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The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe – Fr. Aidan Nichols on Gerard Manley Hopkins II

August 31, 2011

 

The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe
                Gerard Manley Hopkins

                Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

                 I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name. 
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air. 

                If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

                  Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

                So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

                Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Just the point at which to introduce the comparison with Mary: Hopkins characterizes this other mother by two features of her role as Catholic Christianity sees it. The first is her divine motherhood, by which she became the Theotokos or God-bearer, giving welcome in “womb and breast” to the “infinity” of the person of God the Word, now become what the medievals called Verbum abbreviatum, the “abbreviated Word”, inasmuch as his divine hypostasis, from the moment of the Annunciation onward, acts as the personalizing subject of an instance of human nature.

Thus is the Godhead of the Son “dwindled to infancy” in the Christ-child — without, for all that, suffering the loss of those divine attributes which make him the foundation of the universe and of the moral law. The role of our Lady at the Annunciation is so essential to Incarnation robustly conceived that it already justifies, in classical Christian vocabulary, the exalted language of channel of divine grace, which, in point of theological fact, Hopkins will use for her under a second distinct heading.

Drawing on a doctrinal tradition, which has never (yet) attained dogmatic status, he affirms that she “mothers each new grace / That now does reach our race”. The inclusion of the words “each new” here goes beyond what Mary’s divine motherhood by itself could lead us to say; it is a confession of Mary’s “sub-mediation” of the grace of Christ to individuals here and now. Were we in any doubt on the matter, Hopkins himself dispels it for us in a sermon:

Now holiness God promotes by giving grace; the grace he gives not direct but as if stooping and drawing it from her vessel, taking it down from her storehouse and cupboard. It is in some way laid up in her.
The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

So “Mary Immaculate” — a title which had surged in popularity through the ex cathedra definition of the all-holiness of the Mother of God in 1854, delighting those who followed the via Scoti, “Scotus’ way” — is “Merely a woman” and yet her “presence” and “power” is “great as no goddess’s / Was deemed, dreamed”.

This is a deliberately uncomfortable paradox, and Hopkins is positively willing us to ask whether he has not mired himself in contradiction. Can Mary of Nazareth, someone whose being is altogether finite (as the being of the Word incarnate is not), have so divine a role without calling into question her finitude or God’s infinitude or both? Hopkins resolves the issue by reimagining this role as that of a pane of glass which has no more — and no less — to do that letting the Light shine through it. She “This one work has to do —  / Let all God’s glory through”, and even this is feasible only by the divine antecedent will and covenant: “God’s glory which would go / Through her and from her flow / Off, and no way but so”. St Bernard, a major articulator of this tradition, remarks simply in his sermons: “It is God’s will that we should receive all graces through Mary”. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermo VII de Aguaeductu.

The following lines (35 to 45) develop one of the loveliest titles for Mary in Latin devotion: Mater misericordiae, the “Mother of mercy”. Hopkins finds a functional identification between Mary and mercy: We are “wound / With mercy round and round” just as we are by air, and that is because we are also so wound by the “wild web, wondrous robe” of Mary as it “Mantles the guilty globe”.

There are two implications. First, the mercy which is first and foremost an attribute of God, both in Himself and in the saving economy whereby the Holy Trinity reaches out to us, is more palpably itself — that is, so far as human experience is concerned — when God wills that mercy to be mediated by Mary.

Human beings respond more fully to the mercy of God when they receive it from the hands of a mother. Hopkins as believer experiences the Mother of the Lord not merely as an occasional dispenser of divine mercy but as that very mercy: “more than almoner, / The sweet alms’ self is her”. (Of course that must be understood in terms of the interrelation of finite and infinite discussed above.) The second implication can be stated more shortly, as Hopkins himself states it: “men are meant to share / Her life”. It is an appeal to Christians who benefit from Mary’s attention to make some effort consciously to reciprocate.

