Fifty Years at the Altar

A poem by Abram Joseph Ryan

"To Rev. Father E. Sourin, S.J., from A. J. Ryan; first, in memory of some happy hours passed in his company at Loyola College, Baltimore; next, in appreciation of a character of strange beautifulness, known of God, but hidden from men; and last, but by no means least, to test and tempt his humility in the (to him) proud hour of the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination."

To-day -- fifty years at the altar --
Thou art, as of old, at thy post!
Tell us, O chasubled soldier!
Art weary of watching the Host?
Fifty years -- Christ's sacred sentry,
To-day thy feet faithful are found
When the cross on the altar is blessing
Thy heart in its sentinel-round.

The beautiful story of Thabor
Fifty years agone thrilled thy young heart,
When wearing white vestments of glory,
And up the "high mountain apart".
In the fresh, glowing grace of thy priesthood,
Thou didst climb to the summit alone,
While the Feast of Christ's Transfiguration
Was a sweet outward sign of thy own.

Old priest! on the slope of the summit
Did float down and fall on thine ear
The strong words of weak-hearted Peter.
"O Lord, it is good to be here!"
Thy heart was stronger than Peter's,
And sweeter the tone of thy prayer;
'Twas Calvary thy young feet were climbing,
And old -- thou art still standing there.

For you, as for him, on bright Thabor,
Forever to stay were not hard;
But when Calvary girdles the altar,
And garments the Eucharist's guard
With sacrifice and with its shadows --
To keep there forever a feast
Is the glory and grace of the human --
The altar, the cross, and the priest.

The crucifix's wardens and watchers,
Like Him, must be heart sacrificed --
The Christ on the crucifix lifeless
For guard needs a brave human Christ.
To guard Him three hours -- what a glory!
With sacrifice splendors aflame!
Three hours -- and He died on His Calvary --
How long hast thou lived for His name?

"Half a century," cries out thy crucifix,
Binding together thy beads;
His look, like thy life, lingers in it,
A light for men's souls in their needs.
Old priest! is thy life not a rosary?
Five decades and more have been said,
In thy heart the warm splendors of Thabor
Beneath the white snows of thy head!

Fifty years lifting the chalice --
Ah, 'tis Life in this death-darkened land!
Thy clasp may be weak, but the chrism,
Old priest! that anointed thy hand
Is as fresh and as strong in its virtue
As in the five decades agone
Thy young hands were touched with its unction,
And thy vestments of white were put on.

Fifty years! Every day passes
A part of one great, endless feast,
That moves round its orbit of Masses,
And hath nor a West nor an East;
But everywhere hath its pure altars,
At each of its altars a priest
To lift up a Host with a chalice
Till the story of grace shall have ceased.

Fifty years in the feast's orbit,
Nearly two thousand of days;
Fifty years priest in the priesthood,
Fifty years lit with its rays --
Lit them but to reflect them
When the adorers' throngs pass
Out of thy life and its glory
Shining each day from thy Mass.

Half of a century's service!
Wearing thy cassock of black
O'er thy camps, and thy battles, and triumphs!
Old soldier of Jesus! look back
To the day when thou kissed thy first altar
In love with youth's fervor athrill.
From the day when we meet and we greet thee,
So true to the old altar still.

Fifty long years! what if trials
Did oftentimes darken thy way --
They marked, like the shadows on dials,
Thy soul's brightest hour every day.
The sun in the height of his splendor,
By the mystical law of his light,
O'er his glories flings vestments of shadows,
And, sinking, leaves stars to the night.

Old priest! with the heart of a poet
Thou hast written sweet stanzas for men;
Thy life, many versed, is a poem
That puzzles the art of the pen;
The crucifix wrote it and writes it --
A scripture too deep for my ken;
A record of deeds more than sayings --
Only God reads it rightly; and then

My stanzas are just like the shadows
That follow the sun and his sheen,
To tell to the eye that will read them
Where the purest of sunshine has been.
Thy life moves in mystical eclipse,
All hidden from men and their sight;
We look, but we see but its surface,
But God sees the depth of its light.

Twenty-five years! highest honors
Were thine -- high deserved in the world:
Dawned a day with a grace in its flashing
O'er thy heart from a standard unfurled,
Whose folds bore the mystical motto:
"To the greater glory of God!"
And somehow there opened before thee
A way thou hadst never yet trod.

Twenty-five years -- still a private
In files where the humblest and last
Stands higher in rank than the highest
Of those who are passing or passed;
Twenty-five years in the vanguard,
Whose name is a spell of their strength,
The light of the folds of whose standard
Lengthens along all the length

Of the march of the Crucified Jesus.
Loyola was wiser than most
In claiming for him and his soldiers
The name of the Chief of the host;
His name, and his motto, and colors
That never shall know a defeat,
Whose banner, when others are folded,
Shall never float over retreat.

To-day when the wind wafts the wavelets
To the gray altar steps of yon shore,
Each wearing an alb foam-embroidered,
And kneeling, like priests, to adore
The God of the land -- I will mingle
My prayers, aged priest! with the sea,
While God, for thy fifty years' priesthood,
Will hear thy prayers whispered for me.

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