Saving Selving

An untitled sonnet by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (d. 1889) expresses insights that are essential to both the Catholic and the Quaker experience:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself  it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It is the nature of kingfishers to “catch fire” when they fly, as it is the nature of dragonflies to “draw flame” as light flashes from their wings. And it is the nature of stones to ring out their nature as they tumble down wells, striking the stony sides of the ring that is the well. So, too, an instrument’s string or a bell’s “bow,” or curved shape, naturally “finds tongue to fling out broad its name”—to speak and proclaim what it is. Likewise, each human being “selves,” or “goes itself,” “deals out that being indoors each one dwells”—that is, each of us inevitably expresses that in which we live, that which lives in us, that which we are. What we do bespeaks—is—what, who, and why we are. “What I do is me: for that I came.

In the sonnet’s second section, Hopkins succinctly asserts an insight that is prominent in primitive Quaker thought as well, if never so well expressed: “the just man justices.” (Just as he earlier used “selves,” so Hopkins now uses “justices” as a verb.) Here, in an honesty that refutes and refuses the Protestant dodge of “imputed righteousness,” the poet, like the primitive Quakers and consistent with his Catholic tradition, recognizes and insists that a “justified” person is one who lives justly, one who lives justice. The just person “keeps grace,” abiding in the “sanctifying grace” which is, in Catholic theology, the life of God-who-is-love in the human soul. And thus the just one, “all his goings graces,” goes gracefully “over the world, answering that of God in every one” (George Fox). Expressing his nature, he is justice and grace for others, because he “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ.”

For Christ, the Word-in-flesh, the expression of the nature of God, is the crucified yet saving seed of love which is raised in us when, recognizing in the shadow of death that but for that seed we are nothing, we cease our often unconscious but always desperate striving to keep it buried under a built-up self. When the normal human delusion of self gives way to faith in love, then the seed, which according to scripture is innumerable yet one, comes into its own as the true self, the real nature, of each of us: “for Christ plays in ten thousand places.” To “act in God’s eye what in God’s eye [we are]—Christ” is, as inspired writers have told us since ancient times, the meaning of faith. Faith in Christ-in-us is the activation, the real-ization, of the truth that there is more to our lives than the emptiness of self and death, that our lives are the life of Christ as, in brief but beautiful fire, we fly in him, which is to allow him to fly in us, “To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

As dragonflies flash flame and bells sing their essence, so we spontaneously speak the Word—the spirit of love which is the divine nature in us—in the grace of our comings and goings in justice: Christ “Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his….” I am reminded of a passage, sung by the Virtues but appropriate as well to the just, in Hildegard von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutem,” which was composed about 725 years before Hopkins wrote his sonnet:

Verbum dei clarescit in forma hominis,
Et ideo fulgemus cum illo,
Edificantes membra sui pulcri corporis.

The Word of God shines bright in human form,
And thus we shine with him,
Building up the limbs of his beautiful body.


Thanks to Frank Seeburger, on whose blog Trauma and Philosophy I found a reference to the Hopkins poem (along with help in understanding the rich but difficult work of Jean-Luc Nancy). And thanks to Desmond Egan for his helpful “‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’. . . — analysis of Imagery and a Suggestion.”

The thumbnail image below is a reduced-size detail from a photo of a kingfisher by Ravi Vaidyanathan; you can click it to see the original at Wikipedia Commons.

common kingfisher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s