Hopkins Lectures 2002

Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Contemplative Hero

Maria Lichtman Beroea College, Draper, USA

Hopkins, for whom the haecceitas, the "thisness" or particularity of each thing, was precious, was not a mystic. Both his self and the world were too much with him.

Maria Lichtman does not believe Hopkins, for whom the haecceitas, the "thisness" or particularity of each thing, was so precious, was a mystic and given to mystical contemplation. Both his self, the subject of the experience, and the world, the object, were too much with him.

Gerard Manley Hopkins Archive 2003

My topic is Hopkins and contemplation. It is a word we are hearing more and more as we enter the new millennium, but few of us are able to define it. Hopkins himself did so admirably, as we will see.

Contemplation contains a Metaphor of Seeing

First, instead of a definition, I would like to offer a paradigm experience of contemplation, that of Isaiah of Jerusalem, sometimes called First Isaiah: "In the year of King Uzziah's death, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; his train filled the sanctuary" (Is. 6:1). Not only does Isaiah see the Lord, but he is literally dumb-founded, that is, mute before the vision, managing only to hear the Seraphim stammer out the phrase, "Holy, holy, holy, is Yahweh Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are filled with His glory."

Because contemplation contains a metaphor of seeing, Isaiah's vision is paradigmatic. He sees first into the sacred space of the temple, and then into the whole world filled with God's "glory". If the first moment of this experience, the Temple vision, is the more mystical one, the second moment, the glory of God filling the world, is the more incarnational. Isaiah experiences God both as utterly holy, "set apart", and at the same time hears the angels proclaim that God's kabod or shining presence fills the whole world, streaming out of and beyond the Temple. If contemplation is seeing that the sacred space of the temple is everywhere, the true contemplative, like Isaiah, moves this experience out of the temple, so that the temple becomes the template of the holy in our midst, the sacred that is right in front of us. At the moment of God's greatest transcendence, Isaiah hears of immanence.

Contemplation is the Legacy of Everyone

Being truly contemplative is being able to say like Jacob, "Truly Yahweh is in this place and I did not know! . . This is nothing less than the abode of God, and the gate of heaven" (Gen. 28: 16-17). If the spirituality of our time has learned anything, it is that this vision is not reserved for a Temple elite, that contemplation is the legacy of everyone. The paradox is that the holiness or "set apartness" of God fills up the world, and is to be encountered in the everyday; God's transcendence is immanent.

Contemplaton and Purification

But Isaiah is so overcome by his unworthiness before this vision that one of the seraphim must purify his unclean lips with a live coal. So the second element of the contemplative experience is purification, letting the "unclean" speech of ordinary thought and language be burned away so that one can be a true prophetes, a "spokesperson for God." Finally, as the third element or moment of contemplative experience, Isaiah is commissioned; he is sent to the people to ask them to "listen and listen, but never understand" and to "look and look, but never perceive"
(Is. 6: 9).

Contemplation: Seeing the Sacred in the Ordinary

I find something of all three of these elements of Isaiah's contemplative experience in the life and poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins: seeing the sacred in the ordinary, being struck dumb and purified (even to the point of a seven-year silence), and being given the frustrated mission to get others to "look and listen", even if they cannot understand. Hopkins's experience was the contemplative experience of seeing the world's holiness, even in its ordinariness, peculiarity, and irregularity--its "piedness". "The world is charged with the grandeur of God"; "Glory be to God for dappled things." Hopkins was a contemplative, that is, seeking and seeing God, the Holy, in the world and in humans, in all of his life, no matter how opaque or complex or how troubled it became. Even when he came to Ireland, I do not believe he ever stopped being the contemplative he was when finding God's glory filling the whole world in his Welsh years. Only, as the darkness increased, the challenge to that contemplation was greater. Finally, Hopkins took up the prophetic mission in the same way Isaiah did: he shared the vision, often, sadly, like Isaiah, to those who, like his few readers, would listen and listen and not understand, look and look and not perceive.

Was Hopkins a Mystic?

