Saturday, 29 April 2017

Gerard Manley Hopkins: ‘Pied Beauty’, ‘Carrion Comfort’, and ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord’

Newman House, University College Dublin, facing St. Stephen's Green



On Thursday the 27th of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the second part of my contribution to the evening.
 
Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

At its most immediate ‘Pied Beauty’ is a poem of praise to God, deriving its form and purpose from the psalms of the Hebrew Bible. It is a hymn, in that the words are directed to God, speak of God’s good works, recognise him in all things, and are “lost in wonder, love, and praise”, as Charles Wesley would have it. It uses the sprung rhythm that the American poet Robert Hass says transcends the “easy fit” to “give the feeling of overmuch.”

It is, though, not a conventional praise poem. Rather than listing the many beauties of creation, as we find in that opening hymn of the Bible, in Genesis chapters 1 and the start of 2, Hopkins goes into select and very detailed description of some favourite features of the English countryside. Only then to say that “all things”, by extension, meaning the whole of creation, pied as it all is, deserves our praise. “All things counter, original, spare, strange” is everything. Hopkins takes very particularised effects – “a brinded cow”, “finches’ wings” – as examples of how the whole universe in fact is “pied beauty”. The shift from the particular to the general, an elementary strategy of essays and debates, happens between the two verses, thus making the poem a miniature exercise in rhetoric; the rhetoric beloved of Oxford dons and Jesuit orators.

The poem is also an invitation. How do we read the final lines? “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: / Praise him.” While we hear this as praise to the maker of all things, the poem is also asking us to praise him. It is stating that we too may engage freely in the expression of praise, in our own words, our own somewhat unique and human way, in our own time. Hopkins has just shown us how to do it, and how to do it if you are Hopkins. He ends by saying it is your turn to do this, in your way.

‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ is the motto of the order that Hopkins joined: ‘To the greater glory of God.’ He would have seen this motto frequently,
probably written in chalk at the top of blackboards in tutorial classes: it is a reminder to offer everything to God in God’s Name. We sometimes think of the Jesuit dedication as austere and absolute, which is why ‘Pied Beauty’ is such a release. Instead of cautious reserve the poem comes from a personal state of joyous, even ecstatic, bliss. Instead of the kind of ‘us and them’ Catholic language we find in Hopkins’ letters sometimes, here the poem is all-embracing, almost delirious over the marvels of difference, one could even say ecumenical in its divine understanding of the world.

Hopkins, who took a huge interest, like Robert Bridges, in English word history, knew that ‘pied’ is Middle English for ‘black and white’ or any marked colour on white. In other words, blemished or marked, as distinct from unblemished. The acceptance of the world as blemished, as fallen from some perfect state, seems to exist consciously or not, behind the poem ‘Pied Beauty’. While this is a tentative argument that cannot be pushed too hard, we have to remember that Hopkins has been given a thorough grounding in the reality of sin, in his own life as well as in the seminary, and that his poetry is the verbalisation, in various forms, of that awareness.

We also have to remember that Hopkins was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, someone who proposed challenging ways of understanding nature, some of them at odds with conventional religious thinking. ‘Pied Beauty’ is a nature poem. The examples it gives of God’s ‘fathering-forth’ are nearly all from nature and Hopkins, through his condensed language, teaches us to look upon nature with new eyes. He would have us see the wonders of nature in their own right, not simply as products of a process of unremitting natural selection. We are being placed in the reflective mode that respects the inscape of each individual being.

This leads to my final way of reading ‘Pied Beauty’, which is that we see the living world glorified in its physical presence and ongoing existence, albeit mortal in its passage. In some ways the most important clue to the poem is not in the famous words like “dappled things”, “fickle, freckled”, or “rose-moles all in stipple”, but in the very plain English word “change”. Everything he talks about is open to mutability, will alter and age with time. Only God does not change and yet it is only through God that we may see the true wonder of what God has made possible. His “beauty is past change.” As happens frequently in poetry, the last line is the one that shares the underlying meaning, and makes us read it again.

‘Pied Beauty’ shows how this style of rhythm and stress render an argument effective. A simple theology lesson is transformed into a living hymn of praise, a universal sermon, urging us to see the world anew. It is theopoetic before the fact. Yet Hopkins discovered that his style could serve internal dramatic monologue as well. He takes the conventions of prayer and expands the results into a present drama.

