As we wander through each day, how much do we fail to notice? With gaze bent to our phones, distractions and advertising and vehicular commuting everywhere, the cult of economic productivity sapping our concentration, the white noise assaulting every nook and cranny of our audio spectrum wherever we happen to be, how often do we come to the end of a day and realize that we have failed to look at the sky even a single time to see the clouds or the stars, neglected to notice the heartbeat from deep within ourselves, overlooked the enchantment of each passing moment?
Perhaps the feast of All Saints is the shock to our system that we so desperately need each year, an annual attempt to come to grips even if only for a day with the mysteries of the universe and strength of the human bond, as ethereal as it seems and as tenuous a grasp as we have of its import. Tonight, many of us who are parents will walk the streets of our neighborhoods as dusk falls and streetlamps glow. There is a certain magic in the sight of so many children who have half a foot into another imagined world entirely. What these children anticipate on the Eve of All Hallows is a clue, but All Saints itself is so much more. Listen, and you will hear the voices of the saints murmuring unceasingly, the air humming with their prayers, and even if the sun doesn’t rise tomorrow their embrace will be ready to catch us up to glory.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote two poems for his mother. One is the well-known “God’s Grandeur,” the other a less-acclaimed but gorgeous poem about the communion of the saints called “The Starlight Night.”
Here it is in its entirety:
The Starlight Night
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then! — What? — Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Hopkins takes a well-worn trope, the stars of the night sky, and shows how masterful a poet he really is as he imagines the stars as fire-folk and elves’-eyes. To see the world with such originality, to not take it for granted, exacts a price. That price is to stop and pay attention, but it’s worth the effort because if all is “a purchase,” it is equally true that “all is a prize.”
If we are willing to expend the effort through prayer, patience, alms, and vows, then those stars reveal themselves to be quite special indeed. They are like candles aflame in the windows of a great “barn”, referring not only to the place Our Lord was born and forever enchanted the earth, but also lighting the way to the heavenly barn where the harvest of souls will be collected at the end of time. The vision is easy to miss. This is why Our Lord says, “But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.” He then tells a parable that it seems Hopkins has in mind, “In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.”
The wheat in the barn is Our Blessed Mother and all the saints, housed with Our Lord. The fact that human beings would be welcome into eternal blessedness is not a normal matter of course. Hopkins makes this clear with a masterful enjambment:
“withindoors house / The shocks.”
The bundles of wheat are “shocks” because nothing could be more surprising than their presence there with Our Lord. It is all a matter of grace. Like the stars of the sky, never to be taken for granted.
What is so beautiful about the picture Hopkins paints is that, although eternal life and the communion of saints is predicated on grace alone and in that sense is to be approached with fear and trembling, it seems to be a permanent fact of Our Lord’s love that it never ceases and never fails. Because of this, the starlit view is for ever available for those who have eyes to see. GK Chesterton says much the same in The Ball and the Cross when he writes, “Empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last for ever. What will remain? I will tell you. The Catholic Saint will remain.”
Yes, these will forever remain – Christ and his mother and all his hallows.