Tribute to Peter Steele SJ Poet and Priest

Continuing the theme of my recent post here on the celebration of the feast of St Ignatius of Loyola at the end of July,  I thought it would be nice to pay tribute to a great Jesuit priest and poet Peter Steele,S.J who sadly died on 27th June, aged 72.

                                                                          Image source

This is a transcript of an interview from October 2011.

The link also takes you to an audio download of the interview.

To whet your appetite this is an edited extract below:

"Margaret Coffey: Peter Steele is a poet who has written and published copiously poetry and prose and a special genre - homilies. He's taught thousands of students here in Australia and in the United States and his admirers and friends say this of him:

Colette Rayment: If Peter were, you know, out there in the world only and had a publicist he'd be a household name, a household intellectual name, but his very modesty precluded anything like that.

Margaret Coffey: Colette Rayment published a study of Peter Steele poet and mystic.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: Scattered people like the great Jacob Rosenberg say that he is one of the great Australian poets.

Margaret Coffey: And poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe ...

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: But for most people he is a little known figure, partly because he doesn't flaunt his peacock tail or parade himself on public platforms or push for any political agenda within poetry. He teaches and writes.

Margaret Coffey: What would you want people to know about Peter Steele?

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: His generosity - the range of his intelligence. I'd want them not to pigeonhole him, just saying well you know he'd be like that, he's a bloody priest isn't he. I want them to feel the range, the humour, the ability to communicate with those around him, the lack of any kind of snobbishness, all those sort of things, that here is a generous Australian man.

Margaret Coffey: As Chris Wallace-Crabbe says, in Peter Steele's poems...

Chris Wallace-Crabbe: There are so many goodies in the parcel, because the poems are worth going back to again and again and again - and the poem might have a sub-stratum of classical knowledge or traditional Christian knowledge, but over and above that there will be all sorts of things from odd dailiness. 

But he'll come up with extraordinary things - he has funny American jokes, the joke about the bank robber who appeared in an American court for the umpteenth time and the judge said, 'Mr Sutton, Mr Sutton, why do you keep getting caught in banks, and Willie Sutton said, because that is where the money is your honour.' 

He loves to juxtapose the contemporary world against the areas of knowledge that he has of religious and secular traditions and languages and there modern America and modern Australia are side by side with that vast past......................................

Margaret Coffey: Years ago you wrote about the acoustic in which each of us lives, or the multiple acoustics, and clearly you grew up in a very particular kind of acoustic.

Peter Steele: The 'acoustic' reference is one which I borrowed or was stolen from Seamus Heaney - it's a favourite word of his and he's a favourite person of mine, so that's how that came to be. 

But it's a good word I think in that it implies a certain degree of activity on one's own part, but even more it implies being surrounded and steeped in a particular way of seeing and hearing things.

Margaret Coffey: So then at a very young age Peter Steele came to Melbourne to join the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus founded by Ignatius of Loyola.

Peter Steele: Yes, I was still 17 when I got on the train from Perth and came over here. Hardly anybody travelled by air then, unless you were rich or in some commercial enterprise, at least so it seems in retrospect. The notion that you'd fly here from there was just not one that you mooted. At least it gave me a view of the Nullarbor Plain, which is not to be scorned. ..........................................................


St Ignatius of Loyola Source

Margaret Coffey: And at what point did you, I don't know, fall in love with the figure of Ignatius and his friends?

Peter Steele: Not until I came and got started on the Jesuit training. Now that might seem surprising these days when from as it were Jesuit hubs there is a great deal of outreach amongst laymen, laywomen, in some cases people who are not Catholics at all but they find either the figure of Ignatius himself encouraging and instructive and illuminating, or the kind of ethos and some of the...let's call them spiritual techniques which he espoused, helpful.

Is there a single sentence that you'd use to sum up what all this stuff is about? And the answer, for me, would be it's about an attempt to find God even in surprising places and in surprising people, and it's also about learning how to make profoundly realistic decisions. 

Any adult who is even minimally competent in the world and in life is going to make a multitude of decisions, whether they notice it or not. 

But you are to a degree making and unmaking yourself in virtue of these decisions that you take. 

Prayer of St Ignatius source

The greatest heroes and the greatest villains are conspicuous for this, but even ordinary folks on ordinary days have to make lots of decisions - and getting a knack of getting this right, the procedure right, is a large part of what the Ignatian ethos is about.
Margaret Coffey: So a key element of getting that knack is developing what kinds of capacities?

Peter Steele: I would say, and you'd expect me to say this, that the best kinds of decisions are going to be ones in which the person who is deciding is actually acting within a sense of a milieu of the divine. 

