Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

26 March 2013

Powerful Amidst Peers

FELIX RANDAL the farrier, O he is dead then? my duty all ended,
Who have watched his mould of man, big-boned and hardy-handsome
Pining, pining, till time when reason rambled in it and some
Fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended?

Sickness broke him. Impatient he cursed at first, but mended        5
Being anointed and all; though a heavenlier heart began some
Months earlier, since I had our sweet reprieve and ransom
Tendered to him. Ah well, God rest him all road ever he offended!

This seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears.
My tongue had taught thee comfort, touch had quenched thy tears,        10
Thy tears that touched my heart, child, Felix, poor Felix Randal;

How far from then forethought of, all thy more boisterous years,
When thou at the random grim forge, powerful amidst peers,
Didst fettle for the great grey drayhorse his bright and battering sandal!

Portrait of the Laborer as a Young Man
When my father Joseph died in 2004, a priest-friend and mentor told me that he thought of "Felix Randal" upon hearing of my father's death.  This priest helped Dad to complete the annulment process and make his first confession in God-knows-how-many years.  Everyone should get to know a priest who is heaven-bent on reconciliation and familiar with the Hopkins corpus.

The stories of Felix Randal and Joe Zelonis are somewhat similar.

Although my father never seemed to lose his wits (nor his wit), at least two if not three disorders ravaged his body.  As a young lad he lifted weights and had a scrappy swagger.  Both qualities were helpful for living and working in the eastern Pennsylvania coal region.  Though never a bowler (but a pin-setter!), he eventually developed a "beer frame."  A week-long hospitalization in 1998 prompted him to quit drinking, and the initial result encouraged him to make more dietary changes, to good effect.  His heartier days (lifting fabric rolls, dumbbells, and 12-ounce bottles) were over.

To my earliest recollection, Dad wasn't much of a church-goer beyond Christmas and Easter, although he was raised to fear Christ, the Church and priests.  I was not privy to Dad's meetings with my priest-friend*, but I sensed that Father's winsome earthiness began to melt his fears and develop a brighter perspective on his faith and moral life.  Oh, and having a son who was increasingly closer to ordination--and eventually ordained, called Father just like all the others he'd known--this could have played an auxiliary part.  Talk about someone who "knew him when"!
*Given the sensitive nature of the material of their discussions and its personal irrelevance to me, I did not merit a part in them.  I would like to have been a fly on the wall "for instructional purposes," but my motives would nonetheless be severely tainted with curiosity.  I knew my father well enough to know his need for redemption; moreover, years after his death, I've been coming to know him more in myself.  I am my father's son!
Taken broadly, sacraments are events of divine-human synergy.  The human encounters with this priest precisely conveyed the divine life, as Hopkins' encounters did for Randal.  It is typically humble, and theologically accurate, of Hopkins to place more emphasis on the divine power of the sacraments than the priest's own personal contribution.  His first sacramental ministration was the Eucharist ("our sweet reprieve and ransom," line 6), but the Anointing of the Sick waited until Randal's final hours and days, as the traditional "Last Rites" or "Extreme Unction."  We may presume that Hopkins heard Felix's Confession.  With the fortification of the sacraments Hopkins can wish Felix the "sabbath rest that awaits the people of God" (Heb 4:9; cf. line 8).
In teaching a course on the Sacraments for a diocesan adult catechesis program, I happened upon paragraph 1523 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  It gives quite the nod to the "Extreme Unction" concept, one of the many things that Vatican II allegedly did away with:
If the sacrament of anointing of the sick is given to all who suffer from serious illness and infirmity, even more rightly is it given to those at the point of departing this life; so it is also called sacramentum exeuntium (the sacrament of those departing). The Anointing of the Sick completes our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it. It completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life: that of Baptism which sealed the new life in us, and that of Confirmation which strengthened us for the combat of this life. This last anointing fortifies the end of our earthly life like a solid rampart for the final struggles before entering the Father's house. (loc. cit.)
I particularly enjoy the "trinitarian" series of anointing: Baptism, Confirmation, and Anointing of the Sick.  In the course of a person's life, all three holy oils can be used.  While the purpose for the first two focuses more on the disciple's identity (as "character sacraments"), the last touches upon "identity" only obliquely: a suffering person may question the reality and the relevance of God in his or her life.  As the saying goes, suffering can make a person bitter, or better.  Our resistance to hardship is natural, but the choice is ours to press on with greater trust in Providence: an investment in our divine sonship.
In the third stanza, Hopkins shows appreciation for the necessary personal dimension of his sacramental encounters with Randal (actually a pseudonymous surname; but Felix was the given name of the inspiration for this poem).  A caregiver's verbal and tactile expressions mean so much to the patient, and the benefit of such outreach is undoubtedly mutual, as I recently noted.  "My" tongue and touch brought Felix comfort, and "Thy tears" touched Hopkins' heart.  It may seem patronizing for a man of thirty-six (Hopkins at the time of the pastoral relationship and the poem; as I currently am) to call a thirty-two year old Randal "child"; I picture an old Irish priest in the confessional saying, "Yes, go on, my son."  A priest is Father to everyone, regardless of age or status, though he does not "lord it over" his charges (Lk 22:25).

I had the providential opportunity to tender the sacraments to my Dad on a few occasions, as his debilitation grew more acute.  Like many things, this is something that I have cherished more as the years rush by.  When I came home for the day, Dad used to jokingly greet me, "Hello, Father" (and I him, "Hello, Son").  I'm glad Dad lived long enough to witness my ordination, with a year and three months to spare.  He continues to father me, I trust, from a better vantage point.

Nobody ever gets a blueprint of his life before it unfolds (and thank God for that!); nobody knows how it will unfurl.  Dad's "boisterous" years were long gone by my time.  His siblings could attest to them!  Early days at the glass factory and the textile plant would have witnessed a man "powerful amidst peers."  Felix Randal shod horses so that they could transport goods in Britain's industrial Lancaster region.  The respective occupations of Felix and Joe required a great deal of physical strength.  Both men needed that strength, and I could imagine that they did not deal well with its diminution.  But their vigor lives on in every faithful laborer who in his own day will rise and fall.

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