Faith can be nourished by pondering the poets. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, priest-poet, who died in Dublin in 1889 and buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, can be difficult to read, because he pushes language to the limit, condensing his insights in rich and original imagery. However, his insights are available to anyone who can give just that little more of ‘receptive time’ which all poetry demands.
His vision and experience of the world includes a dramatic sense of the uniqueness of each thing. For example, ‘each hung bell’s / Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name’ is a vivid evocation of the sounding of a church bell. The shoe of a trotting dray-horse is ‘his bright and battering sandal’. This uniqueness is a quality of all God’s creatures, animal, vegetable and mineral. ‘Kingfishers catch fire, and ‘dragonflies draw flame’. Each human person is unique, valued for who she is, for who he is. Part of our being is to be just, to deal fairly and gracefully with each other and with the cosmos. ‘What I do is me, for that I came’. He writes that ‘the just man justices’, that is, he or she expresses his or her God-given being by doing justice. That is what humankind is in God’s eye, not just manifesting Christ, but being Christ, ‘for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/… The consequence for the human being is radical.
One of the tasks of a poet is to invest things we take for granted with a new shine, or a new depth. Hopkins was a genius at this. He uses the gift to express his profound faith in Jesus. He himself considered The Windhover - with the subtitle ‘To Christ our Lord’ - ‘the best thing I ever wrote’. The description of the falcon in flight is an extended metaphor for the work of Christ, buffeting against stress, and blazing in the crumbling ‘blue-bleak embers’. If the beauty of the bird is majestic, so ‘the fire that breaks from thee [Christ] a billion / Times told lovelier’.
Hopkins’ devotion to Our Lady finds expression in ‘The Blessed Virgin compared to the air we breathe’. The theme of the poem is in the title. The lines race along. ‘I say we are wound / With mercy round and round / As if by air: the same is Mary, more by name./ She, wild web, wondrous robe,/
Mantles the guilty globe..’ The poem ends with a prayer to be wrapped in her mantle: ‘fold fast thy child’.
In these ways, and many others, is the grandeur of God made manifest. The world is charged - ie made alive - with it, and we are also charged – i.e. challenged - to acknowledge it, and to respect the world we inhabit.