Hopkins & the Incarnation

I just finished A Heart Lost in Wonder, a short, accessible biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of my two favorite poets. There’s not much new here, but the author, Catherine Randall, writes a very engaging story, and goes into enough theology to make the key points clear, without too much detail for the non-specialist.

I think it deserves a mention in this Advent season.

There are several reasons for this; one main reason is the fact that she makes such a compelling case for the sacramental quality of his poetry. This is a technical term in the Catholic Church, and it points to something that “prepares us to receive grace and disposes us to cooperate with it.” I love thinking about his poetry this way, because the language of “sacramental” mirrors how he saw the whole world—“charged with the grandeur of God.”

As Hopkins fans know, it was Duns Scotus’ theology that provided the ontological underpinnings of Hopkins’ theological worldview and his focus on “the saturation of the natural world with the divine.” Here’s what Randall says about his discovery of Scotus: “The Aquinas (that Hopkins) had learned at seminary, magister of hierarchy of being, who taught that there were ladders of meaning all along the way to God—that insects possess less of God than horses, and horses have less than people—those teachings of Aquinas were countered by Scotus’s assertion of full Presence, the All in all, without hierarchy or created distribution of meaning or worth. Gerard found the theory for his own abiding certainty that the grandeur of God, before which he was rapt, ‘all lost in wonder’, could be concealed in the tiniest particle of nature.”

Scotus confirmed what Hopkins had sensed all along: “such an act of divine self-abasement (the incarnation) graced the entire created order, recognizing it as so infinitely lovable and worthwhile that it could now be regarded without skepticism or suspicion. Materiality could be a privileged vessel for the indwelling of God. Nature was indeed valuable, as Gerard had sensed.”

She describes him, even in seminary, as “showing signs of the mystic’s swerve from doctrine and dogma,” to an ecstatic sense of God’s immanence in the natural world.

We see this over and over in his poetry, so strongly marked by his attention to detail, his passionate observation of the natural world, and his strong sense of God’s presence in animals, trees, mountains and other natural phenomena. This is the point of the Hopkins quote I’m currently using as a signature in my email:

“All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we knew how to touch them give off sparks and take fire, yield drops and flow, ring and tell of [God].”

These insights are perfect for Advent, as we prepare for the incarnation, the moment when God was born in human form, when the Word became flesh, and when God bound Godself in love to the entire cosmos in Jesus Christ.

For Hopkins, “Christ’s enfleshment showed that the world of senses was not scorned by the Father. Quotidian reality could indeed be a privileged medium to epitomize and evoke divinity.” In Christ, God knows all creatures individually, in their particularity, and loves them individually, in their particularity.

There is another thing that relates to Advent and Christmas directly that I love about Scotus’ theology. Randall describes it this way: “Scotus had taught that atonement theology was beside the point; the incarnation could have and would have taken place independently of Adam’s fall and consequent need for redemption.” God comes in love, for love; not primarily to redeem us from sin, but for the glorification of Jesus Christ and for the physical embodiment of trinitarian love—love that overflows through the whole of creation, love in which we, and the whole cosmos, are invited to participate.

Even though Hopkins’ life wasn’t easy, and wasn’t long, he knew God’s love, he felt God’s presence, and he saw God all around him in the natural world. His poetry sings of the vibrancy of the Divine, visible in exquisite perfection in each individual creature, formed in love by God’s hand.

His poetic praises are perfect for any season, but especially, I think, for Advent and Christmas.

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