Audio length: 29:11 minutes
Transcript published: June 21, 2010
Fr. John recites and explains the meaning of the famous sonnet from Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I want to begin this podcast with a brief biographical note, for reasons which I will shortly elucidate. I haven’t always been an Orthodox priest, of course I wasn’t born with a phelonion on. I haven’t always been an Orthodox Christian or a Christian of any variety. I spent nearly half of my life blithely ignorant of all Christian teachings and I certainly did not live a Christ-like life in any way.
While I grew up in a very warm and supporting household—my parents were absolutely fantastic and still are—nevertheless it still was totally void of the sacred. And I believe it was this void, and my yearning for something sacred, something I was born to yearn for, which got me, into, in fact, a lot of trouble in my later teen years. I attended and was later expelled from five separate high schools and actually I’ll never forget the words of my last principal, to me—I never got past grade 10, incidentally, - the words of my last principal, who said to me, “you’re the kind of person that will either be a total success in life, or a total failure, so get out of my office” she said, “and go figure out which one you’re going to be.” And I left her office with those words ringing in my ears.
Now in the midst of all of this trouble and difficulty that I was going through, I believe God gave me something, a true gift, which prepared me for the receiving of his ultimate gift, which was himself, his presence, the revelation of his Christ in my life. And that gift, which lifted me out of this darkness, and helped me toward his light, was poetry. I began reading poetry when I was 15 years old, and I read it incessantly. I read every poet I could find. I read the entirety of their canon, of their corpus. And then I read their biographies, and then I read commentaries on their poems and by the time I was 17 years I had read every major epic that had been written, down through the centuries, even back into the Ancient Near-Eastern epics that I could get my hands on.
Now poetry became so important to me, because it was through poetry that I came to know Christ. I began reading the poems of John Milton, and when I was reading poems Paradise Lost, which I’ve read perhaps maybe eight or nine times, I was captivated by his Christianity. And I began reading also the poems of John Donne, and the poems of George Herbert and Robert Browning. And I began reading all of these Christian poets and became captivated with their teachings, but I was at that point, nowhere near accepting Christ. Nevertheless, it was on one night, after I had given a reading of my own poems—because I was writing incessantly as well—that I was sitting and it was in a restaurant with some friends, and it was that night that Christ entered my life and changed it forever in an instant.
Now the details of this I perhaps will discuss at some other time, for some other reason, but suffice it to say that I had become a Christian in an instant, in a crashing revelation. And from that moment on, I knew only two things: that I needed to be a disciple of this man Jesus about whom I knew absolutely nothing. I had never read the Bible except for a few pieces, those things that pertained to the poetry that I was reading and studying and obsessing on. And I knew nothing concrete about him, I only knew that I had met him, and that I needed to follow him and believe in him. But I also knew, inexplicably, that I had to be a priest as well, and I only knew one other Christian in the whole world at the time. And that other Christian had given me her number, and she asked me to call her at any time if we ever wanted to get into another argument, because just a couple months earlier we’d gotten into a big argument about Christianity.
And so I called her up and I’ve said, “I’ve become a Christian now. I’ve been up all night reading the Bible. I don’t know anything. I need to talk to somebody.” And she said, “meet me right away.” And we sat down to have coffee, and the very first concrete words out of my mouth after the hello, how are you, can I buy you a coffee, was “so I’m a Christian now, and I need to be a priest.” And she said to me, “don’t you mean minister?” And I said, “no, God said priest.” And she said, “well, don’t you mean like pastor?” And I said “no, I don’t understand it, he said priest.” And she said, “well you can only be a priest in a few churches. You can be a priest in the Anglican church.” And I’d heard of the Anglican church, I’d even attended once for a funeral many years earlier. She said “or the Catholic church.” And I said, “well I’ve heard of the Catholic church, so what’s the other one?” And she said, “or the Orthodox church.” I had no idea what that was. And she told me, “I’m an Orthodox Christian, and I’d like to invite you to our services.”
