I’ve been making it part of my spiritual practice to write a poem each Sunday. Sometimes I have an idea days before, but other times on Sundays I have no idea what to write about and I’m looking for some touch of grace, some glimpse of the transcendent, to try to put into words. Such was the case the last Sunday of 2019. Earlier in the day I went to a show of 17th century Dutch painting at the St. Louis Art Museum and was particularly struck by one portrait by Rembrandt. The subject was an older woman, rather plain in appearance but vibrant nonetheless. She’s been identified by scholars as Aeltje Uylenburgh, 62 years old at the time and wife of a Protestant minister.

 

In her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth described the modern tendency to think that only the present matters. She wrote:

“If time is always moving forward, the past is always becoming more distant and irrelevant. In a sense, modern people are ‘stranded in the present,’ without a meaningful connection to anything that has gone before.”

As the title of her book indicates, she thinks that reflecting on the lives of earlier generations can be a meaningful spiritual practice. As a Christian, she especially encourages believers to engage with the lives of those who have preceded us in the faith. Aeltje Uylenburgh is quite likely to have been one such predecessor, and Rembrandt’s portrait of her was the occasion for me to reflect on her. Here’s the poem I wrote:

Aeltje Uylenburgh, who are you?
I saw your portrait at an exhibition that toured from Boston;
before that the canvas had time-traveled almost five centuries.
I doubt that even in your day
your black gown and black fur-lined cape were stylish–
same with the flat white collar and cap equipped with side flaps.

What calls across the years is not your clothes but your face.
You were old when painted; wrinkles and some sag
along the lower jowl attest to this, and decades of experience
seem encompassed by your gaze.
Your trunk is turned a little to the left, but your head turns less
and your eyes come near to looking out directly,
so that as I stand before you they aim just over my shoulder.
It seems you’re seeing something in the distance.
I suspect the sight is beatific; some such holy vision could account
for why you appear both old and childlike all at once.
You are ageless though of a particular age.

You’re Dutch enough you won’t permit yourself a smile,
but I can see it’s nearly there despite yourself.
I almost know you, sister! One day, when the saints unite,
I hope to recognize you amidst the throng.
I’d like it then if you’d describe
the touch of grace reflected in your face.