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Gerard Manley Hopkins – at one with nature

Gerard Manley Hopkins brought a tactile, physical intimacy to his observations of nature and it is perhaps his praise to creation that so delights the reader:

‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God.’

His study of nature was to bring his full attention to it, breaking down all possible physical, mental or emotional barriers of understanding so that he seemed to merge with what he was studying. He said ‘what you look hard at seems to look hard at you.’ Here is openness and receptivity and generosity towards what he loved both for its own sake and for its reflection of Divinity.

At times the poet seems through his writings at one with nature. The Robert Bernard Martin biography looks at how Hopkins wrote about coming home from confession one night:

‘In returning the sky in the west was in a great wide winged or shelved rack of rice-white fine pelleted fretting’.

Here the words ‘in returning’ refers to Hopkins himself – not the sky but somehow the use of the words serve to achieve a kind of obliteration of distinction between self and sky.

And again writing about watching the river water he wrote:

‘by looking hard the banks began to sail upstream, the scaping unfolded, the river was all in tumult but not running, only the lateral motions were perceived, and the curls of froth where the waves overlap shaped and turned easily and idly.’

So here the external view of the river becomes the viewpoint of the water and then the mind of the observer Hopkins; this then Martin thinks is Hopkins’ recurrent theme of the unity of the human and nature as parts of Divine creation. For Hopkins, if you look hard enough at a river or a flower or an animal then that which is studied radiates back a meaning – one that is unique. This is about inscape – the inner meaning, the inner coherence of the individual. This is perceived only through close examination or through empathy; it’s not dependent upon being recognized,  instead the extraordinary thing is that it is inherent in everything in the world, whether we notice it or not.

I am reminded here of Thomas Merton speaking about the transparency of God shining through everything – through absolutely every part of creation. Hopkins used the word inscape to indicate the essence of something, arrived at by love and assiduity (meaning close or constant attention). To grasp or perceive inscape was to know what was essential and what was individual in whatever one contemplated. It was a form of identification. For Hopkins nature was not divorced from God, it was a symbol of God and ultimately a part of God,  ‘For Christ plays in ten thousand places.’

This then made the destruction of nature deeply painful (imagine how Hopkins would respond now as we decimate creation). Apparently he was especially sad and desolate whenever he saw a tree being felled. So from his poem Binsey Poplars (trees felled in 1879):

O if we but knew what we do

When we delve or hew –

Hack and rack the growing green!

            Since country is so tender.

And:  from Inversnaid:

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.


(NB Away myself for a holiday in the ‘wet and wildness’ of Scotland – so a short break from the postings)

Gerard Manley Hopkins – feeling the fell of dark

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night!

Much of the wonderful poetry of the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins sprung out of the certainty of his religious belief and his joy in God’s creation, but in the collection known as the Terrible Sonnets, or the Sonnets of Desolation, we read and experience the feelings about his emotional state. They express no doubt about the existence of God, but, rather as the biographer Robert Bernard Martin puts it, something much more terrifying – the certainty that God does exist and an almost equal certainty that God’s mercy does not extend to the poet himself, or, that God is unaware of the individual or careless of their fate. The inspiration to write the sonnets is born from terror and here religion does not offer comfort. Hopkins in a letter to Robert Bridges about the sonnets says that ‘four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.’

The poetry could be seen as one way that Hopkins could contain his mental dread and hold on to his sanity by accommodating the chaos of his unconscious through the composition and order of writing the verse. Martin writes:

‘It seems part of a recurrent pattern in his life, the necessity to give rigorous shape to what was frightening and dimly understood, just as he had chosen the most demanding of orders when he became a Jesuit. The sonnets did not quell the rebel emotions that disturbed him, any more than his vocation removed temptation; both, however, made the ramping beasts tractable.’

Any suggestion of suicide and self-destruction is resisted and in this verse Hopkins seems to touch rock bottom and then turn to life:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort. Despair, not feast on thee;

Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man

In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;

Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.


And in a later poem Hopkins turns to the comfort of the Resurrection that transcends depression and insanity:


Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, | joyless days, dejection.