And the very next weekend, I was in the church, and within about five minutes of the Liturgy—being in the Liturgy, I knew that I could never leave. And why couldn’t I leave? Because, the Orthodox church that I was encountering was so full of beauty and joy, and richness, but also poetry. I was captivated by the poetry of the colours, of the icons, of the words that we were singing. And it was the poetry that drew me in deeper and deeper within the midst of the Orthodox faith. I’m not saying it was easy, but I am saying that it was certainly a gift of God that poetry had brought me to this place.
Now I say all of that because in this podcast, I would like to read you a poem. In fact I would like this to be a regular feature in these podcasts. And I want to call it something unique,—or at least I think unique. I want to call these little poems that I want to insert and explain and exegete and maybe inspire you with, I want to call them Redemption Songs. Redemption Songs, obviously from the Bob Marley song, the redemption songs, these songs of freedom. Because I think that these poems are redemptive songs, and I think if we read them we can access the depths of the Christian experience, as people lived it and wrote about it. And to start it all off, I want to read a poem by perhaps my number one, absolute favourite poet in all the world, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Now Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit when he died. He died in 1889, he was born in 1844. He was a Jesuit living in England. He was a brilliant man, a genius in fact. He grew up in Oxford, attended Oxford, he graduated at the top of his class in Balliol College and he became involved in the Catholic movement in Oxford at the time, led by Cardinal Newman, which was a sort of Catholic renewal in England at the time, very controversial. And he himself became converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism.
When he converted he decided that he himself had to go and be a priest. And so he left everything, his career in classics behind, and he went to study in the vigorous studies of the Jesuit order. And at that time he gave up writing poetry all together, because Hopkins had written a great deal of it already, and, because h e did not feel that it was appropriate for his profession. But all that changed many years into his studies, with the wreck of the Deutschland off the coast of England. He felt moved and compelled and asked his superior if he could write a poem about it and was given permission.
Now the poem that I would like to read you this evening is called God’s Grandeur. God’s Grandeur. And I would like to read it, and then, if I don’t kill it by explaining it, I would like to explain it, and exegete it, and I hope that you will be as inspired by this poem as I am continually today. The poem God’s Grandeur, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
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
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Now the poem itself, I think, is prophetic and important for us to understand the meaning of. Hopkins begins with the phrase, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And by the way, the poem is, in total, a sonnet. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” And Hopkins is saying that the world, that in which we live, that creation that we exist and are part of, intimate with, is charged with the grandeur of God. Now the word charged is very significant. Hopkins himself writes in a letter to Robert Bridges, one of his friends, and the former poet laureate at the time, of England. He says, “all things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them, give off sparks, and take fire, yield drops and flow ring and tell of him.”
So God’s glory, God’s grandeur, God’s presence in the midst of this world fills this world and charges it so that if we just look at it, touch it, move our hands over the grass and gaze at the flowers, and behold the trees, and see the mountains and look upon the sunlight lazily glimmering off the lake, we can see God’s glory. It’s filled with it, it’s animated with it, it moves with God’s glory and God’s presence. And how could it be otherwise? God makes the world and dwells in it. He makes it to reflect his glory. In fact, this was an underlying philosophy in Hopkins’ teaching. Namely that all things are telling of the glory of God, and that everything is created that it might express his glory, and in its own particular way. In another podcast coming up, I’m going to be elucidating how his concept is played out in the great works of St. Maximus the Confessor on the presence of God in creation.
So the world is charged; electrified; vivified, and revealing, with our touch and gaze and experience of it, the glory and the grandeur and the presence of God. And he outlines this, he teases it out with an image. He says, “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.” He’s imagining here the foil, the tin foil that we have, tinsel foil, that if you shake it, it forks and flashes the light that is reflected upon it. But here he uses just a beautiful image. He says, this grandeur of God, “it gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.” Here he’s using a profoundly Biblical image, the image of the olive, and the image of the olive being crushed, and from the crushing of the olive comes the ooze of the oil of the glory of God. And that word crushed is so important, because it is an image of Christ crucified. You see, Christ could not have revealed the glory of God had he not been crushed and crucified upon the cross like an olive crushed, revealing the will of God. It is the broken humanity of Christ which reveals the glorious healing divinity of God. And there is no other way around it. In another poem he writes about this greatly, and perhaps in another Redemption Song podcast I’ll elucidate that poem as well. The poem is called The Windhover if you want to go read it.
