Sunday, June 14, 2020

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Denise Levertov, on Martyrs Bearing Witness in 1980s El Salvador)

“The pain, the murders,
the hunger, the tortures,
all continued,
and continue still, and increase—

“yet the voices that tell us
our broken bodies are not after all
worthless rubbish, but hold
sparks of the God--
these voices
begin to give us our freedom.”-- British-born American poet and Roman Catholic convert Denise Levertov (1923–97), “El Salvador: Requiem and Invocation (A Libretto),” in The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov, edited by Paul A. Lacey and Anne Dewey (2013)

In the later half of her illustrious career as a poet, Denise Levertov became increasingly involved with urgent issues such as nuclear arms, the Vietnam War and American policy towards Central America. In the case of the latter, she used her verses to underscore the horrendous impact of U.S. military aid to El Salvador—and how Roman Catholic priests and nuns bore witness to the plight of the poor.

Throughout the 1980s, as civil war raged between the government-supported military and a coalition of guerrilla groups known as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Reagan and Bush administrations extended the conflict through aid to the government, which they saw as a bulwark against Communism. 

During the height of the war, American financial and military aid averaged $1.5 million a day. All the while, Salvadoran military-sponsored death squads targeted proponents of political and economic reform.

Levertov’s poem commemorates the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero, three American nuns and a lay sister murdered in the early 1980s. Three and a half decades after its composition—and 29 years after the end of the civil war—El Salvador continues to wrestle with the fallout from the conflict. 

This past week, Inocente Orlando Montano, a former colonel with the Salvadoran military, was accused of planning the murder of six priests in 1989. The massacre aimed to prevent peace talks. The martyrdom of the priests, as Levertov wrote, continued to remind the poor that they hold “sparks of the God.”

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