A God Who Not Only Shapes But Cares
by Paul Mariani, author of The Mystery of It All: The Vocation of Poetry in the Twilight of Modernity
"All things therefore are charged with love,” Hopkins wrote on one of his spiritual retreats, “are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of him.”
What an extraordinary insight that is, and yet one shared—at least in isolate flecks—by so many of us. Others sense this beauty, but then immediately question it, categorizing it, labeling it, explaining it away, as if it were the wisp end of some waking dream. And so this further paradox: that, while we hone our critical and rational and linguistic skills, we have to be reminded from time to time—and in all humility—that, unless we become again as little children, that is, keep that sense of awe and wonder before the Mystery of Creation we had when such things were fresh to us, we cannot enter the realms of heaven. Which I take to mean that, once having decisively cut ourselves off from the Creator, we are left only with brilliant glass shards, a colorful maze, a soup of random protons and neutrons, like Wallace Stevens’ speaker standing before the blazing nightfall panorama of the Auroras of Autumn in awe and terror.
Hopkins knew what it meant to face the Kantian Sublime—the sense of powerlessness before whatever forces sought to overwhelm us—whether the sheer terror of those twin towers collapsing on themselves at the prow of Manhattan, or the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church and (if the truth be known) many of the churches of our brothers and sisters, or the fear that attends a global market which bangs and tumbles up and down, as if its axle were broken. Whatever the nature of the shipwreck, as in his ode to the wrecked steamship the Deutschland, it was the sense that, even in that “unshapeable shock night,” one might read it aright—like a tall German nun crying out Christ’s name in the exploding darkness to come and come quickly to her—and know “the who and the why” beneath the stress—the sense of God’s presence in all of this: that this terrifying darkness was not some random act, but something that went beyond shipwreck, went deeper even than the extremity of chaos unfolding, that all of this was being watched over by a caring God who had, after all, so loved us that he had sent—and was sending us again—His own Son into that same windswept world.
But how come to such a realization of God’s underlying presence? And how speak of it convincingly to the world? This is what I mean by saying that the Catholic writer, like any writer, must grow into that voice. It means—as Flannery O’Connor has said—not only doing whatever other writers must do, and doing it well, but in addition intimating something more: that the world means and means deeply, and that—besides order, there is something more: a God who not only shapes but cares for, broods over, yes, loves His Creation and loves us as well, even more than Himself. That, in the midst of a tragedy summed up in the image of shipwreck for Hopkins, whether literally or metaphorically, as he felt when he’d been shipwrecked and abandoned in Ireland. “Across my foundering deck shone/ A beacon, an eternal beam,” Hopkins wrote from Dublin one afternoon in late July, in the year 1888, ten months before his death.
A beacon. A cross beam gleaming in the darkness of depression. And so he could say, finally: Enough! Let “Flesh fade, and mortal trash/ Fall to the residuary worm.” Yes, let the world’s wildfire, the Heraclitean flux of life burn everything in its cosmic bonfire, and let it leave behind ash. No matter, for like St. Paul, he too saw into the mystery of things, that
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
How does one begin to be a poet who could say such a thing, and mean it? That has been my lifetime’s struggle, to be achieved, if ever, at the cost of not less than everything. Call it the pearl of great price which the Catholic poet, in all humility, knowing the cost, and with failure leering from the grimpens and the fens, keeps slogging after, hoping, drawn on by that same distant beacon, gleaming and beckoning, gleaming and beckoning.