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

14 August 2013

Reading "The Wreck," Stanzas 24-27


            Away in the loveable west,
            On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
        I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
            And they the prey of the gales;
    She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
    Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails        190
        Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

            The majesty! what did she mean?
            Breathe, arch and original Breath.
        Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?        195
            Breathe, body of lovely Death.
    They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
    Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
        Or is it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?        200

            For how to the heart’s cheering
            The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
        Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
            Of pied and peeled May!
    Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,        205
    With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,
        What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

            No, but it was not these.
            The jading and jar of the cart,        210
        Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
            Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
    Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
    The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
        Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s        215
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

I was at rest: The first half of stanza 24 comes to mind when I think of my brother priests (or their charges) who are serving in the military. While other noble souls are in the storm--whatever form the storm may take--I have nothing to complain about. Pope Francis called upon priests to acquire the scent of their flock by engaging deeply in their service. Smell like seminarians, high-school students, the elderly, prisoners, or anyone else--just be out there among them!  That's what Hopkins was doing in his particular setting, so I don't believe that Hopkins was considering his academic responsibilities as a sinecure.  It is neither proper nor helpful to compare one person's task to another's. If both do their best, working prayerfully, rigorously, and generously, God be praised!

Christ, come quickly: The recent story of the "Missouri Mystery Priest" (upon which I reflected here) tells of an alter Christus who responded to an emergency call with prayer, encouragement, and sacramental ministration. The teenage accident victim thought enough to call out for prayer at that crucial moment. The swift and cautious attention of emergency personnel is a very real kind of prayer, so if they didn't answer the young woman's request vocally, I'd understand. The second responder--the priest--surely made a vocal response!

I'd like to think that any of us priests would do that, but then I'd have to reflect on whether I'd do that!

As a newly-ordained priest I was driving back to the rectory from a visit home when I noticed police and emergency vehicles gathered at the side of a road. I stopped farther down the road and, oil stock in hand, marched over to the site. A car had lost control, broke through a guard rail, and fallen down the embankment. I hailed a responder, identified myself as a Catholic priest, and asked whether there was anything I could do. The gentleman declined, and, tail between my legs, I proceeded back to my car. On the way I muttered something to myself that revealed my ethnic and religious biases. "Catholics wouldn't have refused me." As usual, it's not about me!

Since that day I think I may have stopped once at an accident scene. Nowadays I offer a blessing and a prayer as I drive by, amid the occasional interior conviction of (1) being the priest or the Levite who passed by the beating victim, or (2) wanting to be the poster boy for the priesthood. When the opportunity presents itself again, I pray that I will respond as the Holy Spirit prompts.

But automobile accidents aren't the only kind of storm that calls for Christ to come quickly. It could be the ring of the doorbell, the tap on the shoulder, the "Father, do you have a minute for a quick Confession?", the page for me to answer the phone or hospital beeper, the e-mail, or whatever.

What did she mean? Hopkins asks the "arch and original Breath," the Holy Spirit, to help him to answer that question. Is the Spirit ("love in her") within the nun, "making intercession for the saints" (cf. Rom 8:27) through her plea? For the nun, death is "lovely." By her cry she is welcoming death and the Christ Who comes to people precisely through death. Another option Hopkins considers is the "crown" of martyrdom, the crown of life (cf. Rev 2:10). That, too, comes only through death; and usually an unpleasant one, for all its reward. The disciples gathered in the wind-tossed boat (Mt 8:23ff), flushed with fear, didn't seem to be thinking of a glorious witness for their Master; rather they were crying for divine rescue. On a purely human level, the terror of the moment suffices for anyone to wish it were all over.

The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combatting keen: That's just a smartly alliterative way of saying, "The crown [of everlasting life] is a terrific reward for this mortifying wind."

"How do you spell relief?" In Stanza 26 Hopkins draws upon natural sources of cheer: the breaking of gloomy storm-clouds to reveal sunny or starlit skies. Then he polls the reader for his own "heaven of desire" that surpasses even the delight of the senses.

So, what did she mean anyhow? Hopkins returns to the earlier question to rule out the idea that the storm (in its myriad forms) drove her to petition for Christ's coming. "The jading and jar of the cart" (another Wreck favorite) refers to the physical, mental, and emotional erosion that often happens to laborers. The actual meteorological event is insufficient to render her virtuous or to conform her to the impassioned Christ. The mere experience of hardship doesn't of itself make a saint out of a sinner. Prayer and meditation--conscious and free alignment of the soul to God--contribute to that lifelong effort.

We imagine that this nun communicated fondly and often with her Master, so she must not have considered her present plight as an example of His absence--a gap that God might bridge, if He wanted to, by arriving, oils in hand, on the scene.

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