The following is a reprint of a column that ran in The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper on August 11, 2002. It explains the name of my former column, which is now the name of this blog.
Names are important.
Think of the time we spend choosing the names we give our children, the hours poring over baby-name books, making lists, asking opinions, only to be told years later by an unappreciative adolescent, “I hate my name!”
Now, any writer or artist will tell you that his creative product is something like “offspring” to him. So when it was time–past time–to name this column, I agonized over the choice for days. Then, coming up blank, I followed my usual procedure for titling my work: I stole.
Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations with its handy index is an old friend that has proved its worth to me many times. I looked up life in the back of the book, and voila, the works of far better writers than I were at my disposal.
The phrase “life in every limb” sounded perfect at first reading, and once I investigated the source became even more so.
First, the author: William Wordsworth, famed English poet of the Romantic Period, and as it happens, an old favorite of mine. My first college English professor, later my advisor, is a preeminent Wordsworth scholar who spends summers at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the Lake District. By virtue of his enthusiasm almost as much as Wordsworth’s talent, he taught us to love Wordsworth too. This seemed like an omen.
Next the poem whence the line came: We Are Seven. The poem’s narrator encounters a “little maid,” who in answer to questions about her family asserts again and again that there are seven children, even though two have died. This inclusion in the family’s number of two who are unable to speak for themselves resonated with me as I thought of the voiceless unborn and their need for similar champions.
Finally, the entire quotation: “A simple child/That lightly draws its breath/And feels its life in every limb/What should it know of death?” I thought of the unborn child, alive in every way, in every part of its tiny body, heart beating, blood pumping, at the very beginning of its life doomed so often to a premature and violent death.
I wonder what Wordsworth might add to the abortion debate if he were with us today. My first child’s godmother (a fellow student of the aforementioned professor) created a beautiful cross-stitch as a gift for Emily when she was born from a paraphrased Wordsworth quotation: “Children come trailing clouds of glory from God who is their home.”
This comes from his Ode on the Intimations of Mortality, in which he expounds upon his belief that children are closer to God because they remember glimpses of heaven that are more and more lost to us as we grow older. His own heavenly visions, the “spots of time” he celebrates in his long autobiographical narrative poem The Prelude, were a continuing source of inspiration to Wordsworth. I have a feeling that he would have viewed the killing of the innocent unborn, fresh from God’s hand, as the worst kind of sacrilege.
Moving to a different sort of literature, the phrase “life in every limb” calls to mind St. Paul‘s metaphor of 1 Corinthians 12: ” . . . [T]he body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body . . . .” Each person, born or unborn, is a part of that body and has a unique role to fulfill.
In valuing all members of the body equally, our church espouses a consistent ethic of life. Although abortion is the focus of this column, I plan to write about many other life issues, such as the death penalty and euthanasia. We might think of the abortion issue as just one of the many limbs of the church’s pro-life teachings. For we are a church that embraces and celebrates and protects all life, that of the innocent unborn equally with that of the convicted murderer, of the ill and disabled along with the healthy, of the non-Christian along with the Christian–life in every limb of the Body of Christ.