I close my eyes, and while my lips murmur the words of the Breviary which I know by heart, I leave behind their literal meaning, and feel that I am in that endless land where the Church, militant and pilgrim, passes, walking towards the promised fatherland. I breathe with the Church in the same light by day, the same darkness by night; I see on every side of me the forces of evil that beset and assail Her; I find myself in the midst of Her battles and victories, Her prayers of anguish and Her songs of triumph, in the midst of the oppression of prisoners, the groans of the dying, the rejoicing of the armies and captains victorious. I find myself in their midst, but not as a passive spectator; nay rather, as one whose vigilance and skill, whose strength and courage can bear a decisive weight on the outcome of the struggle between good and evil, and upon the eternal destinies of individual men and of the multitude.”
During my summer assignment this year at St. Monica’s parish in Coos Bay, Oregon, I was blessed to be able to lead a three-week faith formation class on poetry in the Catholic tradition. If you know me at all, you will not be surprised to learn that I spent all three weeks talking about my “old friend,” Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ—specifically his great masterpiece, the Wreck of the Deutschland.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a 19th-century Englishman, the son of a wealthy insurance broker, who—like most of the respectable and well-to-do in that particular time and place—was raised Anglican, but “fell in with the wrong sort” at Oxford and converted to Catholicism. In fact, not only did he join the Romish Church, but he soon applied to join the Jesuits—then one of the strictest religious orders around!
Nothing could deter Hopkins from his Jesuit vocation: not his family, who disowned him, nor his “secondary” vocation of poetry, which Hopkins felt to be incompatible with the ascetic life of a priest and religious. He did his best to suppress the yearnings of his nature to write, practicing strict custody of the eyes (so as not to be enthralled by the beauty of nature and perhaps spark some “fancy”) and burning all of his poetry after his entrance into the Society of Jesus, an event which he recorded somberly in his diary as the “slaughter of the innocents.”
That resolution changed, however, with the shipwreck of the S.S. Deutschland off the coast of Kent in 1875. Bound for America from Germany, she struck a sandbar in a midnight storm and foundered far enough off the coast that no-body could come to her aid until late the following day. During the night, more than a quarter of the ship’s passengers perished. Among them were five Franciscan nuns.
Hearing of this tragedy soon after in the newspapers, Hopkins’ Jesuit superior remarked to the community at large that somebody ought to write an elegy for these holy souls. Hopkins, for his part, took that comment as a direct order from his superior, and the Wreck of the Deutschland was the result: some 35 stanzas into which he poured all those years of pent-up creative energy and passion. It is an intense, at times lyrical, often quite difficult, but deeply arresting meditation on suffering, vocation, providence, and the presence or even pressure of God in the world. (“Past all,” Hopkins urges his reader, “grasp God, throned behind!”)
Why am I telling you all this? If any of the above has piqued your interest, the second and third classes are available below for your listening pleasure! (The first class was not recorded, but it is not necessary in order to understand the second, since we begin with a brief recap.)
Click here to listen to the second class (02:02:02).
Click here to listen to the third class (02:06:17).
Note: You may also right-click these links to download them to your computer or mobile device for later listening.
Further Links of Interest:
You can read along with the poem by clicking here.
You can also listen to the entire poem read brilliantly by British stage actor Paul Scofield here (just ignore the computer-generated animation which goes along with it!)
Last summer, I spoke on a similar topic at one of my parish’s monthly Philosophy Nights. Rather than a close reading of a poem, that talk was focused more broadly on the intersection of poetry and philosophy, reading an essay by Martin Heidegger and some selections from St. Thomas Aquinas. But you know we also read the Wreck, because—it’s me! The full talk was recorded by a parishioner and made available here.
During the Philosophy Night talk (which I gave before writing my philosophy thesis) as well as these classes (post-thesis), I reference said thesis quite a few times. If you are really interested in poetry and philosophy, especially Hopkins and Aquinas, you can download a copy of my thesis here.
