The extraordinary in the ordinary

In advance of tomorrow’s inevitable annual explosion of Gerard Manley Hopkins May Magnificat all over the Catholic blogosphere, today’s glorious sunshine and vibrant displays of spring tulips, turned my thoughts to one of my favourite Hopkins’ poems; Spring.

Oh, nothing is so beautiful as Spring —
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
That nothing is so beautiful as Spring.

The lilting alliteration, the assonance, the echo, internal rhyme and imagery, so rich and evocative, are every bit as gorgeous and lift the spirits almost as much as the reality.

Technical skill aside, what I love about this poem is the dense imagery, how Hopkins’ deploys his Ignatian training in order to invite the reader to share in his sense of wonderment of this God-created world. He prefigures the spirituality of St Theresa of Lisieux, taking time to appreciate God, the extraordinary in the ordinary, in everyday and in everything. These are not simply thrush’s eggs, but they are reflections of heaven, and even the birdsong, like the dews on the grass is reminiscent of the waters of baptism, rinsing us clean and making us new.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.

As Balthasar notes, Hopkins’ poetry was sacramental, his then groundbreaking language, a “theological phenomenon”- everything is fashioned and determined for Christ. Perhaps that’s why so many modern readers find him so difficult as to a non-Christian he is almost unintelligible. He was determined to revalue and re-equip language to expresses the unique and extraordinary in order to use this to direct the reader towards God, regardless of critical reception.

Though he initially struggled with the notion that expressing oneself in written form could be a holy endeavour, burning all his early work in 1866, he eventually came to see that far from being a distraction to his priestly vocation, poetry was vital to expressing his religious belief. He saw God everywhere and in everything. His poems were just another instrument to prayer. Like St Ignatius himself, Hopkins recognised that if everything is directed towards God, everything is prayer. Perhaps that’s a lesson from which Christian bloggers can all learn.

The Swing of the Sea

I was probably rather intemperate in my rant regarding Mrs Dorries yesterday. Rudeness always undermines reason and let’s face it Nadine is something of an easy target. Upon reflection I realised that I had failed to highlight the glaring irony in her diatribe about the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her identification of the spiritual needs of Christians encapsulates the values of the Catholic Church:

 church goers across the country scream out for guidance. A church to lead and one they can follow. They want and need continuity and conformity, basic tenants upon which the church is based.

What could be more explicit than a written set of rules such as we have in the Catechism? Continuity and Conformity are indeed the very precepts of the Roman Catholic Church which follows the traditions handed down from Christ and the apostles. When Nadine stated that church-goers wanted to know Dr Williams’ views on abortion and euthanasia, that they were screaming out for guidance, she was advocating for a strict line on these issues; the Catholic Church is well-known and often criticised for its dogma regarding the sanctity of human life.

The irony is that Nadine Dorries was calling for leadership, for the Archbishop of Canterbury to be explicit in his views, but as I pointed out, his views are simply that, Anglicans must come to their own conclusions on these matters, not being bound by any formal teachings. Dr Williams has spoken out  with regards to how far society has deviated from the spirit of the 1967 Abortion Act, he has not however come down on any side of the debate, not even supporting Dorries’ bid for the reduction in the time limit for abortion, but  instead stated that “clear principles are not going to get you off the hook”.

So the answers and leadership that Nadine seeks from the Established Church in terms of life issues will not be found. I share her frustration, it is incomprehensible that the Archbishop of Canterbury is willing to be politically contentious, willing to upset his flock and give a clear indication and lead on matters of political ideology, but will not state his position when it comes to the lives of the most vulnerable. That is nothing short of tragic.

It puts me in mind of an early poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Heaven-Haven, written in 1864, prior to his conversion to Catholicism in 1866 and one of the few poems which survives the holocaust of his early work which he burnt upon entering the Jesuit order as it was “not belonging to my profession”.

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail,
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea. 

Though the poem is ostensibly about a nun taking the veil, it is also read as an Anglo-Catholic poem. The images of nature lyrically and sensuously evoke that which must be renounced, namely the beauty of Anglican patrimony; Catholicism the place of tranquility by contrast to the ‘swing of the sea’ that is Anglicanism which shifts and changes with the tides.

I was right in my original assessment. Behind the emotive rhetoric, Nadine Dorries hit upon an element of truth, although I don’t see her becoming a nun at any time in the near future. To quote another poem of Hopkins on a similar theme, The Habit of Perfection; whilst she is in politics her lips cannot remain ‘lovely-dumb’.