In lines 46 to 72 Hopkins restates the problem of a confession of the Blessed Virgin’s universal mediation and develops, this time at more length, an explicitly Christological attempt to solve it. First, he reiterates the omnicompetence of Mary’s gracious sub-mediation: “She holds high motherhood / Towards all our ghostly good” (emphasis added). It is her “part” to “lay” — allay, or lay low — concupiscence, man’s potentially fatal trend, even after baptismal regeneration, toward evil, the “deathdance in his blood”. This is the heart of what the ascetic tradition calls holy warfare, and nothing could be more pertinent to our final salvation. So, once again, how can a mere creature receive this role? Hopkins proposes an answer in terms of the mystery of Jesus Christ, the one and only (non-subordinated) “Mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5).

Any “part” Mary has consists, in one or another way, in disposing us to be the “place” where Jesus Christ comes to be in us. She has no part that will not be “Christ our Savior still”. He continues to take on — mysterically — substantial life in the faithful, as once he did biologically in the womb of her who is, in the words of ancient litany, the “Faith of all the faithful”, the mother of all believers. Hopkins cries out with wonder — “O marvelous!” — at this truth of mystical theology, namely that Christ makes of his members “New Nazareths”, “New Bethlems”.

And he finds here the key to the puzzle of Mary’s universal task in our regard. Her role is precisely to “conceive / Him, morning, noon and eve” in us. And this explains how her mediation is both utterly comprehensive and yet altogether without derogation from the mediation of Christ. Hopkins emphasizes that this is no abstruse theory, since it concerns the ultimate issue in practical reason: my personal raising to nobility of stature. What is at stake is “New self and nobler me”. In his essay “On Personality, Grace and Freewill”, Hopkins called the divine action in sanctifying a person and bringing him to the condition of deification “a lifting him from one self to another self, which is a most marvelous display of divine power”.[The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)] God appropriately does this through Christ by way of Mary, since the unique Mediator is “Both God’s and Mary’s Son”.

Hopkins would hardly be Hopkins if, thinking about air and its translucence, he did not look up at the sky. And so he bids the reader, “look overhead / How air is azured”. On a fine day, the air above us is shot through with blue, “sapphire-shot”, but that can hardly be said to “stain” light, to detract from its purity. Well, so it is with the grace of God when it comes to men through the hands of our blessed Lady. So far from distorting the real relations of God, man, and the redeemed creation, this Marian impregnation enables them to stand out with greater distinctness. “The glass-blue days are those / When every color glows”. And he adds that “this blue heaven / The seven or seven times seven / Hued sunbeam will transmit / Perfect, not alter it”. Hopkins had worked out this aspect of the controlling analogy of the poem in a sermon given at Leigh in 1879:

St Bernard’s saying, All grace given through Mary: this is a mystery. Like blue sky, which for all its richness of color does not stain the sunlight, though smoke and red clouds do, so God’s graces come to us unchanged but all through her. Moreover she gladdens the Catholic’s heaven and when she is brightest so is the sun her Son.
Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. Devlin, SJ (Oxford 1959)

As Hopkins declares in the poetic version of this claim, if some change in the light conditions on earth does have an effect in terms of “Bloom breathe” — encouraging the opening of buds into blossom, then that “one breath more / Earth is the fairer for”.

Without that translucent yet protecting atmosphere, by contrast, our earth would be unlivable, such as we can assume planets of thin atmosphere too close to their own suns to be. In an extraordinary disruption of tone, producing an infernal effect worthy of Milton (lines 94 to 102), Hopkins imagines how, if air did not “slake” the sun’s “fire”, the heavens would be transmogrified into a “grimy vasty vault”, the centre of the solar system a “blear and blinding ball / With blackness bound”.

And lest we miss the point he rubs it in. That is how men would look at deity were it not for the Incarnation: “So God was god of old”. The “limbs like ours”, which the humanized Word developed from the body of the Virgin, are what endear the dreadful God of the cosmic spaces to us. Were his glory — his majestic radiance — shown us “bare”, either it would “blind” our minds or at least “less would win” them. The interposing hand of Mary, through which the glory shown in Christ is showered down on us “leaves his light / Sifted to suit our sight”.

The poem ends with a personal appeal from the poet to the Mother of Christ to be with effect for him what he by his words has declared her to be in principle for everyone.

 

 

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