                            Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. | Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; | world’s wildfire, leave but ash:

                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

                            Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins – ‘O the mind’

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

I have been fascinated by a biography of the Catholic Jesuit and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) picked up in the excellent Mrs Middleton’s second hand bookshop in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. One of the aspects that resonated once again was the links and interweaving of the psychological and the spiritual. The link between Hopkins’ psychological struggles and his spiritual vocation is present throughout his adult life. The biographer states that the poet was too devout to mistake depression for spirituality, but the pain of what he felt emotionally undoubtedly sharpened his search for God’s presence. Hopkins might have thought of it as God’s way of directing him to the priesthood. Psychological insights and awareness of emotional difficulties were relatively limited in the way we might now think about them – this is pre-Freud but the biography reveals how often his spiritual inclinations fitted his psychological needs.

The biographer Robert Bernard Martin notes how Hopkins’ perceptions of his motivations are frequently startling combining an initial attribution to religious reasons, then a shrewd awareness that they also spring out of the predispositions of his own personality. The two views are not in conflict but seen as phenomena discussed using different perspectives and vocabularies but with the same patterning. Hopkins was interested in his dreams, working out (well before Freud and Jung) that ‘you can trace your dreams to something or other in your working life, especially of things that have been lately … But the connection may be capricious, almost punning.’

Tuned in to his own emotional state Hopkins describes how on an early retreat as a novice in the Jesuit training college in Roehampton, when one of his fellow novices was reading an account of the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, he, Hopkins, suddenly ‘began to cry and sob and could not stop.’ He was deeply moved by all accounts of the religiously dispossessed and the persecuted.

Hopkins’ love for the charismatic but ill-fated Digby Dolben and other young men is painfully both partially acknowledged then denied and repressed, with Hopkins probably determined on celibacy long before his time at Oxford. Martin asks whether celibacy for Hopkins and many others could be seen as a way of avoiding the admission even to himself of his homoerotic feelings. For Hopkins this sometimes was translated into repression of all physical beauty – so an act of penance became one of keeping his eyes on the ground. At times what he saw as sensual temptation became so strong that he despondently found he became excited at thinking of Christ’s passion or at examining Christ’s body on a carved crucifix.

As he became older the depressions intensified exacerbated by the lack of affection towards him and any atmosphere of human warmth in his life as a Jesuit. In one letter to his long-time friend the poet Robert Bridges Hopkins wrote: ‘I think that my fits of sadness, though they do not affect my judgement, resemble madness.’ And from this state of mind he wrote the Sonnets of Desolation also known as the Terrible Sonnets.

Looking for Wisdom 4

In his book ‘Be here now’ Richard Alpert/ Baba Ram Dass  describes how he was taken back to the temple and just stayed – no one asked whether he wanted to stay or study – there were no contracts, no promises and no vows. ‘There was nothing’. No one asked for money – there was no commitment required as he writes ‘it was all done internally.’

While there he received teaching in Raja yoga doing breathing exercises, different yoga practices, meditation, and study above all about non-violence through simple metaphors and phrases. One of the things that affected Ram Dass the most was the ability of the guru to know him inside out and he gives a number of examples. One involved Ram Dass travelling back to Delhi to sort out his visa and while there having a rather special deluxe vegetarian meal. He writes:

I had been on this very fierce austere diet and I had lost 60lbs. I was feeling great – very light and very beautiful – but there was enough orality still left in me to want to have a feast… and the last thing they served was vegetarian ice-cream with 2 English biscuits stuck into it. And those biscuits … the sweet thing has always been a big part of my life, but I knew somehow, maybe I shouldn’t be eating those. They’re so far out from my diet. It’s not vegetables – it’s not rice. And so I was almost secretly eating the cookies in this dark corner … and the next day took the bus back up to the mountain… Two days later we heard Maharaji was back… I hadn’t seen him in about a month and a half … I got a bag of oranges to bring to him and I came and took one look at him, and the oranges went flying and I started to cry and I fell down and they were patting me. Maharaji was eating oranges as fast as he could, manifesting through eating food the process of taking on the karma of someone else … he ate eight oranges right before my eyes … I was crying and he pulls me by the hair, and I look up and he says to me, ‘How did you like the biscuits?’

As the instances multiplied so Ram Dass realized that the guru knew all his thoughts but as he looked at Maharaji all he saw in response was love.

