St Alphosus Rodriguez by Gebhard Erohlich SJ

Fr Simon Bishop SJ reads St Alphonsus Rodriguez SJ, a poem by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ.

HONOUR is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may; 
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment, 
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

This is the seventh reflection commemorating the two hundredth anniversary of the Restoration of the Society of Jesus. A reflection on the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

The monks of the Abbey of Keur Moussa sing: O all you works of the Lord, O bless the Lord, To him be highest glory and praise for ever. Wherever it is I am right now, what works of the Lord can I see? Perhaps the sky, the clouds? Perhaps hills or fields, or a horse or a dog, or a tree? Perhaps it’s just the inside of a bus that I can see? Perhaps another human being. Can I imagine all these things, the works of the Lord, praising God, their creator, now? And can I do the same myself?

Gerard Manley Hopkins was born in 1844 was an English poet and convert from Anglicanism. He developed a love of the arts as a young boy, and continued to write and paint all of his life. When he chose to become a Catholic and then enter the Jesuits he destroyed most of his early poetic works, and for his early years as a Jesuit he stopped writing. Following encouragement from one of his Superiors, Hopkins began to write once more and he developed a poetic technique which he described as ‘sprung rhythm’ which he used to particularly good effect to describe nature. His use of language was innovative, employing ancient as well as dialect words, and even inventing new words. He ministered quietly in various schools and parishes in Britain before being sent as Professor of Greek and Hebrew at the newly-established Catholic University in Dublin. Few of Hopkins contemporaries appreciated his poetic gifts and it was only after his death in 1889 when his friend, Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, published a volume of Hopkins work that his genius began to be recognised. He has a plaque in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The poem, ‘God’s Grandeur’ echoes the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, especially the Contemplation for Attaining Love’, an ecstatic celebration of God’s dynamic presence and action in the cosmos. Can you think of a time when you have felt especially close to God in a natural setting?

‘Generations have trod, have trod, have trod’. Hopkins’s lines imply a common anxiety among Victorian believers, that the modern age of scientific and industrial progress- ‘our smudge and smell’- has distanced us from a direct communion with nature- ‘nor can foot feel, being shod’- and therefore we are further from God. Does this ring true for you? Are there ways in which your busy life has made you less aware, less sensitive to the ‘dearest freshness’ in things?
The poem presents us with a beautifully maternal image of the Holy Spirit, ‘brooding’ with ‘warm breast and bright wings’. What kind of image does this conjure up for you? Does this feminine image help you to grasp the intimacy of God’s love for you?

Notice the use of the word ‘charged’ in the first line. The first meaning that presents itself is that of energy and dynamism, like a charge of electricity. But charged can also mean ‘entrusted’, ‘given a mission’. The task of the created world, the reason for its existence, is to bear witness to God’s glory and grandeur. Does this idea attract me? What about me, am I too ‘charged’ with the task of giving God glory? As you listen again, think about the word ‘charged’ in the first line: ‘the world is charged with the grander of God’.

Speak to God now, about what arises from your time of reflection and the emotions this poem has evoked in you. It may be that you feel regret for a lack of awareness, that, like many people, you have not ‘recked his rod’, that is, you been slow to acknowledge God’s majesty. Or perhaps you feel a renewed sense of energy and mission, of being ‘charged’ with carrying out a great endeavor. As you express these feelings to God, can you also ask him to deepen your sense of wonder and delight at his presence.