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

08 March 2013

Reading "The Wreck," Stanzas 19-23


            Sister, a sister calling
            A master, her master and mine!—
        And the inboard seas run swirling and hawling;
            The rash smart sloggering brine
    Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
    Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine        150
        Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.

            She was first of a five and came
            Of a coifèd sisterhood.
        (O Deutschland, double a desperate name!        155
            O world wide of its good!
    But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
    Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
        From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)        160

            Loathed for a love men knew in them,
            Banned by the land of their birth,
        Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them;
            Surf, snow, river and earth
    Gnashed: but thou art above, thou Orion of light;        165
    Thy unchancelling poising palms were weighing the worth,
        Thou martyr-master: in thy sight
Storm flakes were scroll-leaved flowers, lily showers—sweet heaven was astrew in them.

            Five! the finding and sake
            And cipher of suffering Christ.        170
        Mark, the mark is of man’s make
            And the word of it Sacrificed.
    But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
    Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd and priced—
        Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token        175
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.

            Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
            Drawn to the Life that died;
        With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
            Lovescape crucified        180
    And seal of his seraph-arrival! and these thy daughters
    And five-livèd and leavèd favour and pride,
        Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

+ + + + +

Hopkins considers the nun a "sister" to him by virtue of their common religious consecration.  They share a divine Master, as well.  Amid the continued brutal assault of the waters, the nun remains steadfast in the consecration of her spiritual vision.  If it helps the reader, in line 149, mentally insert the word "through" or "amid" such that the sense of the line conveys: "but she through that weather sees one thing, one."  Fetch: as a noun, it means a "trick" or "stratagem," even an "interest" or "attraction" (see 2c of the linked definition).  There are nautical meanings, too, suggesting appropriate wordplay: "holding a course," "the distance traveled by waves with no obstruction."  With respect to her relationship with her Redeemer, this nun has received a nihil obstat.  Her pleas pierce the tempestuous atmosphere, such that God and man alike can hear them.

There were five nuns aboard the ship, and her designation as "first" likely derives from her role as superior of the community.  She emerges, moreover, as the moral leader of the pack by her heaven-piercing cries.

For most of the 19th stanza Hopkins meditates on the significance of "Deutschland."  It is the name of both the foundering vessel and the country where its final voyage began.  St. Gertrude the Great and Martin Luther were born there (although Gert's Catholic Encyclopedia article says otherwise).  The evidence of their lives' outcomes--obedience and revolt, respectively--is enough for Hopkins to drastically polarize these two figures, setting up a sort of dualism or rivalry that traces all the way back to the primordial fraternal fracas.

The nuns and other Catholic exiles on the Deutschland are German.  The Falk Laws were responsible for the Rhine refusal.  The Thames torrents were the proximate cause of their death.  Yet Hopkins suggests a higher wisdom at work: the "Orion of light," the Trinitarian constellation that somehow catalyzed the whole event.  More than a mere cluster of stars, God is Personal--has "palms" that lifted these nuns from their sanctuary (chancel) and held them so as to express reverence for their self-offering.  By no means their first self-offering (that was their profession of vows--or rather, it extends to their baptism), God estimated it as their best, precisely as it happened amid the tempest.

The number five is multivalent: Five nuns boarded the Deutschland; five wounds grace the Crucified Body of Christ.  The wounds were dealt by all sinners (CCC 598), not merely by the Roman soldiers or those whose clamors led Our Lord to the slaughterhouse.  By the same token, all sinners are invited to return Him their own precious offering.  What else can we render to the Lord that is purely our own, except our sin?  And yet it is this very offering that the Lamb takes unto Himself, by becoming our sin (2 Cor 5:21).

The Crucified left His five-fold mark on the worthy Father-Deacon Francis of Assisi, whose company these sisters joined.  Drawing near to Francis who drew near to Him, Jesus branded him with the stigmata (Greek plural of stigma, seal).  These five holy nuns, bonded by their consecration, are now united in their death.  We need not posit a masochistic God who delights in the bleak death of the nuns and their fifty-odd counterparts on the ship (or, for that matter, any tragedy or inconvenience); rather He delights in the way they "capitalize" upon the fact, by suffering well--offering it for His glory.  Such a manner of dying bespeaks their manner of living: habitually (pardon the pun) disposed to the radiance of Christ, whenever and however it appears among men.

The single-mindedness of the nun appeals to me in my lukewarmness.  "Blessed are the pure of heart," Jesus proclaims upon the mountaintop.  To maintain an integral focus is essential to discipleship and, a fortiori, to priesthood.  The saints among us preserve this focus, to the degree that they are "seared" with the reflection of the Love-beam returning to them from the mirror.  Indeed all baptized persons enjoy the "indelible mark" of Grace.  As we grow in awareness of this unfathomable blessing, we will allow the dross of us to drip away so that the Pure Sacrifice remains.

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