Then he says, he asks the question, which he’s going to elaborate on, and then answer, later on in the poem. He says, “why do men then, now not reck his rod?” So why don’t we wreck it, why don’t we destroy it? The rod here not just being the rod of the shepherd, but being the rod, the charging rod, the electrifying rod which is at the centre of the world, and charges it and electrifies it. He says, “why do men then now not reck his rod”, destroy it, because then he says, “generations have trod, have trod, have trod.” You have that ploddingness, “ have trod, have trod”, the weariness of it all. Generations have trod upon this world, and “all is seared with trade”, “seared with trade.” It has been stamped with, and burned with the trade. Now trade here is not just the work that we do. The trade here is commerce; what we do in the midst of this world, trading things.
I’m reminded of the story of The Little Prince, where the little prince has left his planet and is going from planet to planet, and he comes to the planet, the tiny planet of the businessman, who has only been interrupted three times in so many years in his life, and he complaining that the little prince is disturbing him from this elaborate counting 52 million, and he has this elaborate number. And the little prince says, “what are you doing?” And he says, “I’m counting the stars.” And he says, “why are you counting the stars?” And he says, “because I own the stars. If I count the stars then I own the stars.” He says “how can you own the stars?” He says, “if I count them, and I make them mine, I own them.” He says, “what good can you do with the stars if you own them? They’re no good to you.” And he says, “that doesn’t matter. I own them.”
And so trade, commerce seeks to take that which is God’s creation, and to own it, to commodify it. And we do it in the worst possible way. It’s like the proverbial story of the person living happily on an island in a beautiful shack by the sea, and he picks his fruit and catches fish outside of his front door, and has much leisure time to enjoy the island and the surroundings. But then along comes a man of industry who purchases the island and builds a factory on the island, then hires the man, to work in his factory and tells him, “if you work hard enough, you can buy the processed fish that I’ll catch and can for you, and you can eat the fruit that I’ll be harvesting and selling to you. And maybe you’ll work hard enough that you’ll actually have weekends off and a bit of time to enjoy your shack by the sea.” And that’s exactly what’s happened.
And that’s what’s happening with advertising in the media, television itself, may I add, is a media that has been created and used, harnessed, solely for the purpose of advertising. Television existed in the 1920s, but it had no use whatsoever. Television itself was understood as being inherently a boring medium. That’s why, by the way, television seeks at all costs to sort of pimp up , if you’ll excuse the phrase, the camera angles, and the quick shots, and the zoom-ins, because any person knows that if you just put a camera on a thing, then it will be a very boring thing to watch. That’s why you don’t watch televised plays for instance, because television in inherently boring. But it was after the 1940s, when all of the men came home from the war, jobless, and the women had to concede to the men coming home their jobs, the military industrial complex had ground to a halt after the war, and everybody still had the Great Depression booming in their minds. And of course what happens is, is you need to have an influx, in a generation of an economy, a commercial economy. And so, television was born, because television was understood as being the ideal medium through which one would advertise. And it’s very interesting.
Advertisements always sell that which we do not need. Have you ever noticed an advertisement for fresh fruit, picked off the trees? Or meat? Or the staples of life? No. Advertising is always advertising processed foods. Foods that are of no particular value, but they’re creating a need for it nevertheless. They’re advertising cars, they’re advertising just about anything that we don’t particularly need in this world. But I’ll come back to that in a later podcast, and I’ll explain why shortly.
Now, “all is seared with trade.” So it’s been seared, burned with trade, with commerce. And then he says, “it’s been bleared, smeared with toil; and wears man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell.” Then he says, powerfully, “the soil is bare now. Nor can foot feel, being shod.” And here we have a wonderful image, precisely because the soil itself has been tortured. It has been completely stripped. It has now no intrinsic value for man. And worse yet! We are shod. We all remember that when Moses approached the burning bush, and stood before God, God’s first words to him, “take off your shoes, for where you stand is holy ground.” And so he is commanded to connect with the very earth. And not in a mediated way through man, but directly with the earth which is the revelation of God’s presence. In fact, when we look at our own societies, our human societies, we are always living through a mediated experience. We rarely have bare feed, just to carry that image. But also, the streets, and the suburbs, and the houses, and the technologies, and just about everything we see is mediated through human design and through human eyes. Everything is mediated through human beings and not a direct mediation through the natural world created by God.
