"As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; / [ . . . ] 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 'What I do is me; for that I came'." --Gerard Manley Hopkins

26 January 2009

"Day by Day"

I never cry in church. But my Father's mercies have been so lovely these past few days that this hymn brought me to tears yesterday:

Day by Day

Day by day, and with each passing moment,

Strength I find, to meet my trials here;

Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,

I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.

He Whose heart is kind beyond all measure

Gives unto each day what He deems best—

Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,

Mingling toil with peace and rest.

Every day, the Lord Himself is near me

With a special mercy for each hour;
All my cares He fain would bear, and cheer me,

He Whose Name is Counselor and Pow’r.

The protection of His child and treasure

Is a charge that on Himself He laid;

“As thy days, thy strength shall be in measure,”

This the pledge to me He made.

Help me then in every tribulation

So to trust Thy promises, O Lord,

That I lose not faith’s sweet consolation

Offered me within Thy holy Word.

Help me, Lord, when toil and trouble meeting,

E’er to take, as from a father’s hand,

One by one, the days, the moments fleeting,

Till I reach the promised land.

23 January 2009

Under the Mercy

Classes started last week on Wednesday; we had Monday this week off. But I feel like I've already run a marathon. I should be grading homework, but instead I'm watching television and avoiding thinking about the conference presentation I'm giving tomorrow (only vaguely planned, of course), or the prep I should be doing for my four Monday classes . . . or the article I had hoped to ready for submission by now, which languishes in its ragged folder under stacks of the urgent.

Yet, while I feel tired, and a bit harried, and can't help wondering if I'll get anything but grading done for the next fourteen weeks -- I seem to be less distressed than usual for two weeks in. I wish I had the energy to do more, but the most needed things seem to be getting accomplished helpfully and hopefully. And I love my classes -- all of them; I am delighted to expend the energy to teach them well.

I don't understand it; I'm just living along trying to keep my head above water, no more "spiritual" than usual in habit or mind . . . yet here's a gift of grace -- an unusual sense of well-being -- from my loving Father.

Stanhope says to Pauline as she sets off to London for the beginning of her new life, "You'll find your job and do it and keep it -- in the City of our God, even in the City of our Great King, and . . . and how do I, any more than you, know what the details of Salem will be like?"*

Under the Mercy, indeed. Under the Mercy.

* Charles Williams, Descent into Hell

12 January 2009


I got books this last week, and immediately devoured Exiles by Ron Hansen. It is a fictionalized account of Gerard Manley Hopkins' life paralleled with the lives of the five nuns who died in the shipwreck of the Deutschland, about which Hopkins wrote one of his most compelling poems.

The book's title reflects the fact that both Hopkins and the five nuns were in some sense exiles. The nuns were sailing from Germany to England and then to the U.S. at least in part because their religion and work was being suppressed by the Falk Laws against Roman Catholicism in Germany. Hopkins made himself an exile in one sense by converting to Roman Catholicism in an England which still despised and to some degree discriminated against Catholics (university degrees were not available to Catholics, for example, except from Catholic institutions); his conversion also cost him at least some fellowship with his family, although they did not disown him. His constant moving about by command of the Jesuit order which he entered was another form of exile, especially when his final move took him away from his beloved England to Ireland, where he died. In addition, Hansen suggests that he was in some sense exiled from his natural gift for poetry because of his vocational choice.

Hopkins was tremendously moved by the accounts he read of the wreck of the Deutschland, and especially by the deaths of the five nuns, one of whom was said to have cried out "O Christ, come quickly!" as passenger after passenger succumbed in various ways to the cold weather and the icy water. His poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, imagines both the terror of the wreck, with many details gleaned from his reading, and the faith and hope of the nuns lost in it, as well as containing the story of his own faith. It is a magnificent poem, and it is especially important because it is the first complete effort in his experimental sprung rhythm -- which is quite likely the reason it was refused publication.

The book works very well at some levels. Hansen uses many of Hopkins' own words, from his poetry, his journals, and his letters; he does this explicitly but often simply merges them into the text, creating a stab of unexpected delight when the reader recognizes some loved phrase. He tells the two stories alternately within each chapter. The first couple of times he switched I found startling, but grew used to it quickly. The part of Hopkins' story that he tells, he tells well. There is a good deal of information about Hopkins available, and he stays true to this, making the scenes he creates ring true to what we know of the man already.

Next to nothing is actually known about the five nuns besides their names, so Hansen has pretty much free play here, and he creates five intriguing characters with very different lifestories, personalities, and motivations. He doesn't sugarcoat them -- they have their flaws -- but at the same time he shows a realistic commitment to their vocation.

However, when I finished the book I was left with a sense of incompleteness. It is true that Hopkins was a melancholic man who suffered from severe depression much of his adult life. The "terrible sonnets" reveal this to us as well as his journal, his letters, and second-party sources. Yet this was not the whole of the man, and Hansen only alludes to the hope and joy that his work also shows us. Yes, he gives some scenes and descriptions of Hopkins the genial colleague and friend, and Hopkins' dying words -- "I am so happy!" But the emphasis in the second half of the book is so much on the darkness that one could easily believe that Hopkins was simply a miserable person who had missed his true calling -- a suggestion at least hinted at in a long paragraph interlude speculating on how his life might have been so much better (and longer) had he not become a priest.