‘Now the impact of these experiences was very profound. As they say in the Sikh religion – Once you realize that God knows everything, you’re free. I had been through many years of psychoanalysis and still I had managed to keep private places in my head …certain attitudes or feelings that were still very private. And suddenly I realized that he knew everything that was going on in my head, all the time, and that he still loved me. Because who we are is behind all that.’

This was the message that Baba Ram Dass brought back, and one interesting insight he notes is that the guru just gave him things that would help rather than accentuating all the bad things that might be going on in his head; in other words ‘sins’ are not particularly relevant it is who the person is in themselves that really matters.


Looking for Wisdom 3

After this first insight (see last post) Richard Alpert – later Baba Ram Dass continued to explore and experiment with hallucinogens including setting up a research study with Timothy Leary and taking vast amounts of drugs. What he noted was that there was always a ‘coming down’ and with that the realization that it was all immensely frustrating to be open to the kingdom of heaven and new states of awareness and then being cast out again. He was left with a general low level state of depression that whatever he knew still wasn’t enough.

‘I was four hours in a state of total homogenous light, bliss, and then I recall starting to “come down” and this huge red wave rolled in across the room … and it was all my identities, all rolling in over me … it was like this heavy burden I was going to take on myself … I realized I didn’t have the key…’

Inevitably he was thrown out of Harvard and in time found his way to India still failing to find what he was searching for, and now tired of the LSD experiences he began to feel intense despair. ‘I had gone through game, after game, first being a professor at Harvard, then being a psychedelic spokesman, and still people were constantly looking into my eyes, like “Do you know?” … and I was constantly looking into their eyes – “Do you know?”’ Meeting an American, Bhagavan Dass who repeatedly told him to ‘be here now’ Alpert travelled with him to meet his guru and so Alpert was introduced to Neem Karoli Baba whom Ram Dass called Maharaji.

The first meeting the guru asked Alpert for his car – this was a land rover borrowed from a friend and something Alpert was upset to be asked about about so the guru went to the heart of the idea of possessions, but also spoke to Alpert about the death of his mother confirming a vision Alpert had had a few days before of his mother’s presence with him. Alpert’s western mind couldn’t compute what was happening, he couldn’t make sense of it – he theoretically knew about psychic experiences and also experientially knew about them through chemicals… but this wasn’t either of those:

‘My mind just gave up. It burned out its circuitry … its zeal to have an explanation. I needed something to get closure at the rational level and there wasn’t anything. There just wasn’t a place I could hide in my head about this. And at the same moment, I felt this extremely violent pain in my chest and a tremendous wrenching feeling and I started to cry. And I cried and I cried and I cried. And I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t sad. It was not that kind of crying. The only thing I could say was it felt like I was home. Like the journey was over. Like I had finished. That night I was very confused. A great feeling of lightness and confusion.’

Looking for Wisdom 2

In analysing what was happening Richard Alpert – as he was known then – appreciated that his Jewish high-achieving, anxiety ridden background played its part but that he felt there was a lack of validity in him about what he was doing and this was exacerbated by the need to be ‘scientific’ about his research which felt like intellectual games.

‘There was not enough human beauty, human fulfillment, human contentment. I worked hard and the keys of the kingdom were handed to me. I was being promised all of it but…  the whole thing was too empty. It was not honest enough… Not enough was happening that mattered- that was real.’

His work as a therapist felt equally false:

‘And as a therapist I felt caught in the drama of my own theories. The research data showed that …Freudian patients ended up talking about their mother because of subtle reinforcement clues – it was so obvious.’

It was this general malaise that then led Alpert to experiment taking magic mushrooms with Timothy Leary who was working down the corridor: ‘I found him extremely stimulating and the students found him exciting to be around, because of his openness the new ideas and his willingness to take wild risks in thinking.’ So Alpert ‘turned on’ with Timothy Leary and some other colleagues by taking psychedelics. During this first trip he describes going through various revelations including:

‘I saw a figure standing about 8 feet away, where a moment before there had been none. I peered into the semi-darkness and recognized none other than myself, in cap and gown and hood, as a professor. It was as if that part of me, which was Harvard professor, had separated or disassociated itself from me….I thought “Well I worked hard to get that status, but I don’t really need it”’

This process repeats itself with Alpert seeing himself as a social cosmopolite and then all the different aspects of himself  …cellist, pilot, lover and so on. ‘With each new presentation, I again and again reassured myself that I didn’t need that anyway.’ Then there is the basic identity – the Richard Alpert-ness followed by his body – at this point the trip becomes a panic and frightening but  he heard an intimate voice asking ‘but who’s minding the store?’

