It is early in the year 1866 and Gerard Manley Hopkins is contemplating a long Lent. He is a future cleric for the Church of England, studying at Oxford, and heavily under the influence of the aestheticism of Ruskin. He has a bright future. He has been privately writing poetry for some time now, but is beginning to feel as though everything about his present situation is actually trending toward glorification of self. This is not at all what how he desires to live, and for a sensitive soul such as his, this is not a nagging thought to be brushed aside and thought of no more. He longs to serve God humbly and truly. Even the poems he has agonized over and painstakingly crafted begin to feel as a weight around his neck. Many of them are burned never to be read again.
During Lent, many of us impoverish ourselves by denial of simple pleasures. This is a good habit. But Hopkins wants more. He wants to achieve a habit of perfection. To accomplish this he must sacrifice everything, for saints desire only God. Not only are the poems discarded, so too is his comfortable Anglicanism and beloved Oxford along with career and friends. He enters a personal Lent of uncertain duration, trudging on pilgrimage to the grim-grey factory town of Birmingham to consult with the most famous and downtrodden of all Catholic converts in England, John Henry Newman.
He becomes Catholic and life changes forever. Eventually he begins writing poems again, but no one cares to read them. A few are published here and there but he really only has two interested readers while he is alive. He also enters the Society of Jesus and is more or less a pastoral failure, eventually shipped off to exile in Ireland to teach at a failing university. And yet, at the end of his illness-shortened life, he lies on his deathbed far from home and cannot help but repeatedly exclaim, “I am so happy. I am so happy.”
By what standard is this man able to claim happiness? He has finally reached the end of his life-long Lent and in the process has found himself completely, totally impoverished along with Our Lord. Perhaps we do not really believe this when we are told, but the experience of the saints teaches that there is no greater joy than the happiness of the Cross.
I often reproach myself that I give too little to God, am overly concerned with creature comforts, hesitate to fully place my own sacrifice on the altar to be joined with that of Our Lord. Perhaps this is why Gerard Manley Hopkins is my hero. He faithfully accomplished what it seems I cannot. He was not a successful man, but he was holy and he was happy. In the end, he shows how God cares for those who are weak and humble, feeding us with his very lifeblood and clothing us in marriage garments as gorgeous as lilies of the field.
I’m getting ahead of the liturgical season, though. The lily-coloured resurrection garments still await. We are still in the dark night of Lent. Back in 1866, while still agonizing over the decision to enter the Catholic faith, Hopkins reflects on the approach of Lent and achieving The Habit of Perfection. This one evaded the flame and emerges as a sign to us of eternal love.
The Habit of Perfection
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorled ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shelled, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.