Carrion Comfort

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

   Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

We can hear ‘Carrion Comfort’ as a stark testament to the state of ‘fight-or-flight response’. Each temptation to give in to despair, “to avoid and flee”, is quickly countered by the alternative, to stay, meet, and overcome. Each phrase details a new part of the internal contest. Grammatical sense is pushed to breaking point in order to include all the vying forces of emotion and reason. The second half of the sonnet reveals what has already been implied, that this is a struggle with God, whom he both addresses directly and speaks of as the one he wrestles.

While it is useful to know the poem was written during an Ignatian retreat using the Spiritual Exercises, and is therefore an acute expression of his soul at the time, our interest is only secondarily in biography. As in all his poetry, the form Hopkins invented is utilised to depict a spiritual experience, a struggle, an epiphany, a revelation. It is we who cry ‘I can no more’ only to counter with ‘I can’. The slow overcoming of despair is imitated in the poetry. He uses biblical images – ‘I wretch lay wrestling with my God’ – but this is secondary to their use as meaning to his, and our, own shared experience of learning God’s will.

The last years of his life were hard. He wrote to Richard Watson Dixon that “Liverpool is of all places the most museless,” a despondent state that changed little after he took up the offer to teach in Dublin. The so-called ‘terrible sonnets’ evidently written in a state of spiritual turmoil and crisis, keep his unique eye for nuance and fine detail while shifting in their directness of speech closer to the Metaphysicals like John Donne. This change in composition will always leave us wondering what other changes may have occurred if Hopkins had lived as long as Robert Bridges. Here he is, near the end of his life, taking his cue from the prophet Jeremiah:

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend

Justus quidem tu es, Domine, si disputem tecum; verumtamen
justa loquar ad te: Quare via impiorum prosperatur? &c.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.


Sources

Hass, Robert, quoted in a review by Scott Esposito of his ‘A Little Book of Form’, San Francisco Chronicle, 19 April 2017

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner. Penguin, 1953

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected letters, edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press, 1990





Poetry and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges

St Peter and St Paul Church Yattendon, with the Bridges family cross in the foreground


On Thursday the 27th of April Will Johnston, Robert Gribben and I gave a presentation on Gerard Manley Hopkins to the Institute for Spiritual Studies at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne. Here is the first part of my contribution to the evening.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges were born three months apart in the year 1844. Their families were devoutly religious, also inspired by the movement of reform within the English Church which we today call Anglo-Catholicism. The Hopkins family attended High Anglican churches, including All Saints’ Margaret Street in London, a church designed and built by William Butterfield, the same architect who designed the cathedral down the hill from here near the Yarra River.

The books tell us Hopkins and Bridges met at university, but they were moving in the same social and cultural circles for years, taking in the same air. In a previous generation Hopkins’ grandfather went to school with the poet John Keats.

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

These lines of Keats had become a dogma of English Romanticism. They signal the genesis of a whole way of thinking, judging, and acting that we associate with names like Ruskin, Rossetti, Pater, Pugin, Arnold, Wilde, and, irresistibly we might say, Hopkins and Bridges. Keats cannot be held responsible for the Oxford Movement, and yet when we observe the reclamation of aesthetic values in the expression, language, and worship of the English Church, ‘the beauty of holiness’ is an affirmed and central object of both our poets. It is more than theme and ideal, it is its own meaning.

They were both classicists. Bridges was to write lengthy and increasingly unusual poems on subjects from classical mythology during his long life. Hopkins was to finish up as a Professor of Greek in Dublin during his short life. Their poetic was deeply formed by classical poetry, as revived by Victorian scholarship.

But they were also both what today we call medievalists, influenced by the Victorian revival of everything gothic. Bridges yearned for a pre-industrial England and a pre-imperial English language, free of the foreign imports adopted by the first global language. Hopkins’ sprung rhythm relies inordinately on the alliteration of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Welsh poetry, and on the timbre of Shakespeare.

This is all one happy symptom of their broader passion for the English language, in terms of poetic play, linguistic invention, and word derivation. They are true poets in their total intoxication with words.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — 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 faces.

Having registered their poetic complicity, we then have to meet the difficult reality of the essential subject of their poetry, which is God as revealed in Christ. They are a living contradiction of the Victorian commonplace of loss of faith as exemplified in, say, Matthew Arnold and Thomas Hardy.