If we consider Isaiah's vision as a continuum with the more mystical moment at the beginning, and the more contemplative moment following, then we can judge whether Hopkins was a mystic or not. By understanding the mystical experience as the moment when the separateness of the self and the world, the subject and object, is transcended in a higher unity, then we can distinguish this experience from contemplation. If dualism is on one end of the spectrum, as in our ordinary consciousness of separateness between ourselves and the world, and monism on the other, where all things become one, then contemplation lies in the middle ground of the "both-and" of subject to subject, I to Thou. In contemplation, the world remains as the medium, some would say "sacrament" of God's presence.
I do not believe Hopkins, whose "taste of me was so distinctive" and for whom the haecceitas, the "thisness" or particularity of each thing, was so precious, was a mystic and given to mystical contemplation. Both his self, the subject of the experience, and the world, the object, were too much with him. Using the language of mystics like John of the Cross, we might say he was so "attached" to "My aspens dear", "skies of couple-colour," "all this beauty blooming" as well as the taste of self as distinctive as alum or ale that he found them hard to give up.

Following Augustine and Ignatius, Hopkins believed the world was to be used, not enjoyed (uti, not frui) ad majorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God. He might have believed that God was asking for the sacrifice of "all this beauty blooming", and "all this freshness fuming" as in "Morning, Midday, and Evening Sacrifice", but beauty and freshness were not easily diffused into a mystical oneness. Hopkins may have had mystical tendencies in his early undergraduate years, in poems like "Il Mystico," where an almost Manichean rejection of "grimy Mother Earth" alternates with its sensuous enjoyment, but after his conversion his apprehension of the Real Presence of Christ in nature, Christ really incarnated into matter, sanctified the world for him.

Hopkins, 'doomed to succeed by failure'

Seeing was not only Hopkins's passion; it was, I believe, his vocation, though he might have wanted his vocation to be other than what it was. As a Jesuit, asked as a first principle to "see God in all things", he was confirmed in this vocation, but he was also frustrated, in that every good Jesuit is asked to make a choice between the standard of Christ and the standard of Satan and to prize action and service. Under the standard of Christ, as a heroic "knight of the Cross" waging a spiritual warfare of service and sacrifice for souls, what Walter Ong, himself a Jesuit, calls the "crusade spirituality" of Ignatius, Hopkins considered himself a failure. A heroism composed of great deeds--in preaching, teaching, or service--was not to be his. This poet, who had proclaimed, "What I do is me, for that I came", found his doings "broken off undone" at every turn. In the vocation he thought he was pursuing, his vocation to the priesthood, he too was, as he said of Christ, "doomed to succeed by failure". The moral ideal of heroism was actually at war with the contemplative one of "seeing God in all things" so that the real war he waged was the "war within". If we allow a moral continuum, with heroic sacrifice on the one side and patient acceptance of daily tedium on the other, the one a life of doing and the other of being, then Hopkins' life became increasingly identified with mere being. For him as for St. Alphonsus Rodriquez, the Jesuit brother whom the church had just canonized, "Honour was [not] flashed off exploit" as it was for Christ and the martyrs.

Hopkns's Life, a "world without event"

Hopkins had to forge for himself the ideal of another kind of heroism, and I believe he was doing that, beginning to see the "heroism" of his own life, in this nearly final poem. In his private retreat notes of 1883, he remembers a priest's saying that "a great part of life to the holiest of men consists in the well performance. . . of ordinary duties" and it comforts him in his inability to perform hard penances. In that respect, he was like a contemporary of his, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who wanted to follow the path of St. Joan of Arc, but whose circumscribed circumstances afforded her only the "little way". Like St. Alphonsus Rodriquez, Hopkins merely got to "watch the door", to be the gatekeeper grading hundreds of entrance examinations for students matriculating in the classics at University College, Dublin. Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection was another doorkeeper who became holy by his "practice of the presence of God" while doing dishes. Hopkins's life, like St. Alphonsus, became one of "world without event", an ambiguous combination of uneventful boredom and of "world without end", as in the liturgy.