And so, our feet are shod, and therefore, no ground is sacred, and there is no genuine connection with anything of this grandeur of God that we experience. So the situation is bleak, it’s terrible. But Hopkins goes on, in the final portion of this famous sonnet. He says, “and for all this”, in other words, with everything that is happening, “nature is never spent.” Never spent. It is never done. Why? He’s explaining, why is it that we’re not wrecking his rod? Why is it that the glory of God continues to shine out and to gather to a greatness from the ooze of oil crushed? Not just because nature is never spent. Why is nature never spent? He says, “there lives”—lives, living something that’s alive—“there lives the deepest, freshness”—and then in this beautiful phrase—“deep down things.”
I love the “deep” and “down.” Just those vowels within those words bring us down into the midst of things itself. So there lives something fresh deep down things, that cannot be touched or destroyed by the fallenness of man. And then he explains what that freshness is. And perhaps one of the most beautiful moments in 19th century poetry, “And though the last lights off the black West went”, so they’re gone. “Though the last lights off the black West went” he’s saying, although it is dark, nevertheless, the last lights have disappeared over the horizon of the west. Turning to the east he says “Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs.” “springs.” He’s rhyming “deep down things” with “the morning that is eastwardly springing, and then he says, he’s describing here the firmament of the east. He says, “because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
So why is it that “men now not wreck his rod”? Because, he says, no matter what they have done to it, the Holy Ghost bends over the firmament of the eastward world, with warm breast, imaging the sun, and with the bright wings. And here he reaches back into the great poetry of the first chapter of Genesis, where we have this image of the Holy Spirit moving over the face of the deeps and bringing forth light from the turbulent waters. And here as well, it is my contention that Hopkins is referencing St. Basil’s image, in his 6th amaraon. See, St. Basil wrote the Hexameron, in which he studied this creation building upon the idea that God said, “it is good.” It is good. And here Hopkins is referencing a little moment in the Hexameron where St. Basil describes the Holy Spirit moving over the face of the deep as a bird, with its breast brooding over the world, and from that brooding, bringing forth life out of it. Bringing forth the life from the potentiality of that world. So that the Holy Spirit is active and cherishing the nature of the waters, says St. Basil, “as one sees a bird cover the eggs with her body and impart to them vital force from her own warmth.” Now, when I was a young man, a new Orthodox Christian, and I read St. Basil’s Hexameron for the first time, I decided that must be, that just must be, a reference to it in Hopkins’ poems. And so I did all my research, and I checked through the records of what Hopkins was reading in the 1880s when he wrote this poem, and the library where he was taking things out, and I found in fact, that he had taken out and read Basil’s Hexameron. So I have pretty good circumstantial evidence that indeed he’s making a direct reference to it, of whatever importance that may be to anyone.
Nevertheless, Hopkins makes the point, that this world is brooded over by the Holy Spirit, and that it is in fact the Holy Spirit which reaches down into the depth of things and imparts to it its vitality through its own warmth. And that’s why Hopkins says that we cannot “reck his rod.” In fact, we only end up destroying ourselves. We only end up being in the absence of God. Our feet are shod, having no direct connection with the world, which is “charged with the grandeur of God.”
Now, I say all of this, and I chose this poem very carefully, simply because I wanted it to be an introduction to the next four podcasts that I will be delivering. I would like to deliver four podcasts called, Four Arguments for the Building of an Ark. I want to go through the story of Noah piece by piece, and explore it, and examine it, and understand the significance of Noah’s building of an ark to our own day, and to our own lives as Orthodox Christians in this world, at this time, with these difficulties, that all of us face. And I look forward to enjoying Noah’s ark, the four arguments for building an ark with you, very soon.