Hopkins’ conversion to Roman Catholicism, under the guiding hand of no less a person than John Henry Newman, was a dramatic surprise to all. His father thought he had “gone mad”, and Gerard’s letters to his parents remind us painfully of just what a headstrong and conceited 22-year-old is capable. The choice between the Rule of Saint Benedict or Saint Ignatius vexed him briefly, but he went with Ignatius, and with that the social and religious disadvantages Victorian England imposed. His letters are gloriously knowledgeable, but we cannot help noticing that most of his fervent literary communication continues with Anglicans, not Catholics. More surprising, from our distance, is his subsequent (not to say consequent) destruction of all his manuscripts, an act recorded in his diary for 11 May 1868 with the macabre joke, “the slaughter of the innocents”.

It has been observed that Hopkins, unlike Bridges and other Romantic poets, did not privilege poetry as a vocation. He already had a vocation: he was a priest. Like Thomas Merton, Hopkins could not see how his writing could fit into his newfound life. This may have continued were it not for news of a shipwreck, that favourite motif of gothic literature, in the Thames Estuary in which five nuns were amongst those who drowned. Hopkins’ provincial superior, a canny individual if ever there was one, hinted that someone should write a poem about this terrible event. When Hopkins took up the challenge, he used his immense poetic gift and accumulated theories about poetry, to enunciate his own true vocation, to Christ.

Hopkins died too young. We will never know how much he actually wrote and how much he threw into the fireplace, but he directed that his estate be left either to the care of family or to his closest literary confidant, Robert Bridges. Families being what they are, they probably had no idea or interest in exactly what to do with Gerard’s fanciful words, so the words went to Bridges.

While conjecture continues to this day about why Bridges took thirty years to publish a collection of the most original poetry in English, this conflicted inheritance overlooks their joint achievement as experimenters of style, and of style trained deliberately to express special versions of Christian vision.    

For me, this is the most remarkable thing about their friendship. They were both preoccupied, as few others of their contemporaries were in quite the same way, with stress. Hopkins’ single-minded focus on the stress of words and syllables in the line is seen and heard everywhere.

To what serves mortal beauty ' —dangerous; does set danc-
ing blood—the O-seal-that-so ' feature, flung prouder form
Than Purcell tune lets tread to? ' See: it does this: keeps warm
Men’s wits to the things that are; ' what good means—where a glance
Master more may than gaze, ' gaze out of countenance.
Those lovely lads once, wet-fresh ' windfalls of war’s storm,
How then should Gregory, a father, ' have gleanèd else from swarm-
ed Rome? But God to a nation ' dealt that day’s dear chance.
To man, that needs would worship ' block or barren stone,
Our law says: Love what are ' love’s worthiest, were all known;
World’s loveliest—men’s selves. Self ' flashes off frame and face.
What do then? how meet beauty? ' Merely meet it; own,
Home at heart, heaven’s sweet gift; ' then leave, let that alone.
Yea, wish that though, wish all, ' God’s better beauty, grace.

But this was never simply ornate show, embellishment for its own sake, or lilting loveliness typical of other flowery types of the time. The words enact meaning, they send out double and triple meanings, nouns become like verbs and vice versa in a dramatic deployment. The result is a poetry so charged that readers , Bridges included, it was freakish. Hopkins was reviving stress as found in Shakespeare and Milton, it was English at its most enforced, enlivened.

Bridges could not fully understand himself what Hopkins was really trying to do, but meanwhile was cultivating a kind of poetry which is almost free of the demands of stress. No less a reader than W.H. Auden could say in the early 1970s, and admiringly, that “So far as I know, Bridges was the first to write quantitative verse in English which ignores stress altogether.” His ‘Testament of Beauty’ is written in accent-free verse counted by the syllables, something that today is more the norm than the exception.

Today we are more likely to meet Bridges in church than in a café, more likely to know his translations than his inspirations. The New English Hymnal, the one we use next door, lists ten hymns by Bridges translated from ancient Greek, Latin, and German. This places him firmly in the line of Victorian hymnographers like John Mason Neale. He was choir master of his local church and wrote a hymnbook there, the Yattendon Hymnal. And just to show what Bridges can do in quantitative verse, I am going to read one of his finest renditions.

All my hope on God is founded;
  He doth still my trust renew,
Me through change and chance he guideth,
  Only good and only true.
    God unknown,
    He alone
  Calls my heart to be his own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
  Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
  Tower and temple fall to dust.
    But God's power,
    Hour by hour,
  Is my temple and my tower.

God's great goodness aye endureth,
  Deep his wisdom, passing thought:
Splendour, light and life attend him,
  Beauty springeth out of naught.
    Evermore
    From his store
  Newborn worlds rise and adore.

Daily doth th’Almighty Giver
  Bounteous gifts on us bestow;
His desire our soul delighteth,
  Pleasure leads us where we go.
    Love doth stand
    At his hand;
  Joy doth wait on his command.