Hopkins, Opening Doors to theSacred through his Poems

Eternity, holiness, and immanence, were hidden in this uneventful life as Christ was hidden under matter for the contemplative to see. In a way he did not foresee, Hopkins became a doorkeeper opening doors to the sacred through his poems, for those of us searching for God in the world, or in more secular terms, for meaning amid chaos. I believe his true vocation was to be a contemplative, to "watch the door", and in his failure to be a hero, he succeeded in realizing another kind of heroism. He was indeed "doomed" (or 'fated' we might say) to succeed by failure."

The Instress of Inscape: Hopkins's Lanuage of Contemplation

What we see in the Journals and early diaries is a contemplative in the making. Hopkins is everywhere the great observer, minutely recording detailed descriptions of clouds and trees and flowers. Images found in the Journals will be distilled and finely honed later in the poems: there are "pied skies", "brindled and hatched scaping of cloud," "cobalt blue poured on the hills", "wonderful downpour of leaf". But the element which makes a person truly contemplative- - letting the mystery of it all sneak up on you and surprise you with wonder and joy and delight - is also beginning to blossom there. In his personal journals and his essays, Hopkins created a language for contemplation, calling it in effect the instress of inscape. In everything he saw, Hopkins experienced what he called "inscape". This experience took him beyond and within the flat exteriors of things and persons, into what we might call "soul", but not in any dualistic sense of that term, for in Hopkins the body was soul, expressed, manifested, and embodied there.

Hopkins: Post-Modern and Contemplative

Hopkins is both more bodily and more spiritual than the modern dissociated sensibility. In refusing to disparage the body, he is both post-modern and contemplative. Everywhere in his poetry the inscape or inward beauty and good manifested in the outer form is evident: there is "the dearest freshness deep down things", "Self flashes off frame and face", "head, heart, hand, heel, and shoulder/ . . . beat and breathe in power". Inscape is the unity hidden within the diversity or "piedness", of things; it is the wholeness at the heart of things. Inscape cannot be imposed on matter by the mind; it is matter's gift to us when we are able to receive it in contemplation. Many things have been said to explain inscape, but perhaps one can say of inscape what Hopkins says of Being: "'Look at it, though absent, yet to the mind's eye as fast present here; for absence cannot break off Being from its hold on Being: it is not a thing to scatter here, there, and everywhere through all the world. . . " In this play of absence and presence, Hopkins is a postmodern.

Through an appreciation of inscape alone, Hopkins would remain merely the artist, but with instress, the feeling of awe and surprise and wonder he experienced in the inscape of things, he becomes a contemplative as well. If the vision itself is Hopkins's inscape, the surprise that greets it is his "instress," which he describes as a "stem of stress between us and things that bears us out and carries the mind over". With instress, he is himself stamped or stressed by the inscape, "My heart in hiding stirred for a bird". Perhaps today, with the language of quantum physics beginning to impact our understanding, Hopkins would talk about instress in terms of the currents of quantum energy connecting all of life and being.

The terms "surprise" and "instress" seem to be related from different phases of Hopkins' life, but both convey a quality of contemplative experience which is essential. They point to a transformation of self in order to receive the vision. When Hopkins was speaking aesthetically, he called it "surprise" or instress, but in his more religious reflections he drew on the example of Christ, calling it "kenosis" or emptying. It takes self-emptying to be able to receive the vision of what is really there, not what we want it to be, or imagine it to be. But contemplation goes deeper. To be truly contemplative means unmasking the illusions that stand in the way of seeing. And that means emptying ourselves of preconceptions, fears, and desires that seek to "have" the subject, rather than to "leave, let that alone" The contemplative's emptying is Isaiah's dumbfoundedness. It means not being able to dominate the vision with judgments and theories and concepts--or with desire.