‘I realised that although everything by which I knew myself, even my body and this life itself, was gone, still I was fully aware. Not only that, but this aware “I” was watching the entire drama, including the panic, with calm compassion. Instantly …I felt a new kind of calmness – one of a profundity never experienced before. I had just found that “I” …that point, that essence – that place beyond. A place where “I” existed independent of social and physical identity. That which was I was beyond Life and Death. And something else … It was wise… it was a voice inside that spoke the truth. I recognized it, was one with it… ’


Looking for wisdom

A good account of the difference between the first part of the road of life and what follows is given by the account of the journey of transformation of Dr Richard Alpert, PhD into Baba Ram Dass.

In his account he sees his life as a three part journey – the first as the social scientist stage; the second as the psychedelic stage; and the third, the yogi stage. As Carl Jung wrote and as was mentioned in last week’s post each stage contributes to the next stage – nothing is lost, Ram Dass sees the process as the unfolding of a lotus flower and what goes on inside a human being as they begin to search.

For him the first stage begins with a time of what he describes as success. This is 1961 when Dick Alpert was at the highest point of his academic career. He had many publications and had just returned from a time as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley; he was assured of a permanent post at Harvard and held appointments in four departments in social relations, psychology, graduate school of education and was also a therapist in the health service there and had research contracts at two other very prestigious universities at Yale and Stanford. He describes his equally ‘successful’ lifestyle, his collection of antiques and the charming dinner parties that he gave. He had cars and an aeroplane, a sailing boat and a bike and was living the way a successful single man was supposed to live in America. He says that he was writing books and so on but never felt a genuine scholar. He had begun therapy six years earlier and was seeing patients:

‘I became a “hip” therapist for the hip community at Stanford. When I’d go to parties, they’d all say “Here comes the shrink” and I would sit in the corner looking superior”. In addition I had spent five years in psychoanalysis at a cool investment of something like $26,000’.

Despite all this Alpert felt like something was wrong in his life but he didn’t know what and couldn’t get hold of it.

‘I felt that the theories I was teaching in psychology didn’t make it, that the psychologists didn’t really have a grasp of the human condition, and that the theories I was teaching, which were theories of achievement and anxiety and defense mechanisms and so on, weren’t getting to the crux of the matter.’

The theories he taught weren’t stopping him feeling neurotic and he felt that the nature of life still remained a mystery to him, it all felt far from wisdom.

Carl Jung on old age part 2

In a letter to Michael Fordham one of the founders of the Society of Analytical Psychology Jung wrote in June 1954 in his eightieth year:

‘Well, after all you are approaching the age when one has to become acquainted with the difficult experience of being superseded. Times go on and inexorably one is left behind, sometimes more, sometimes less, and one has to realize that there are things beyond our reach one shouldn’t grieve for, as such grieving is still a remnant of too youthful an ambition.’

He continues to say that while our libido certainly would go on ‘reaching for the stars’ fate steps in to make it clear that there needs to be a change where we move from seeking completion without and if we can read the signs we turn to our inner life.

Jung says that ‘alas! One becomes aware that there is so much to improve’ in the field of the inner person that instead we can even be grateful to the adversity of old age that helps us to have the necessary amount of free energy to deal with what he calls the ‘defects of our development, i.e. with that which has been “spoiled by the father and the mother”. In this respect, loss of such kind is pure gain’. Jung’s reference to what has been spoilt he takes from the I Ching hexagram 18 which reads: ‘Work on what has been spoilt’.

It’s of interest that here Jung is less concerned with spiritual growth but rather with the repairing of old psychological wounds which is also of course a spiritual activity.

In turning down an invitation to research a German poet Jung demonstrates his ability to let go of what might offer some interest and also some narcissistic gratification but at too great a cost; someone else will need to do this work:

‘A person carries the torch only a stretch of the way and must then lay it down, not because he has reached a goal but because his strength is at an end.’