Still from man to God eternal
  Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
  For the gift of Christ his Son.
    Christ doth call
    One and all:
  Ye who follow shall not fall.

“Beauty springeth out of naught.”

Although Bridges studied medicine and worked briefly as a doctor, he retired to the country at the tender age of 38 and lived more or less for the rest of his life in what one observer has called a “prolific period of domestic seclusion.” Gentlemen can do that. He became Poet Laureate under King George V in 1913, an honour that could be seen as a misfortune for Bridges, as he was expected to write nationalistic verse during the war that ran counter to his aesthetic, his own sense of English values, and his growing awareness of what was actually going on at the Western Front. Complaints were raised in Parliament that he wasn’t doing enough for the war effort, something we must set beside his instruction to omit many of his war poems in subsequent reprints.

But it is during the War, clearly, that Bridges determines to publish Hopkins and it is his editorial work on the poems that occurs during this time.

As I have said, both poets were committed to English language. Hopkins revived certain kinds of English poetic construction and diction as part of a project of Englishness. Bridges also invented new ways of doing old things. ‘The Testament of Beauty’ is written using spelling reforms that rival Melville Dewey’s.  He also founded the Society for Pure English, to promote “a sounder ideal of the purity of our language.” Students of Anglo-Catholicism will note that the Society’s project was spelt out in an ongoing series of numbered Tracts, an unavoidable echo of the Tracts for the Times, leaving us to ponder with what evangelical fervour our two poets pursued their beliefs about English.

Could Hopkins have imagined that his friend Bridges would initiate such a crusade at the same time when he was preparing the poems for publication? Hopkins wrote in 1882, "It makes one weep to think what English might have been; for in spite of all that Shakespeare and Milton have done [...] no beauty in a language can make up for want of purity". Linguistic purism in English, the idea that words of English origin should take precedence over foreign imports, runs counter to the modern paradigm of English as adaptable to all forms of word borrowing, a paradigm established (if anyone can be given this credit) by Samuel Johnson in his prefaces to his Dictionary and it indeed gets “curiouser and curiouser” that two Oxford men who took great interest in that book’s famous successor, the Oxford English Dictionary, and who were steeped in Greek and Latin, in fact argued against the hybrid nature of English itself in poetry.

Today we ponder how the 700-plus pages of Robert Bridges Oxford Standard Authors is read by a small band of enthusiasts while the 70-odd pages of Hopkins’ collected poetry are read and known wherever English poetry shows up. Without Bridges certainly we none of us would have encountered Hopkins, yet it is one of the quirks of literary history that the Poet Laureate is now thought obscure, while the Jesuit who died in obscurity, his work unknown, is one of the household names of English Literature.    

Sources

Auden, W. H. A certain world : a commonplace book. Faber and Faber, 1971

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins, selected with an introduction and notes by W.H. Gardner. Penguin, 1953

Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Selected letters, edited by Catherine Phillips. Oxford University Press, 1990

The new English hymnal. Full music edition. Canterbury Press Norwich, 1986






 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Rowan Williams : an Abiding Attention to Christianity



This profile of Rowan Williams was written by Philip Harvey for the ‘Heroes of the Faith’ page of The Melbourne Anglican, April 2017.

Rowan Williams, as a child, grew up in a Welsh Calvinist village. We encounter this formative world of Wales throughout his writing, for example in his translation of the Nonconformist poet Ann Griffiths:

Under the dark trees, there he stands,
there he stands; shall he not draw my eyes?
I thought I knew a little
how he compels, beyond all things, but now
he stands there in the shadows. It will be
Oh, such a daybreak, such bright morning,
when I shall wake to see him
as he is.

It’s only when the family moved to another village that Rowan first encountered High Church Anglicanism, with its strong emphasis on social action and a sacramental worship that engaged all the senses.

As a young man Rowan almost became a Benedictine, a decision that his biographer Rupert Shortt avers would have disappointed some of his female friends.  Benedictinism, nevertheless, remains a strong influence in his life, perhaps most consistently in his keeping a daily prayer life.

At university Rowan became immersed in Russian Orthodoxy. He wrote his thesis on the mystical theologian Vladimir Lossky. Two of his most popular works are readings of icons and one of his more impenetrable also explores Orthodoxy, the book about Dostoevsky he wrote one holiday while Archbishop of Canterbury.
Possibly his most popular book is a wry and sympathetic reading of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (‘Silence and Honey Cakes’ (2003)) where Rowan makes the Egyptian monks of the 3rd century seem peculiarly contemporary to our own needs and experience. 