Hopkins spoke directly about contemplation, making his own definition of contemplation in undergraduate notes from Feb. 9, 1868:

The mind has two kinds of energy, a transitional kind, when one thought or sensation follows another, which is to reason, whether actively. . . or passively, . . as in reading etc.; (ii) an abiding kind for which I remember no name in which the mind is absorbed (as far as that may be), taken up by, dwells upon, enjoys, a single thought: we may call it contemplation. (J., 125-6)

The first two of his synonyms are passive, "is absorbed, taken up by" followed by two active verbs, "dwells upon, enjoys", a nice balance of activity and receptivity that most interpreters say is characteristic of contemplation. Art, he goes on to say, "exacts this energy of contemplation and also the other," the transitional energy. Hopkins 's word for contemplation is the Fourth Gospel's "abiding," which can mean both "staying with" something and dwelling within it. This abiding energy of contemplation is what we see actually happening in his poems. The octaves of many of the poems of Hopkins' middle years exhibit this abiding energy, or what he was later to call attention "kept on the strain." We abide in the beauty of the night stars, or the kingdom of daylight or the "lovely behavior/Of silk-sack clouds." Everywhere God's glory continues to stream out of the temple, and the poet is there to witness it, to sing along with the angels, "Glory be to God." Contemplation for Hopkins then, is enjoyment of the unity, the inscape, where one least expected it, in his sprung rhythm, his linguistic clutter and syntactic somersaulting, in the "counter, original, spare" things of nature and of his poems, in Darwinian evolution and chromatism, in "many things foredrawing away from one another," that is, in entropy and absence. "Look at it, though absent, yet to the mind's eye as fast present here. . . ." Hopkins liked stretching the unity almost to the breaking point, magnifying the difficulty of finding it again, as in "Spelt from Sybil's Leaves," until only a miracle could recover it, as in "That Nature Is an Heraclitean Fire."

Annihilation amid Terrible Chaos

What we postmoderns find attractive in Hopkins is that he took up the challenge of going through the point of greatest annihilation amid terrible chaos, complexity, and uncertainty, and somehow coming to Being or God. Contemplation is the discovery of Being abiding within the flux and contradictoriness of life. Only within that Heraclitean flux of the real could he fulfill his vocation as contemplative. If we are to take the contemplative nature of Hopkins' poetry seriously, we need to see his poems as contemplative, as "telling the glory of God," and to read them with the "abiding energy" of contemplation.

Thirteen years after speaking of contemplation as an undergraduate, Hopkins returned to a basic understanding of contemplation in his commentary on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, in a section called, "De Nativitate" which he subtitles "Notes on Contemplation." These notes were written as a Jesuit priest in Hopkins' year of Tertianship, the third year of novitiate during the Long Retreat of November 1881. In describing contemplation throughout these notes, he seems eager to distinguish it from meditation. Hopkins had before him a copy of Fr. Roothaan's 1865 edition of The Spiritual Exercises. Under Fr. Roothaan, the twenty-first General of the Order of the Society of Jesus, the Spiritual Exercises began to be taught as the best method for all from beginners to advanced in the spiritual life. What this meant for Hopkins was that he was required to repeat the Exercises in their entirety on each retreat, not to pass from the discursive meditation of beginners to the contemplation of those more advanced. Hopkins was making the Exercises over the twenty years of his life as a Jesuit priest just at the period when they were being advocated as a universal way for all retreatants. Several writers on the spiritual life have criticized this use of the Exercises, including Dom John Chapman, who says: "Beginners find the Ignatian method striking: they repeat with less success, and yet again with none at all. . ." Is it any wonder that in his last spiritual notes, he had to "give up the practice of meditation" (Sermons, 262) which he feared was leading to madness. The danger of meditation is that it keeps the subject focused on himself rather than passing beyond this self-preoccupation with one's own sins and one's own will and its choices to God.

Meditation, the Way of Beginners

Yet, Hopkins recognized that meditation is the way of beginners, those "in the purgative way", and he continually exercised a preference for the contemplation that is the ultimate goal of the exercises. In his commentary on the Exercises, Hopkins always notes the difference between meditation and contemplation, even though St. Ignatius sometimes seems to use these terms interchangeably. Meditation, says Hopkins, "refers to reasoning". His Jesuit understanding of contemplation conforms well to his earlier undergraduate notes, even as it departs from or extends Ignatius' understanding of contemplation in this part of the Exercises.