For Jung the first part of life is the going out into the world to see

‘what the self wants you to do in the world, where – we are located, presumably for a certain purpose… As long as I am on the first part of the road I have to forget the self in order to get properly into the mill of the opposites, otherwise I live only fragmentarily and conditionally’.

The self is discovered through actions in the world, whereas on the second half of the road the goal and quest is the self so the earlier experiences are so to speak reassembled and put back together into the self, so, this second half of life then becomes the time for religious and spiritual searching for meaning and truth about oneself and about God.

Carl Jung on growing old, part 1

I am very slowly and intermittently reading volume 2 of C. G. Jung Letters 1951-1961 – correspondence from the last ten years of Jung’s life and from time to time he writes letters about old age.

In March 1951 at the age of 76 Carl Jung wrote to a colleague how age gradually pushes one out of time and the world ‘into wider and uninhabited spaces where one feels at first rather lonely and strange’. He was commenting on the death of his last close friend. Yet Jung still saw the goal of life at any age as the realization of the self and wrote that everything living dreams of individuation, for everything strives towards its own wholeness.

At the time he was continuing to deal with the fallout from his controversial work Answer to Job and answering many letters from theologians concerned by Jung’s understanding of God and Christ. For Jung, God was always an inner experience. He wrote:

‘God is not a statistical truth, hence it is just as stupid to try to prove the existence of God as to deny him. If a person feels happy, he needs neither proof nor counterproof.’

In another letter in February 1952 he wrote about developing what he called ‘islands of peace’. Places where he could be contented and true to himself:

‘Some of the main islands are: my garden, the view of distant mountains, my country place where I withdraw from the noise of city life, my library. Also small things I like books, pictures, and stones’.

A couple of years later Jung wrote to his colleague Aniela Jaffe begging forgiveness for ‘senile egoism’ and talking only of himself. He continues:

‘The 79th year is 80-1, and that is a terminus a quo which you can’t help taking seriously. The provisionalism of life is indescribable. Everything you do, whether watching a cloud or cooking soup, is done on the edge of eternity and is followed by the suffix of infinity. It is meaningful and futile at once. And so is oneself, a wondrously living centre and at the same time an instant already sped. One is and is not. This frame of mind encompasses me and hems me in. Only with an effort can I look beyond into a semi-selfsubsistent world I can barely reach, or which leaves me behind. Everything is right, for I lack the power to alter it. This is the debacle of old age: “Je sais bien qu’à la fin vous me mettrez à bas”’ [which translated is: ‘I know well that at the end you will put me down’].



Mary as the exemplar of true destiny

Mary gives us a vocation which is to become the place of God’s inhabitation, as through her agreement to become the place of God she offers the possibility that the world could also become a place of God’s indwelling in all living things.

Donald Allchin returns to the title of his book when he writes that Mary is called the joy of all creation, because the whole creation finds its possibility of fulfilment in her. In her this world reveals its true quality, as the good earth, the land of promise, the place where God’s blessing descends in its fullness – it’s then clear why May as the month of blossoms and leaf growth represents her so well.

‘An attitude of contemplative openness and delight before the gifts of God, a recognition of our own creaturely limitations and fragility, above all a certain awe and respect before the mysteries of existence … Only in the rediscovery of such attitudes, which are symbolized in the person of Mary … shall we begin to find a resolution of the urgent ecological problems which confront us, as a result of our inhuman rapacity and greed.’

It’s worth noting that this was written in 1984 and revised in 1993 but so many years later how much more does our world need the example of Mary towards God’s creation. For many and especially amongst those who are oppressed Mary has been the figure who gives life and courage: She is one in whom powers and dominations are brought down and the insignificance of the humble is exalted, in whom the world becomes fit for human and divine habitation.

For Thomas Merton, Mary is a model of simplicity and hiddenness, and in the late 1950s he commissioned a statue of the Mother and Child for the novitiate library at Gethsemani from an Ecuadorian sculptor Jaime Andrade. He asked for Mary to be as ‘the Indian woman of the Andes, the representative of all that is most abject, forgotten, despised, and put aside.’ In the final section of Merton’s prose poem Hagia Sophia which is set on the Feast of the Visitation Merton writes how Mary is the personal manifestation of Sophia – God’s own wisdom.

It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.