Finally, you can listen to musical settings of many of Hopkins’ poems (including the Wreck) by Sean O’Leary here. Thanks to a parishioner of St. Monica’s for this recommendation.
At Matins, the first hour of the Divine Office this morning, we had one of my favorite verses as a responsory: “Cum essem parvula, placui Altissimo.” ‘When I was little, I pleased the Most High!’ It reminded me at once of this holy card I have posted on my door at the seminary, which shows St. Thérèse in Heaven kneeling at the feet of Our Lady and the child Jesus she loved so much. Mary has a bouquet of roses in her lap, and Thérèse is taking them one by one and dropping them down to earth, fulfilling her promise to spend her Heaven throwing down a shower of roses. If you look closely at the horizon, you will see the dome of St. Peter’s and the spires of the city of Rome: Thérèse, the “Little Flower,” is throwing her flowers of love down over the whole Church!
“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.” It seems to me that those few words are a concise summary of everything St. Thérèse taught in her simple, hidden life. To live a life pleasing to God does not require one to do great things. Maybe that’s the way to live a life pleasing the crowd, striving for greater and greater accomplishments to win people’s admiration or respect, but it is not the way to the heart of the Most High.
To please God does not require one to be the best, the brightest, the greatest looking, the most (fill in the blank). God does not need my eloquence to be pleased with me. God does not need my works or my many words to be pleased with me.
“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”
Not: “When I stayed up all night keeping vigil (or working on that paper until 3:00 in the morning), I pleased the Most High.”
Not: “When I M.C.’d that Mass, I pleased the Most High.”
Not: “When I gave a talk or led a prayer night at my youth ministry placement, I pleased the Most High.”
Not: “When I got all A’s, I pleased the Most High.” (Good thing, too, because I definitely didn’t last semester!)
Yes, all those things may please Him, but it is not because they are great things in themselves. It’s not as if our works please God in proportion to how important they are in the sight of the world or how perfectly we do them. They give joy to the Father’s heart only in the proportion that they are done with love.
“The value of the gift is in the love of the giver,” they say. The great things we do so that others will see them, or to live up to our own Pharisaical standards for ourselves, count for nothing in the light of eternity. They weigh no more than rust on the scales, a drop in the bucket. But the little things we do, which no one will ever know about except you and God, done purely out of love for Him and because you know they will please Him—those are truly great in His sight.
And love increases as selfishness decreases. I have to be empty of self-interest, of pride, of vanity, of concupiscence, of greed, and of all the other little teeming grasping lesser loves if I am to be filled with the one Love which really satisfies. I have to be “nada” if I am to be filled with God’s “todo.” To truly love is to be truly little.
“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”
And so, all God desires of me is … my littleness. My lowliness. My ordinary, sleeping-in-late, distracted-at-prayer-ness. My sinfulness! My weakness! God desires it. Not any of it for its own sake, but all of it for my sake. He desires me as I am, here and now, on April 9th, 2018 A.D.
Speaking of which, today is a pretty special day to me for a number of reasons:
- It’s my 22nd birthday,
- It’s the day St. Thérèse, my awesome Sister-Saint, entered the Carmel of Lisieux in 1888 (130 years ago today!),
- It’s the feast of the Annunciation—normally celebrated on March 25th (nine months before Christmas), but as Palm Sunday fell on that day this year, the feast was “translated” to the first available date after the Easter Octave—which happened to be today.
- The exact same thing happened in 1888, so Monday, April 9th of that year, on which St. Thérèse first received the Carmelite habit as a postulant, was also the feast of the Annunciation. (So cool!)
- As you may remember, my religious title as a Carmelite was Bro. Matthew of the Incarnation, so today is not only my birthday, but would have been my feast day in the Order! (I’m still celebrating it as my own 😉 )
- Today also marks a year and a day since I returned from Carmel to the Archdiocese of Portland. My two brother novices who “ran the course with joy” have both now professed their first vows as Carmelite friars. I was blessed to be able to attend Bro. Dustin’s first profession last month back in San Jose and Bro. Frank’s two days ago in Vancouver, B.C. Our Holy Mother Teresa is smiling in Heaven to have received these new sons!
