “was a visual observer and painter. All of springtime Galilee comes to life again in her metaphors: flowers, birds, fish, perfumes, songs, springs, gardens, flower-beds, trees, grottoes, light and day, darkness and night, earth and sky, seas and rivers… In their humble pastoral life, the fellahs [peasants] and Bedouins of Palestine are the unconscious guardians of the legends, the rhythms and traditions of the Biblical East. Miriam was a daughter of the fields, a little peasant girl. In her, the Palestinian dances and cadences mingled with the austerity of the Carmel of Pau.”
Her love for the land was not possessive but contemplative. She writes about her being tempted.
“‘You tempt me against faith?’ asked the ‘Little One’, ‘but I have God with me; I fear nothing. You tell me there is no God? I go to the garden and contemplate Creation; I see the little trees becoming full-grown; this sight increases my faith. You tempt me against the Church? I go to the garden again; I find a fruit and I open it; I look at this open fruit and I see the seed in the fruit. I go into a church, I open the tabernacle and I find the Eucharist. You tempt me against charity? I go down to the garden, I consider the animals, I see the lambs, the chicks, I see them all together, united among themselves.'” (54)
In 1875, on her entrance to Bethlehem, Mary pointed out a flight of pigeons that settled on a desert hill to the west of the town. She indicated the place as where the Lord wanted Carmel. The convent was set up to honor the poverty of infant Jesus in the stable. It was therefore designed as a plain and bare monastery where the nuns would live without comfort. “No moldings, no ornamental trees in the garden, only fruit trees.”
She oversaw the building of the Convent. She sometimes worked herself with lime and sand. The workmen adored her, she settled differences and quarrels, and received the tradesmen. Once, while she carried water to the workers, she fell and broke both legs. Some weeks after that incident, she died of gangrene. At her funeral Catholic, Orthodox and Moslem Arabs from all around Bethlehem wept for her. It is said, according to the Greek-Catholic father Elias Chacour who serves in her birthplace Ibilin, that when she died, the bells rang in Bethlehem, Ibilin and many other places.
Sr Miriam was famous for her visions. Here are examples from Amedee Brunot, Mariam The Little Arab. The Carmel of Maria Regina, Oregon, 1981.
One day, on the shore of the Mediterranean, when Miriam, while still a child, was contemplating the sea, she became aware of Jesus, who said to her:
“You see this immense sea! Very well, you should use only the amount of its water that you need. Even though the sea cannot be drained, use only as much of it as necessary. This is to give you an example of the poverty you ought to practice.” (105)
She wanted the foundation of the Carmel of Bethlehem to honor the poverty of the Infant Jesus in the stable. A plain and bare monastery. Richness would be only for the chapel. There was to be no stinginess in the practice of poverty. “For a major repair that is absolutely necessary,” she said, “the Lord will provide the means to do it, even should it cost a million; bur for a straw used needlessly, He is hurt and He would send a punishment. For one hole filled in without necessity, He would open ten others on another side.” (105)
On October 31, 1868, she was observing a winged ant and a giant. The ant, symbol of humility, was merrily carrying the weight of a house, while the giant, symbol of pride, was crushed under the load of a few straws. A voice said to her: “I love this ant, because it is little; that is why I will build a large house over it.” (102)
Last night I dreamed I was walking along a grassy pathway. To the right I discovered a flowerbed planted with roses, violets, pansies, and all kinds of flowers. I saw that a spiderweb covered this whole flowerbed and was suffocating it; neither air nor sunlight could penetrate it. I stopped and said: “How sad that this flowerbed should be covered with a spiderweb!” So I took several sticks and made a sort of broom with them; I pulled the web a little, then my roses appeared. A voice said to me: “You must get rid of the spider before the web; otherwise it will just make it again!” I looked for the spider, and I saw a hole in the ground, and I thought it was in there. I poked my stick around and around and didn’t find it.
“I knelt down and said: “Lord, I am nothing, I can do nothing: a spider is stronger than I. If you do not give me the knowledge, I will not know where it is; and if you do not command it to come to me, I will not find it!” As I prayd, I raised my eyes, and I saw the spider spinning his web on the rosebush. It was so big that I was afraid I would not be able to kill it, not for me, but for You, so that the perfume will rise up to You in heaven, instead of being smothered by the web and dropped to the earth.” (92-3)
“The vision of May 26, 1873, concerned France [where she stayed for some years, in the Carmel of Pau]. It reminds of the Gospel parable of the darnel:
“I saw France like a field watered by the rain, illuminated and heated by the sun. But the earth was covered with weeds, amid which, however, was some good grass. I said to Jesus: “Lord, why do you leave these weeds?” – “I leave them,” replied my divine Master, “because the good grass is still too weak. Its roots are mixed up with the weeds. If I pull out the weeds, the good grass will be damaged and will wither. When the good growth is stronger, I will pull out all the weeds. Now, peace is built on sand. Later I will estabvslish peace on firm rock and nothing will be able to disturb it. France is the center of My heart.” (77)
“In the vision of March 25, we recognize the little Palestinian, the epicure of parables and fascinated observer of nature:
“God is hidden in the fruit like seed in the apple. Open an apple and you will find five seeds in the center. God is thus hidden in the heart of man. He is hidden there with the mysteries of His passion represented with the five seeds. God has suffered and man must suffer, whether he wishes it or not. If he suffers through love, in union with God, he will suffer less and will gain merit. The five seeds that are in the depth of his heart will geriminate and produce abundant fruits. But if he rejects the trial, he will nsuffer more, without gaining any merit. And I opened an apple, and I found there in the middle something like five little separations that formed a star, and the seeds were inside.”