I do not believe that the body of Hopkins' work supports this idea, nor do I think it is our place to suggest that he should have led an easier life and given us more poetry. Perhaps, in fact, he could not have given us the remarkable work that he did had he lived an easier life. In any case, it seems to have been Hopkins' own very clear sense that he was living as he had been called to live, that God -- though at times He seemed far away and even uncaring -- was at all times his Friend and Father and Lord, and that disappointments and adversities were simply part of the refining process required of all of us. I wish that Hansen had shown this; I wish that he had emphasized the Hopkins that we see in the "sonnets of consolation" which Hansen barely mentions as having been written after the "terrible sonnets."

This same sense of darkness seems to permeate the story of the five nuns. Although he presents them as women of faith, true to their vocation, with prayer and meditation as an integral part of their lives, still they come across somehow as not particularly hopeful, meeting death stoically perhaps, but not especially with Christ in mind or a joy to meet Him. I don't know if Hansen was afraid to create plaster saints -- always a danger in writing about faith -- but in avoiding that danger it seems to me he has struck the opposite, offering us a stoicism that could be seen in many who do not have the hope of Christ at all.

Still and all, I will seriously consider assigning this book the next time I teach a course in Hopkins. It's reasonably well-written, and offers a perspective to be considered alongside Hopkins' own work and factual biographies of him. It might also be an interesting book to use in a creative writing course, given the two different sets of information and how Hansen uses and transforms each of them into fictional biography.

08 January 2009

Richard John Neuhaus, R.I.P.

Father Neuhaus has died. Here is the First Things notification:

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus slipped away today, January 8, shortly before 10 o’clock, at the age of seventy-two. He never recovered from the weakness that sent him to the hospital the day after Christmas, caused by a series of side effects from the cancer he was suffering. He lost consciousness Tuesday evening after a collapse in his heart rate, and the next day, in the company of friends, he died.

My tears are not for him—for he knew, all his life, that his Redeemer lives, and he has now been gathered by the Lord in whom he trusted.

I weep, rather for all the rest of us. As a priest, as a writer, as a public leader in so many struggles, and as a friend, no one can take his place. The fabric of life has been torn by his death, and it will not be repaired, for those of us who knew him, until that time when everything is mended and all our tears are wiped away.

Funeral arrangements are still being planned; information about the funeral will be made public shortly. Please accept our thanks for all your prayers and good wishes.

In Deepest Sorrow,

Joseph Bottum
First Things

UPDATE: here's a link to the first tribute I've seen today, at The Corner at National Review. I am sure there will be many to follow, and First Things will be the place to check in the coming days.

UPDATE2: here's a link to an archive of Father Neuhuas's online works.

07 January 2009

Richard John Neuhaus

Richard John Neuhaus, whom I have mentioned in a number of posts, has apparently had a relapse (or perhaps a new form) of cancer; I understand he was hospitalized late last week. Katherine Jean Lopez updates us, saying that the last rites were administered to Father Neuhaus last night at midnight.

I am sure prayers would be treasured in heaven. Father Neuhaus has had a tremendous influence on the world over many years. He is currently editor of First Things.

UPDATE: Here is some background information I found at beliefnet. Apparently the cancer was diagnosed last year and this hospitalization was for a severe infection:

"Fr. Neuhaus is in the hospital here in New York. Over Thanksgiving, he was diagnosed with a serious cancer. The long-term prognosis for this particular cancer is not good, but it is not hopeless, either, and there is a possibility that it will respond to the recommended out-patient chemotherapy.

"Unfortunately, over Christmas, he was taken dangerously ill with what seems to be a systemic infection that has left him very weak. Entering the hospital the day after Christmas, he was sedated to lower an elevated heart rate and treatment was begun for the infection. Over the last few days, he has shown some signs of improvement, and there is a reasonable expectation that he will recover from this present illness--sufficiently, we hope, that he will be able to begin the chemotherapy for the cancer."

It is odd, but I feel very much as though a family member is at death's door. His work has changed my life and I am grieved to think there may be no more of it to come.

03 January 2009

Thirty-Four Years

January 4 is our 34th wedding anniversary. Sometimes it feels like a whispered breeze, barely noticed before gone. Often it feels more like a very long time, until I remind myself it’s just over half the years my parents will have been married next month. It hasn’t been easy; it hasn’t looked much like what either of us envisioned the day we walked down the aisle.

But we’ve grown, sometimes quickly, often slowly. The apostles told Jesus that if a man couldn’t divorce his wife then it would be better not to be married. But it’s that very commitment that can force two people to decide that learning to get along is better than a lifetime of misery. I thank God for the commitment demanded by Him that has taken us through hard times to this place of contentment with each other, commitment that didn’t allow us to consider anything but faithfulness "till death do us part."

Mainly we’ve learned a little about the nature of love. Sure, romance and fireworks are nice. But love is so much deeper. Love is the placing of the beloved above the self, desiring his or her good above one’s own, and the willingness to sacrifice for that truth. No one does it all the time; I do it less well than most, perhaps. But we have both learned something of this over time; I am privileged to be loved well by the man who committed himself to me.

It is this sacrificial love within iron-clad commitment that allows true affection to grow. Every time one puts the other first, it creates a deeper respect and concern than already existed; it reminds one that the other is a bearer of the image of God as well as a needy fallen man or woman – and both those identities require respect and concern, require the love of God Himself placed within us through the sacrifice of the Son and the seal of the Holy Spirit. And this is the genesis of affection that shows itself in constant little ways each day -- a blanket in the middle of the night, a note of encouragement, a glass of water on a hot summer day, a simple smile at a shared memory . . .

I am grateful for these thirty-four years.