I have had a year since I left to think, to pray, to keep discerning how God is calling me to live out my vocation. To enter deeply into the mysteries of all He has been doing in my life and in my heart. I do not have all the answers yet; I can’t say everything is clear. But I can say that the further I persevere in darkness and obscurity, “without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart,” the simpler and littler things seem to become.
For example, my heart is not wrestling with big questions or anxious about future possibilities. My discernment is no longer about which state in life God is calling me to—diocesan priest? Carmelite friar? husband and father? I am content to leave all of that in my Father’s hands. He has brought me to this place and state, and my heart resounds with a deep loving confidence that He will perfect the work He has begun. My discernment now is about what will please Him today, this hour, this minute: how I can be open to His love in this class, in praying this hour of the breviary, in this conversation: how I can be receptive to that love, and how I can be more open to reveal and share it with those around me.
“While I was yet a little one, I pleased the Most High.” And the littler I am, the more I please him! The abyss of my misery calls out to the abyss of God’s mercy, crying: Which is greater? The deeper my nothingness, the more deeply I can be filled with His All. “For God delivered all to disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.” (Romans 11:32).
God desires you, too, as you are at this time, wherever you are, however you are feeling, whatever you may have done or failed to do. Not at some unspecified future date. Not if you meet some preconceived list of conditions or achieve some hoped-for success or fame. Here. Now. In this place. As you are. “The Spirit and the Bride say: ‘Come.'” (Revelations 22:17).
Our Holy Father Francis gave me a great birthday gift: his new apostolic exhortation Gaudete et exsultate, “On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.” In it he writes:
15. Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness. Let everything be open to God; turn to him in every situation. Do not be dismayed, for the power of the Holy Spirit enables you to do this, and holiness, in the end, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life (cf. Gal 5:22-23). When you feel the temptation to dwell on your own weakness, raise your eyes to Christ crucified and say: ‘Lord, I am a poor sinner, but you can work the miracle of making me a little bit better’.
And again a little later on:
34. Do not be afraid to set your sights higher, to allow yourself to be loved and liberated by God. Do not be afraid to let yourself be guided by the Holy Spirit. Holiness does not make you less human, since it is an encounter between your weakness and the power of God’s grace. For in the words of León Bloy, when all is said and done, ‘the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint’.
AMEN! Let us listen to the Holy Spirit whispering to us through the words of Our Holy Father. “Do not be dismayed … Do not be afraid … Let everything be open to God … Allow yourself to be loved and liberated.”
Let yourself be little. Let yourself remain little. “‘Remaining little’,” writes Thérèse, “means that we recognize our own nothingness, that we await everything from the goodness of God, as a little child expects everything from its father, that we are not solicitous about anything, and that we do not think about amassing spiritual riches.”
“That is why I have remained little; my only care has been to gather flowers of love and sacrifice and to offer them to God for His good pleasure.”
“When I was little, I pleased the Most High.”
Desístite, et agnóscite me Deum, excélsum in géntibus, excélsum in terra!
Desist! and confess that I am God, *
exalted among the nations, exalted upon the earth.
Wednesday of Holy Week | Ps 46:11
Ego autem semper tecum ero;
apprehendísti manum déxteram meam.
Yet with you I shall always be; *
you have hold of my right hand.
Thursday of the Lord’s Supper | Ps 73:23
Dómine, coram te est omne desidérium meum,
et gémitus meus te non latet.
O Lord, all my desire is before you; *
from you my groaning is not hid.
Friday of the Lord’s Passion and Death | Ps 38:10
Exsúltat ut gigas percúrrens viam.
A strong man runs his course with joy.