To what shall I liken me?
To little birds in their nest.
If the father and mother do not bring them food, they die of hunger.
Thus is my soul without You, Lord; it does notbhave its nourishment, it cannot live!
To what shall I liken me!
To the little grain of wheat cast into the earth. If the dew falls not, if the sun does not warm it, the grain molds.
But if You give your dew and your sun, the little grtain will be refreshed and warmed; it will take root and will produce a beautiful plant with many grains.
To what shall I liken me, Lord?
To a rose that is cut and left to dry up in the hand. It loses its perfume; but if it remains on the rosebush, it is always fresh and beautiful and keeps all its perfume.
Keep me Lord, to give me lifein You.
To what shall I liken You, Lord?
To the dove that feeds its little ones, to a tender mother who nourishes her little babe.”
“The following is a psalm of praises with its parallelism so characteristic of Semitic poetry:
I invited the whole earth, to bless Thee, to serve Thee.
Forever and always, never to end! With Thy love my heart made one.
I invited the entire sea, to bless Thee, to serve Thee.
Forever and always, never to end!
I called them, invited them, little birds of the air, to bless Thee, to serve Thee.
Forever and always, never to end!
I called, I invited, the star of the morn. Forever and always, never to end!
My Beloved, yes I hear him, He is very near, Go forword! Forever and always, never to end!
Open, O curtain that hides Him, I want to see Him, my Beloved, to adore and to love.
Forever and always, never to end! With his love my heart made one. I called him, invited ungrateful man, to bless Thee, to serve Thee, to praise and to love Thee. Forever and always, never to end.
[Note that the poem expresses Semitic hospitality: inviting, greeting/welcoming, blessing, serving, praising the guest. The women usually were behind the curtain when male guests came in, especially the Beloved. Cf. Sarah looking along the curtain to watch Abraham’s guests in the tent – TvT].
“A Eucharistic canticle to the Tree of Life:
Hail, hail, Tree of Life;
That gives us the fruit of life
From the center of this earth
My heart repines, my heart sighes out.
Oh! Who will give me wings
To fly to my Beloved!
Hail, hail, Tree of Life,
That gives us the fruit of life!
I see on thy leaves these words are written:
Have no fear of anything!
The verdure says: Have hope.
The branches tell me: Charity.
And Thy shade: Humility.
Hail, hail, Tree of life;
In thee I find the fruit of life.
From the center of this earth,
My heart repines, my heart is longing.
Oh! Who will gibve me wings
To fly to my Beloved!
Hail, hail, blessed Tree;
Thou bearest the fruit of life.
Under thy shade, I wish to sigh;
At thy feet, I wish to die.
The author comments: “She recalls above all the young girl of Nazareth, another Miriam, singing her Magnificat on the flowering hills of Ain Karem (Luke 2: 46-55.” (49).
[I would add: it also recalls the Song of Songs, of which Mahmoud Darwish said that it inspired him especially. In the early 20th century the missionary Stephan Stephan studied remarkable parallels between the poetry of the Song of Songs and Palestinian-Arab peasant imaginary, proverbs and wedding trills – TvT]
The following scene was often shown to her during her prayer:
“There was a large round flowerbed; this round area had several circumferences within it. The first was all planted with roses: the rose stands for charity and the thorn for vigilance. The second circuit was covered with vines, whose grapes represent love and their leaves gentleness. The third was plkanted with wheat, which signifies confidence and hope. The center was covered with violets which stand for true humility. And, in the middle, I set up a throne and had Jesus sit down. And, under His feet, a spring gushed forth which siad: Everything passes, everything flows by like water. Beside the throne I planted pansies and some ivy. The ivy said: Constantly hold fast to Jesus. And the pansies told me: Think only of Jesus. Lord Jesus, plant all these virtues in the depths of my heart, and make them increase yourself by your power.” (36)
“Here is another vision which occurred on Good Shepherd Sunday:
“I saw a field of wheat that bowed before me, as if to greet its creator, and in this wheat field I saw written in large letters: This is my body. Then there wasa a vine encircling it and on the vine there were these letters: This is my blood. I saw a tree that had its roots planted deep in the damp ground; it bore much fruit and seemed to rejoice in rendering glory to the Creator by bearing its fruit. I saw the sun, the moon, the stars, everything thaty is in the sky and on the earth, rendering Glory to God. And each thing was singing a canticle more beautiful than any I have ever heard. It was not as I express it, I know, but it was so beautiful, so beautiful! And I saw what was like a high wall, that fell to dust, and let me see my Creator.” (36)