“Arsenius was famous not for physical self-denial but for silence; and if there is one virtue pretty universally recommended in the desert, it is this. Silence somehow reaches to the root of our human problem, it seems. You can lead a life of heroic labour and self-denial at the external level, refusing the comforts of food and sleep; but if you have not silence – to paraphrase St Paul, it will profit you nothing. There is a saying around in the literature describing Satan or the devils in general as the greatest of ascetics: the devil does not sleep or eat – but this does not make him holy. He is still imprisoned in that fundamental lie which is evil. And our normal habits of speech so readily reinforce that imprisonment.”



Of another monk he writes:  “Abba Pambo is represented as refusing to speak to the visiting Archbishop of Alexandria. ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech,’ says the old man, unanswerably; archbishops are regarded with healthy suspicion in most of this literature. Our words help to strengthen the illusions with which we surround, protect and comfort ourselves; without silence, we shan’t get any closer to knowing who we are before God.”

That an archbishop would think suspicion of an archbishop “healthy” tells us a lot about Rowan’s own self-awareness, self-deprecation and sense of the awkwardness that exists between the role of church authority and true holiness. The question of how a truly holy person can at the same time exercise influence and control as a leader is one we encounter frequently in his writing.

I list these different attractions in Rowan’s spiritual growth to emphasise his abiding attention to Christianity in its many complex forms; hence his ability to talk authoritatively across traditions. Also, to argue that this free access to Christian traditions is a mark of Anglicanism. Rowan’s range, and comfort within that range, is partly explained by the kind of Church he chose to stay in. He has talked of Anglicanism at the Reformation being capable of accommodating “a mixture of opposite extremes”, what could be called a way of accepting very different forms of Christianity together. This connection with Christian traditions and freedom to read, hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest them is, I believe, a typical gift of Anglicanism.

Rowan shows how the via media is not just some narrow road through valleys of death but a highway where many useful and illuminating detours are available and welcome. Risk-takers and P-platers share the lanes with sightseers and Sunday drivers. It’s why I keep returning to this writing. Rowan affirms the possibilities for a questioning church; he represents the kind of church I grew up in and identify with. He is a trusted guide. Indeed, guidance as an episcopal responsibility inspires and drives his writing, whether lucid and inviting, as in his recent apologetic work, through to the most gnarly areas of the Groves of Academe. 

He talks of the Anglican imagination that “seeks to discern God in unexpected places, and to see the world itself as a kind of sacrament of God.” Notice here his connection to place: he regularly starts from a particularised place, even when that place is the whole world. 

Much of his work involves finding out things about the whole Christian experience, admiring their sheer existence, and using them to expand our awareness and thinking in new ways. The Gospel revelation is the source and foundation of his thinking in every field – ethics, social justice, philosophy, psychology, politic, science and understandably, theology, spirituality, and homiletics.

Only one person has ever read everything written by Rowan Williams, but if you want to know where to start try ‘Tokens of Trust’ (2007). This book on the Creed treats the statements as the inspiration for creative ways of trusting our experience with God, rather than primarily as a set of statements with examples following. What to make, for example, of his opening response to ‘I believe in God, maker of heaven and earth’?

“It should be a rather exhilarating thought that the moment of creation is now – that if, by some unthinkable accident, God’s attention slipped, we wouldn’t be here. It means that within every circumstance, every object, every person, God’s action is going on, a sort of white heat at the centre of everything. It means that each one of us is already in a relationship with God before they’re in a relationship of any kind with us. And if that doesn’t make us approach the world and other people with reverence and amazement, I don’t know what will.”

It is impossible, I think, to read this passage and not notice how quickly Rowan moves from basic theological premises to a poet’s way of illustrating how creation works when God is the mover, to expressions that pronounce a mystic’s awareness of creation, the ultimate spiritual implications of the argument. He goes from theologian to poet to mystic in the space of a page. But he still keeps in mind his broader audience:

“The scientist, of course, will tell us that at the heart of every apparently solid thing is the dance of the subatomic particles. The theologian ought to be delighted that this sort of talk puts movement and energy at the centre, but will want to add that at the heart of the subatomic particles is an action and motion still more basic, beyond measure and observation – the outpouring of life from God.”