I put it that way because it's more open-ended than saying 'by consulting God' though it is also that, but a milieu of the divine is either something which people take for granted in their own lives or they might dislike that way of putting things and dislike most religious ways of putting things. 

Nonetheless, their heart is where I am as a Jesuit anyway and I as a Christian would hope that it would be, that while on the one hand being resolved and resolute in their conducting of life, they would be assuming that to conduct your life well you have to be acting in concert with God."
Read the complete transcript of the interview here. 

 You can read one of his fine homilies here
This one is on the death of Lazarus.

and another here from America Magazine in 2008 
: " No More Homeless No More Orphans."

This extract below from the blog Gone Walkabout byJim Mc Dermott SJ is taken from a fine article about Peter Steele titled "A Man of Restless Delight."

"Verse, Father Steele believes, is often understood by society at large “in the mode of nonseriousness”; it is a playful, circus-like act, he says, in which elements like meter and rhyme constitute one’s “jugglery.” The reader pays attention to see what amusing feats might be attempted, how close to defeat the poet comes, whether in the end he or she succeeds (or surprises).

Peter Steele image source
In his own work Father Steele embraces such playfulness, but with an eye toward uncovering the foolishness inherent in being human. 
We “boast a repertoire of finesse,” he writes in “Phantom Pleasures,” “but know that it peters out miles this side/ of omnicompetence, leaving/ a paper-chase of good intentions, a drizzle/ instead of Danaean showers.” 
 Time and again for Father Steele, what makes us so delightful and also so damaging is our fundamental inadequacy. We are essentially “double,” he says; as creatures we ultimately cannot survive on our own, yet we run desperately from this reality. 
So, hearing of the discovery of ancient Scandinavian molds that allowed silversmiths to make either a Christian cross or an image of the hammer of Thor, or both, Father Steele posits, “It’s not hard to imagine him selling one of each to the same chap…just in case….” He laughs. “We’re all like that, all partly Christian believers and partly atheists. We all have double hearts.”
The sometime terrible consequences of that doubleness demand attention. 
In our conversations, it strikes me how often Father Steele returns to the topics of gulags, prison camps, the Holocaust (for him the starkest revelations of the horrors humanity is capable of) and demands that we not be naïve. 
“In the end one can never be too grateful about or too rejoicing in life,” he says. He calls himself “an applauder,” a “yes man”; he believes in the possibility of a heaven where “everyone will be saved, including the monsters.”
 But he reminds me, “You’ve got to make room for heartbreak in poetry that matters.” “Ice and snow/ bless the Lord,’” he writes in “Eschewals”; “but how give over/ the daily glazing of anger, the drifts of fear?”

This is a moving tribute to him from his friend Morag Fraser, titled, "The Beauty That Was Peter Steele's Mind."

and another personal tribute,  "Peter Steele's Path To Something Better." here

Peter Steele's hymns in sickness written by his friend Andrew Bullen is from here which contains these two gems :  

"He is surprised at what he himself has written, partly because that is how poetry is, but mostly because they are poems about Christ. 'You write a poem', he says, 'partly to see what will happen, this time round, when you put yourself in the presence of mystery'. Poems, this essay tells us, can by their very facture mediate the Good Lord."

"In  'A Blessing of Creatures: Birds, Beasts, Verse', here's how the essay concludes:
"If I ask with this essay's title in mind, 'How is this bird blessed?' then the simple answer is that it is blessed by being chosen — chosen to sing God's presence, even if sometimes in a blues key. 

And if I ask, 'How is this bird a blessing?' the equally simple answer is that, in haunting its hearer, it may be said to mediate that greatest of all haunters, the Holy Ghost. Its mission is, after all, sacramental, because such is its song."

One of my own favourite poems of Peter Steele is this one which is a late Advent Nativity poem.


 If you watch as you have not watched before
you will see the morning
begin to lace the darkness
If you turn from the trail that has drawn you for ages
and gaze at the fringes
you will see the timber budding.
If you lean from the place of your balance,
your arms uplifted
a rhythm will catch and lift you.
For the Lord has come to his people, and the earth
trembles with joy,
the Father is kindling his fire on the earth,
the Son is roving with life in his touch,
the Spirit is rising though we are falling
And the promise come true that brought us to birth
the promise that lingered in the young and feeble
the promise that drove us from evening to morning
And the lame shall move with the gait of kings
the broken flourish, the bound step forth
and God exult among his children
So name him, and find your name in his.
Seek in the needy the light of his face
lift up your hearts, today and forever.


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