Holy Saturday | Ps 19:5
The more he wants to give, the more he makes us desire, til he leaves us empty so as to fill us with blessings … God’s immense blessings can only fit into a heart that is empty. They come in that kind of solitude. For this reason, the Lord would love to see you, since he loves you so well, well and truly alone, intent on being himself all your company. And your Reverence will have to take heart and be content only with his company, in order to find all contentment in that; for even if a person were in heaven, if she didn’t align her will to want it, she wouldn’t be content.”
“Once in the dark of night,
my longings caught and raging in love’s ray
(O windfall of delight!)
I slipped unseen away
as all my home in a deep slumber lay.
Secure, in more than night,
close hid and up the stair a secret way
(O windfall of delight!)
in the night, in feigned array
as all my home in a deep slumber lay.
There in the lucky dark,
stealing in secrecy, by none espied;
nothing for eyes to mark,
no other light, no guide
but in my heart: that fire would not subside.
That led me on—
that dazzle truer than high noon is true
to where there waited one
I knew—how well I knew!—
in a place where no one was in view.
O dark of night, my guide!
O sweeter than anything sunrise can discover!
O night, drawing side to side
the loved and lover,
the loved one wholly ensouling in the lover.
There in my festive breast
walled for his pleasure-garden, his alone,
the lover remained at rest
and I gave all I own,
gave all, in air from the cedars softly blown.
All, in wind from the wall
as my hand in his hair moved lovingly at play.
He let my soft fingers fall
and I swooned dead away
wounded: all senses in oblivion lay.
Quite out of self suspended—
my forehead on the lover’s own reclined.
And that way the world ended
with all my cares untwined
among the lilies falling and out of mind.”
—San Juan de la Cruz, La noche oscura del alma
Tr. John Frederick Nims
For this feast of St. Cecilia, virgin-martyr of the early Church and patroness of musicians, I wanted to share one of my favorite antiphons from the Divine Office. It is so simple, but the words and the music just seem to “rhyme” (as my man Gerard Manley Hopkins might say)—there is a harmony between the melody and the language which exemplifies the very best of chant, which speaks straight to the heart.
The Bridegroom is speaking here to the bride. “Come!” he cries from the heights, like a trumpet blast—then, tenderly: “my chosen one,” as the antiphon drops a third. The musical movement mirrors the Incarnation: the ultimate miracle! that God became man so that man might become God: “that I may dwell in your heart,” as he sings with “a lingering-out sweet skill” (to quote G.M.H. again)—and that you may dwell in Me. Notice how the notes descend on “dwell” and then rise on “in your heart!” Down and up: down to the heart of the bride, up to the hearth of the Bridegroom, forever and ever and unto the ages of ages, amen.
Music Credit: Midday Prayer, Common of Virgins, Mount Angel Abbey. All rights reserved. Contact: Choirmaster, 1 Abbey Drive, St. Benedict, Ore. 97373.
As for myself, I am only a sinner, not yet beyond the reach of temptation; but even amidst all the devil’s machinations, I still strive to make progress and hope to attain at least some virtue, for I fear the judgment that awaits me. Futile desires becloud our minds. We need to pull ourselves up, therefore, because our very salvation is at stake!“
“You speak to me of the weight of years and you are twenty years old! Twenty, oh! I want sixty more years for you, filled with good sacrifices, all perfumed with myrrh and incense to console the Heart of your divine Spouse at your own expense.”
“May Jesus always keep for you this ideal of the exile which your eyes can discover and your soul taste. The Saints loved so much everything that was amiable in the works of God: flowers, nature, above all souls, and heavenly affections.”
“Could a spoiled child like you ever hesitate to abandon herself, to fall asleep peacefully in the arms of her Jesus, never fearing to be betrayed?”
“Sursum corda! Let us lift up our hearts! Let us soar more and more far away from what is earthly and human. Let us climb up to the Heart of Jesus. This is heaven before heaven; the heaven of heavens.”
“Long live peace, joy, confidence. Always smile for the divine Spouse.”