Rowan Williams happened to be lecturing in Lower Manhattan on the morning of that decisive date for our own age, 11th September 2001. He was an eye witness to those events and could have died. Reports reveal he spent that and subsequent days ministering to those around him, preaching consolation to the traumatised in New York, and witnessing to reactions, his own and others. Some of these are recorded in his dispassionate book ‘Writing in the Dust’ (2002), where he argues calmly to stand back and consider our judgements, words that go to the heart of his question, well how do we respond? Typically, language use is of telling interest for Rowan, also where is God in all of this? 

“Last words. We have had the chance to read the messages sent by passengers on the planes to their spouses and families in the desperate last minutes; and we have seen the spiritual advice apparently given to the terrorists by one of their number, the thoughts that should have been in their minds as they approached the death they had chosen (for themselves and for others). Something of the chill of 11 September 2001 lies in the contrast. The religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words that murderers are saying to themselves to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime. The non-religious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about – the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”


Not long after, he became 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, a spectacular achievement that has to be placed beside the holy living of the man himself. The divisive politics of that time, both church and state, have not gone away and Rowan has written about them at length. But when I consider his approach to an issue, my mind keeps coming back to other words of his, words that better explain his temperament.

He demonstrates how our tradition gives license to all the people (clergy and laity) ways of speaking of God and our life in God through new words and new metaphors. He talks of ‘contemplative pragmatism’, “an attitude of time-taking, patient, absorbing awareness of the particular situation you are in.” While of course not unique to Anglicanism, this virtue influences much of the literature of the church. He speaks of looking “long enough and hard enough for God to come to light.” We find this ‘contemplative pragmatism’ in the way he sizes up a situation, not using hasty religious language and not exaggerating or getting enthusiastic, in the 18th century meaning of that word. 

‘Contemplative pragmatism’ is “that sense that in all things God waits, and if we wait, then somehow the two waitings become attuned.” Even his self-trained use of conditional terms, like ‘somehow’ in that last sentence, is a manoeuvre, an avoidance of dogmatic propositions, that keeps open the possibility for further discovery. This is an observable Williams’ manner in all his work.

Rowan talks about how the 17th century mystical poet Thomas Traherne. exemplifies “Platonism through autobiography, reflection on childhood, and poetry, and emphasized there very particularly, not just the sense of God pouring through the ordinary perceptions of the child and of the adult, but … that wonderful remark, ‘the Nature of the Thing confirms the Doctrine’: language is true when the nature of the thing confirms the doctrine. You simply point to the beauties of the world and don’t map it out as a system of things owned by some people and not by others.” Living that is outward directed, not possessive of its own findings, shares the world in kind. 

In ‘Anglican Identities’ (2004) Rowan Williams talks of the Anglicans discussed being “in their different ways … apologists for a theologically informed and spiritually sustained patience.” This position resonates strongly with my own experience growing up and living within a diverse complement of believing communities. It means even more now, in “an age dramatically impatient and intolerant of many sorts of learning.” Learning is itself fundamental to Anglican life, a position from which to engage securely and sensibly with the problematic mess of contemporary dialogue, rife with enforcing argument, chauvinist self-righteousness, and mindless trolling. He continues:  

“They [Anglicans] do not expect human words to solve their problems rapidly, they do not expect the Bible to yield up its treasures overnight, they do not look for the triumphant march of an ecclesiastical institution. They know that as Christians they live among immensities of meaning, live in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.” 

This abiding recourse to tradition, to Word and Sacrament, as first principle for our understanding of and progress with all presenting issues makes for exhilarating and challenging reading. 

Speaking myself as a permanent writer and reader of poetry, I connect very directly to Rowan’s own poetic vocation. He has talked of poetry as ‘The text that maps our losses and longings’, and this lifeline in his own writing has matured and strengthened. In ‘The Edge of Words’ he states, “The poet is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another; the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness.” 

Everything Rowan Williams says and writes reveals a person with a highly developed sensitivity to language, its force, directness, instantaneousness, its subtlety, indirectness, longevity. A person though may speak three languages fluently and read at least nine languages with ease, as he does, and still not engage with language in the way we are looking at here. Because Rowan is unquestionably someone with a poetic gift.
Let me quote without comment his poem ‘Oystermouth Cemetery’:

Grass lap; the stone keels jar,

scratch quietly in the rippling soil.

The little lettered masts dip slowly

in a little breeze, the anchors here

are very deep among the shells.



Not till the gusty day

when a last angel tramples down

into the mud his dry foot hissing,

down to the clogged forgotten shingle,

till the bay boils and shakes,



Not till that day shall the cords snap

and all the little craft float stray

on unfamiliar tides, to lay their freight

on new warm shores, on those strange islands

where their tropic Easter landfall is.

