Category Archives: poetry

The Holy Ghost and Gerard Manley Hopkins

…the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.
“God grandeur”

This year the feast of Pentecost falls on the anniversary of the death of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins on June 8, 1889.

Holy Spirit window, St. Peter's, the Vatican

Holy Spirit window, St. Peter’s, the Vatican

“God’s grandeur” is one of my favorite poems, celebrating the presence of God in the world. It is also a poem with a very ecological flavor.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God

But Hopkins laments what we humans have done to the earth

And all is seared with trade: bleared, smeared with toil;
And wear’s man’s smudge and shares man’s smell…

We have even forgotten how to experience the earth:

    …the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

Yet Hopkins maintains hope

And for all this, nature is never spent;
     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things

How can this be?

      Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
            World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The Spirit of God renews the face of the earth, renews us, and offers us hope. There is a freshness – the dearest freshness – deep down things – if we would open our hearts.

No wonder the last words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, after a life filled with melancholy, were

I am so happy!

The full text of the poem can be found here.

Peace and “God within the heart”

Madeleine L’Engle was a writer and poet who took her inspiration from her faith – but expressed it in children’s tales, such as A Wrinkle in Time, in poetry, and in books of reflections. She was writer-in-residence at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

She died at the age of 88 on September 6, 2007.

As the world prays for peace in Syria, this selection from her poem “The Ordering of Love,” serves as a good meditation today:

Peace is the centre of the atom, the core
Of quiet within the storm…
Peace is not placidity: peace is
The power to endure the megatron of pain
With joy, the silent thunder of release,
The ordering of Love. Peace is the atom’s start,
The primal image: God within the heart.

Cheap joy

Though I love to smile, enjoy a good joke, and have an ironic sense of humor,  I am somewhat suspicious about what I might call “cheap joy.”

I occasionally run into people of faith who have a really bouncy approach to their faith and seem to be always on a high. They sometimes make me uncomfortable, especially when they expect me to have the same type of cheerfulness, especially when they expect everybody to clap and shout for joy in meetings.

I sense the need for a different joy.

Today is the anniversary of the death of the Jesuit priest and poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, in 1889.

His poetry speaks often of the glory of God in creation:

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”

But, he seems to have been a soul that experienced deep desolation:

 I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste:

Yet, as Robert Ellsberg notes in  All Saints, his final words were “I am so happy.”

True to the Ignatian tradition, Hopkins experienced the joy, the consolation, that is deeper than surface happiness, the joy that can be lived in the midst of pain and consolation, the joy of the Cross and Resurrection.

And so today I pray for real joy – but a joy that allows me to be with the suffering – and live within my own suffering – perhaps showing that Joy that comes, not from me, but from a God who doesn’t look at us from afar but has come among us and suffered with us.

That’s not a cheap joy.

A poetic prophet – Fr. Dan Berrigan

Jesuit Father Dan Berrigan turns 81 today. A poet and prolific writer, Fr. Dan has been a prophetic voice in the United States for many years. His poetic readings of the bible are an inspiration.

I met him several times and cherish my copy of his book on the psalms, Uncommon Prayer,  which he autographed many years ago at a retreat of his that I attended, “to the happy philosopher.”

He was so outspoken about the Viet Nam war that he was sent to Latin America. He spent time in jail for his acts of civil disobedience – including burning draft board files with napalm and hammering on planes.

Some “prophets” are grating, full of themselves and their cause. But I found Fr. Dan gentle, even as his words are sharp and disturbing. I think part of this is because he’s a poet.

A few years ago I ran cross this quotation of his. I used to do a lot of baking – it’s harder to do it here in Honduras – and so I found the words consoling and challenging:

Sometime in your life,
  hope that you might see one starved man,
   the look on his face when the bread finally arrives.
Hope that you might have baked it or bought it or even kneaded it yourself.
For that look on his face,
  for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread,
    you might be willing to lose a lot,
      or suffer a lot
        or die a little.

Sacramental poet

On June 8, 1889, Gerard Manly Hopkins, S.J., Jesuit priest and poet died. None of his dense poems had been published while he was alive. In fact, for the first decade or so of his religious life he had given up writing. Only the death of several Franciscan sisters fleeing Germany reignited his will to write.

He had something of a melancholy personality, but his final words on his deathbed were “I am so happy.”

His poems have a deeply sacramental character, seeing the presence of God in all things. His poem “God’s Grandeur,” begins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
           It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil.

and ends with this invocation of the Holy Spirit

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
         World broods with warm breast and with ah!
               bright wings.

His poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” ends with this description of human life in Christ:

I say more: the just man justices;
           Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—

          Christ—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

St. Robert Southwell, S.J.

In the 16th century many Catholics were killed in English including many priests who had secretly entered England to care for the hidden Catholics.

One prominent Jesuit was Robert Southwell, a poet, who was hung on February 21, 1595. I few days ago I ran across this relatively unknown poem of his which has served as a good meditation on what I should value.


I dwell in Grace’s court,
Enriched with Virtue’s rights;
Faith guides my wit, Love leads my will,
Hope all my mind delights.

In lowly vales I mount
To pleasure’s highest pitch;
My silly shroud true honour brings;
My poor estate is rich.

My conscience is my crown,
Contented thoughts my rest;
My heart is happy in itself;
My bliss is in my breast.

Enough, I reckon wealth;
That mean, the surest lot,
That lies too high for base contempt,
Too low for envy’s shot.

My wishes are but few
All easy to fulfil;
I make the limits of my power
The bounds unto my will.

I fear no care for gold;
Well-doing is my wealth;
My mind to me an empire is,
While grace affordeth health.

I clip high-climbing thoughts,
The wings of swelling pride;
Their fall is worst that from the heigh
Of greatest honour slide.

Since sails of largest size
The storm doth soonest tear;
I bear so low and small a sail
As freeth me from fear.

I wrestle not with rage,
While fury’s flame doth burn;
It is in vain to stop the stream
Until the tide doth turn.

But when the flame is out,
And ebbing wrath doth end,
I turn a late enraged foe
Into a quiet friend.

And, taught with often proof,
A temper’d calm I find
To be most solace to itself,
Best cure for angry mind.

Spare diet is my fare,
My clothes more fit than fine;
I know I feed and clothe a foe,
That pamper’d would repine.

I envy not their hap
Whom favour doth advance;
I take no pleasure in their pain
That have less happy chance.

To rise by others’ fall
I deem a losing gain;
All states with others’ ruin built,
To ruin run amain.

No change of fortune’s calm
Can cast my comforts down;
When fortune smiles, I smile to think
How quickly she will frown.

And when, in froward mood,
She prov’d an angry foe;
Small gain I found to let her come, –
Less loss to let her go.