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  • Between the warrior and the monk (iii): poetry and sacrament

    Posted by Charles Cameron on June 4th, 2012 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit -- a warrior, a monk, and (still to come, in a fourth and final post) where that leaves me ]
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    How I have loved that handwriting! How I loved that man! How I have loved that book…

    *

    I am fifteen, seventeen years old. I walk a few hundred yards in the chill English dawn to our little parish church to “serve Mass” at 6am, for this man whose intense gaze and tireless care for those he is with made him take of his hat to Mrs Tutu, and ask Hugh what would get him out of his hospital bed fastest. He brings the same gaze and care to bear on me, and talks to me about the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work he loves.

    Trevor Huddleston taught me to love poetry when he showed me Hopkins, and I cannot exactly tell this story without “reading” you a bit of the man’s work, because it gets to the heart of the matter.

    Hopkins has a very brilliant poem, As king fishers catch fire, which requires quite a bit of “unpacking” since Hopkins writes poetry as though packing an intolerable amount of sound and meaning into a very small space. The poem is about what Hopkins calls “selving”: being the self you are, ie being true not just to your possibilities, but to your flavor, your individuality. In the theological termino0logy of Duns Scotus: hacceitas.

    Here’s how Hopkins expresses it:

    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
    Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
    Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
    Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

    We selve, we become ourselves — we deal out into the world that being which dwells indoors, inside, within us.

    The second half of the poem goes like this:

    I say more: the just man justices;
    Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
    Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is –
    Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
    Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
    To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

    Let me try at least to unpack this much:

    The man who is just, he’s saying, goes about doing acts of justice (there’s no difference between his nature and his deeds), he is tethered to grace (has an inward center with which he is perpetually in touch), and that tether is what ensures his actions (“goings”) are of the quality of grace.

    He — and here Hopkins tell us what this is really all about, from his own perspective as a deeply religious man and a Catholic priest in the Jesuit order — acts Christ, for that is how God sees him. Each one of us is, in God’s eye, Christ, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places”. That’s the great gift Hopkins brings us, the understanding that being made in the image of God, we play here on earth like so many Christs, each with its own character and “self”, each one capable of grace… and thus, each individual beautiful to God “through the features of men’s faces”.

    Here, should you care to read it, is the whole poem.

    *

    Trevor offers his hands and voice as a priest at Mass to the great poetical transformation of “bread” into “body” and “wine” into “blood” that stands at the heart of the Christian mystery, and eats, digests, the divine presence among us, and offers that divine presence in the appearance of a wafer of bread and sip of wine to whoever “partakes of communion” with him.

    And walking to Mass, or walking back from Mass, he talks to me about South Africa, and the kids he knew there — Desmond and Hugh among them no doubt, though I learned those particular stories far later — and the pass laws which penalized his students when they were late getting home from work in a “white” part of town, and his fights in the courts and in the press for young people he loved — Hugh or Desmond or Oscar or whoever goes to Mass, receives Christ on his tongue, and that “keeps all his goings graces” — because “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, and Sophiatown, a shanty town just outside Johannesberg, is one of them.

    Father Trevor, school teacher, photo credit Constance Stuart Larrabee

    Am I making any sense? It was Trevor’s love, which “saw” the divine in each individual child he taught and coached and loved, which could not tolerate apartheid, which could not stop at a boy’s skin color and segregate or tolerate segregation.

    *

    Loving the individual before him with that gaze and care, he loved and taught me, for seven or eight years, in four hundred wonderful letters and many visits, Masses, days spent flyfishing for trout, voyages by car or train to visit a friend or a cathedral…

    And if I could express the essence, it was this: that you tether yourself to the divine on the inside, by belief, by ritual, above all by contemplation — and then you move through the world infused with that sense of the sacred in and around you, and do whatever is needful to bring about a more just society.

    You justice, you keep grace. That keeps all your goings graces.

    Christ the King, Sophiatown, photo credit Eliot Elisofon

    Not surprising, then, that his devotion to the kids of a shanty town in South Africa led him into court battles, into association with Luthuli and Mandela, into becoming one of a handful of “white” signatories of the African National Congress, into the award of the Isitwalandwe, the writing of his great book, Naught for your Comfort [link is to a free download] — which was smuggled out of the country to be published just a day ahead of the Special Police impounding all his papers — to bestsellerdom, to stirring the conscience of the world, to the Presidency of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and finally to an archbishopric and a knighthood.

    He saw Christ, which was his name for love, and served him.

    Simple.

    *

    Father Trevor Huddleston wrote what I think must be among the most powerful words of eucharistic theology I have ever read in Naught for Your Comfort — and they convey as nothing else can the immediacy with which he connects his ritual gestures and acts as a priest with the political necessity to overthrow the apartheid regime in his beloved South Africa — and for that matter, any and all hatred and oppression everywhere…

    On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

     

    6 Responses to “Between the warrior and the monk (iii): poetry and sacrament”

    1. John Says:

      I seldom post comments. This is wonderful.

    2. Charles Cameron Says:

      Thank you.

    3. Dan from Madison Says:

      I also have enjoyed this series of posts. Looking forward to the next one.

    4. Bill Brandt Says:

      Yes, thank you Charles for taking the time and effort telling us about these to great people. You were lucky to have them in your life.

    5. David Friedman Says:

      Presumably, “naught for your comfort” is a reference to “The Ballad of the White Horse” by GKC.

    6. Charles Cameron Says:

      Yes indeed. The epigraph of the book reads:

      I tell you naught for your comfort,
      Yea, naught for your desire,
      Save that the sky grows darker yet
      And the sea rises higher.

      GILBERT KEITH CHESTERTON
      Ballad of the White Horse