Rowan writes of the Welsh poet Waldo Williams as one of those ‘inner landscape shapers’,  who “imagined his own work as a form of quiet but unyielding resistance to a hectic inarticulate violence in the mind, the feverishness that overflows in personal aggression as in wars and pogroms of all kinds.” Close readers notice the same tendency to resistance in Waldo’s namesake. Listen to Rowan’s English translation of Waldo’s refreshing catechism that becomes the poem ‘What is Man?’ :

What is believing? Watching at home

till the time arrives for welcome.

What is forgiving? Pushing your way through thorns

to stand alongside your old enemy.



Sunday, 5 March 2017

Introducing Marilynne Robinson



On the First Sunday in Lent (5th of March) Philip Harvey led a Lenten study group at St. Peter’s Church, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, on the essay ‘Grace’ in her book ‘The Givenness of Things’ [1], opening with these words of introduction about the author.

Marilynne Robinson has existed as a name at the periphery of my vision for years. She has written some acclaimed novels, none of which I have read. The most famous is ‘Gilead’, a story about the memories of a Congregationalist minister in the town of Gilead, Iowa. This tells me she is preoccupied with American Protestant religion and also that she is a creative thinker about the world as she finds it. I also know that the name of this town is biblical, a reminder of the saying initiated in the Book of Jeremiah, “There is a balm in Gilead.” That is, healing is possible for those who are afflicted, broken, alienated. Even in time of exile, desolation or despair, hope is opened up. I expect that hope is a main subject of her work. In Christian tradition, but especially in some American spirituality, the balm in Gilead is read for the healing work of Jesus Christ.

When we open the latest ‘Melbourne Anglican’ we find the Sydney Uniting Church theologian Ben Myers writing about three books that he says show that the Christian life is not just lived forward in time but is “also lived backwards in time. It’s also our memories that need to be converted … the future exists only for those who have a past.” One of those chosen books is ‘Gilead’ and I now quote Ben’s words verbatim.

“Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ [is] another powerful account of the sanctification of memory. In that book, the old narrator John Ames observes that religious epiphanies are often experienced not in the present but in memory of the past. ‘Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time … I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect.’ God dwells in memory. This is why unforgiveness is such a profoundly damaging spiritual act: for when I harbour resentment against another person, I bar the door against God’s loving intrusion into my memory. I sin against myself. I destroy myself, when I shut God out of my past. And I sin against God when I shut God out of the divine dwelling place, ‘the fields and vast mansions of memory’ ([St. Augustine], ‘Confessions’ 10.8.12)” [2]

So Marilynne Robinson, now in her seventies, writes fiction. She also writes essays and the first book of hers I read, last year, was one of those. A friend on Facebook was reading it and I thought the title quite odd, ‘The Absence of Mind’. How can we have an absence of mind? Her arguments take on the unquestioning assumptions about religion of many scientists, including many atheists, today. She can be even more sarcastic and droll about the unthinking arguments of such people than they themselves are about religion. We live in a world where many theorists in different fields have dissolved the self and ignored so many things going on actively in the human mind. Rowan Williams, in his review of this book in ‘The Telegraph’, writes: “Pushing religion out of the public sphere in the name of rationality, she insists, has had the effect of giving more room to world views that trivialise or demean the “felt life” of the human consciousness – the complexity, the liberty, the innovative capacity (and the self-delusional temptations) of mind as we experience it. She is not alone in implying that without the transcendent we shall find ourselves unable, sooner or later, to make any sense of the full range of human self-awareness.” [3]

Another thing I learned about her in this book is that she is Calvinist, or rather someone who thinks of John Calvin as a saint and someone whose achievement needs to be protected from his followers. On this score I confess to connecting with her very directly, but as an Anglican. She makes Calvin real as talking directly out of the Gospel experience, which is why it was useful, indeed affirming, to read a recent interview with the film director Martin Scorsese:

“There’s something that Marilynne Robinson wrote in her book Absence of Mind that gets right to the heart of this question for me: ‘The givens of our nature—that we are brilliantly creative and as brilliantly destructive, for example—persist as facts to be dealt with even if the word ‘primate’ were taken to describe us exhaustively.’ Of course she’s right. The idea that everything can be scientifically explained doesn’t seem ridiculous to me, but actually quite naïve. When you settle your mind to consider the great, overwhelming mystery of just being here, of living and dying, the very idea of getting to the bottom of it all by means of science just seems beside the point. This is what Robinson writes about in her essays and in her novels. And what she calls ‘mind and soul’ is, for me, true Catholicism. Mind and soul is really everything that you do — the good that you do and the damage that you do. It’s the trying, with others in general and with loved ones in particular. And my own particular struggle has been trying to get through my absorption in my work, my self-absorption, in order to be present for the people I love. Because I express all of this — everything we’re discussing — in cinema. Living in the world of notoriety and fame and ambition and competition is another struggle for me. But, of course, even when you’re part of that world — I have to admit that I am, to a certain extent, and I’ve even made a few films about it — the spiritual dimension of life, as you call it, is always right there. Carl Jung had a Latin inscription carved over the doorway to his house in Switzerland: ‘Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.’ Called or not called, God will come. That says it all.” [4]

