Joseph Charles MacKenzie began this writing as an act of penance for sins of the past. The result, Sonnets for Christ the King, is beautiful, pious and Catholic. For that reason his work deserves promotion in the public. ~ Fr. Francis Miller, OFM
Why I Wrote the Sonnets for Christ the King
New Mexico, where my family’s faith endured for over 350 years of struggle in a remote and unforgiving wilderness, was born of poetic fruitfulness, the same which—as Fr. Francis loves to explain—arises from faith and grace, the two talents of the Holy Gospels. Don Gaspar de Villagrá, our first poet, was an epic poet writing about the conquest of New Mexico not as a distant weaver of fiction, but as an actual, historical protagonist in his own poem, the Historia de la Nueva Mexico (1610).
But no one knew more of this relation than the Franciscans to whom the charge of evangelizing Nueva Mexico was divinely given. It is therefore no surprise that I began the Sonnets for Christ the King on the feast of St. Francis in 2014. For, I knew that Christendom, whether in its triumph or concealment, has never been without a poet. In my native land, we had lost the last of them, Fray Angelico Chavez, a Franciscan priest, the second father of our history after Fray Alonso de Benavides.
Who, then, was to fill his place? Fray Chavez had given to our Penitente Land its only English poetry. But now that the Penitentes themselves (whose showy penances are truly the crass spectacle Bishop Salpointe condemned) have withdrawn from the faith of their fathers—mysticizing rather than preserving their traditions—who would restore New Mexico’s Catholic poetry to a land given back to the heathens?
The answer seems to have been a very unlikely soul, born in a village as humble and poor as that in which our Savior was born and which also bears the name of Belen, the Spanish form of Bethlehem—to give you an idea of what my ancestors considered a civic ideal.
If I received the talent of faith at the hands of a priest who would later find himself bound in ropes, one July afternoon of 1964, and dragged out of his sacristy by a mob of alcoholic Indians at Isleta Pueblo (which our own Fr. Francis has visited), then I would receive many years later a second talent, that of grace, in marrying the beautiful Elizabeth who is now popularly known as the Charming Lady of the Sonnets.
I wrote the Sonnets for Christ the King because my wife had accidentally reminded me one day of the second talent I secretly carried for decades. She asked if I ever thought about writing poetry again, considering that I am the first and last American to have won the Scottish International Poetry Prize. My answer was simply: “Yes.” “How often?” it occurred to her to inquire. “Every second of every minute of the day,” I replied. With that, I sought and received clerical permission to return to poetry after a 21-year hiatus.
Indeed, sonnet XXXI of the sequence recounts my sorrow in having put aside for so long the beautiful lyre our Lord had placed so many years ago in my hands.
For mine hath been the chalice of regret,
That I had placed Thine instrument aside
Which in my hands Thy Majesty had set,
Before my youth had vanished in time’s tide.
I wrote the Sonnets for Christ the King for the very same reason Pope Pius XI promulgated the encyclical Quas Primas on December 11, 1925, because Christ the King is the only answer to the modern world. But He is a concrete, not an abstract answer. Our faith is more than a shelf of books. It is the graceful flowering of all our works, the increase of the talents through that inexhaustible self-diffusion which characterized them.
Pius XI says that the social reign of Christ the King extends first and foremost to our minds, our hearts, the very soul of man. If the social reign of Christ the King does not extend to human arts and letters, then it is neither social, nor a reign.
The one thing I am certain of is this: My talents add nothing to God. All talents, if talents they be, are for others.
~ Joseph Charles MacKenzie