Where Ignatius of Loyola presents contemplation as imaginative reflection on gospel scenes to arouse feelings of fervor and commitment to Christ, Hopkins's appreciation of contemplation here seems to soften and slow the mind's activity into an "abiding energy" of "attention, advertence, heed", a subtle departure from the busyness of discursive meditation. In contemplation, the affections, intellectual understanding, imagination, and will cease to be applied, and God communicates without the use of these faculties.

In interpreting contemplation for this commentary, Hopkins connects the Augustinian trinity of memory, understanding, and will to the three purposes of the Ignatian exercises--reverence, praise and service - from Ignatius' "First Principle and Foundation," thus making a creative connection between the beginning and end of the Exercises. But he goes on to do even more creative things with this trinity in the mind, relating memory "kept on the strain" to "attention, advertence, heed", words that sound similar to the aesthetic rendering of contemplation as "abiding energy" in earlier notes. Here he gives it a religious meaning, saying that attention or being aware gives rise to reverence towards God, and is the "sense of the presence of God" (Sermons, 174). No better religious definition of contemplation could be give than "the sense of the presence of God".

As Joan Chittister puts it in her new book, Illuminated Life,

'The contemplative sees life as it really is under all the struggle and the pain: imbued with God, glowing with eternity, full of eternity, full of energy, and so overflowing with good that evil never totally triumphs.

The second faculty of contemplation, according to Hopkins, is the understanding, which brings word of things, their logos, expressing admiration and praise. The one word of praise spoken out of the sense of the presence of God throughout Hopkins's poems is the logos, Christ. The third faculty of contemplation brings enjoyment, an act of will that issues in love and in service. In notes written three years earlier, Hopkins had commented on this same progression of "reverence, praise, and service", calling them the virtues that do in nature what the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity do. Reverence is faith's "right mind about God", praise is hope's "joyfully welcoming God's manifestations of himself", and service is charity and justice before God.

These three elements of reverence, praise, and service constitute the three moments of Isaiah's vision: Isaiah's reverence before the vision of God, the angels' song of praise, and subsequently, his own prophetic praise, and his service as prophet. Like Isaiah's oracles, Hopkins's poems abound with the reverence that is the "sense of the presence of God," and therefore with this foremost aspect of contemplation. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," and that logos of praise is written into many of his poems: "All things, counter, original, spare, strange" (including Hopkins' poems!) "Praise him." His vocation as a contemplative, who rendered his contemplative vision into poetry, was his service.

If it was not the kind of service he had hoped to render in taking up the Jesuit vocation -- he did not go out on missions like some of his Jesuit brothers of the 19th century, or suffer martyrdom like the saints he admired -- it was in many ways a more lasting and more soulful one. The contemplation of his life bore fruit in his poems, and that fruit continues to this day. In 1881 notes on "Contemplatio," Hopkins came to his deepest realization about contemplation--that it is a synonym for love: on the "Contemplation for Obtaining Love," he comments, "here everything is of love, the love and duty of a grateful friend." (Sermons, 194). In his heroic effort to love even in the face of his own darkness, Hopkins is a contemplative hero who "watched the door," looking with love into the most ordinary places and events until they opened onto beauty and grace.

In conclusion, the most deliberate and consistent choice of Hopkins's life, the one he returned to again and again in his thinking and his living whenever he could, was to engage in contemplation, to be a contemplative. His poetics, his religious writing, and above all, his poetry bear the contemplative spirit as their inscape. Contemplation was the choice of his affective will - his inclinations and desires--and, almost against his will at times, of his elective will as well. In the end, still, "dazzled by a spark or star in the dark, seeing it but not seeing by it," as he put it, he went on trying to reverence, praise, and serve God in this darkness, and this choice became a heroic one as well.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Saint Aquinas
The Death of Gerard Manley Hopkins
Saint Gertrude and GErard Manley Hopkins
Gerard Manley Hopkins and God