Marilynne Robinson has a writing style that is closely argued, shifts attention from page to page with disarming authority, and is deeply read. While she makes assertions and turns over ideas in the manner of reasoned argument, her real meaning is often in the subtle placement of her evidence, even in things left unsaid by implication. One gets the sense she has heard a lot of very good sermons in her time. But she is herself not simply preaching to an attentive readership: she is fearlessly taking her views into the public space. Sometimes we pick up more concise expressions of her thought in interviews. The year before last, for example, she had a celebrated conversation with President Barack Obama, which can be found online. One amusing feature of that conversation is how it starts with Marilynne interviewing Barack, but half way through Barack starts interviewing Marilynne. That Obama would prefer to interview than be interviewed tells us a lot about Obama: he’s always asking questions. Now I wish to quote some of that interview [5]:    

The President: Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes.

Robinson: Yes.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know. But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

Marilynne Robinson is also on the cover of a February 2017 issue of ‘The Tablet’. We should remember that this is after the inauguration of a very different kind of American President, one whose election and its causes are explained with prophetic insight and knowing analysis in many of the pages of the book under study today. In ‘The Tablet’ interview she is asked “In the light of recent events in the US, where a large majority of self-described Christians have elected a president who advocates positions that unambiguously contradict the teachings of the Gospel, have you found yourself contemplating the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, which provoked Karl Barth and others to write the Barmen Declaration, and led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to insist that Christians rediscover the ‘true church’?” Her answer wisely skirts around analogies with thirties Germany, being real to the present moment:

“I think the Churches have disgraced themselves, more or less, the best by silence that approaches capitulation, the worst by corruption of various kinds, weaponising piety, among other things. Of course, it has always been put to bad uses, and the emergence of a ‘true church’ is always to be hoped for. But the flagrant use of religion to inflame fear and hostility and resentment that we have seen, has set back American society 150 years.” [6]

Marilynne Robinson has collected together more of her essays into ‘The Givenness of Things”. Although the essays treat of different subjects, to read them together is to find all sorts of interactions and connections going on between the essays. They move from essays primarily concerned with literary ways of talking about humanity and the world to, through the second half, essays concerned primarily with theological ways of talking about humanity and the world. The essay we look at today, ‘Grace’, seeks to find a way of witnessing to grace through the eyes of someone Marilynne Robinson calls “my theologian”, William Shakespeare. Yet in these eighteen pages she offers no working definition of grace, as though she expects that we will see grace at work in Shakespeare’s plays purely through her own exposition and our own observation. Meanwhile, in ‘Realism’, her last essay in the book, Marilynne opens with a most amazingly beautiful definition of the very word under discussion here. This surprise cross-referencing is typical of her procedures. It is at page 273 that she offers a definition of Grace that works around the word ‘alleviation’, so it is perhaps with ‘alleviation’ in mind that we turn to our essay for today.

Sources

[1] Marilynne Robinson, ‘Grace’ in ‘The givenness of things : essays’ (Virago, 2015), p. 31-49

[2] Ben Myers, ‘Living backwards : the conversion of memory’, in ‘The Melbourne Anglican’, February 2017, p. 24

[3] Rowan Williams, review in ‘The Telegraph’, 28 May 2010: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7771422/Absence-of-Mind-The-Dispelling-of-Inwardness-from-the-Modern-Myth-of-the-Self-by-Marilynne-Robinson-review.html

[4] Martin Scorsese, interview in ‘Civiltà Cattolica’, 3 March 2016:   http://www.laciviltacattolica.it/articolo/silence-interview-with-martin-scorsese/

[5] Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, ‘President Obama & Marilynne Robinson : a conversation in Iowa’, in ‘The New York Review of Books’, 5 November 2015: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/05/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation/

[6] Marilynne Robinson. ‘The churches have disgraced themselves’, interview with Jon M. Sweeney in ‘The Tablet’, 4 February 2017, p.4-5