We painted the trees near our house with treacle and beer to make a trap for moths. We heard that creatures, rarely seen in the light of day would come when night fell. And they did.
Our first specimen was large, startling, magnificent. An Old Lady moth, big as a bird and feathered with scales like shingles on a roof, neatly laid in rows; mottle and daub, smudge and blot. Each of her wings a canopy spread, like boundary line falling in pleasant places. The trailing edge of the hindwing was flower thin and petal shaped, lace edged and layered. The trailing edges of the forewing was marked with large quadrants of deep grey colour set against the patches and spots. Stippled and sprinkled, spare and sparse; patterns on a moth to match a sky filling up with stars.
I remembered why I called my blog, Dappled Things.
“Glory be to God for dappled things …” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 1918 poem, Pied Beauty. So much glory packed into so few words; a thesaurus entry of flecked, speckled and freckled loveliness. It is so perfectly how I see the world, pulsing vast and various with a hint of chaos that places it way beyond my control. It takes me outside myself, and outside of the house, into wildness where God can surprise me and even the most orthodox of belief is not quite what it seems. In this poem Hopkins includes the blemished in a vision of God that is startling and unconventional yet deeply loved by Christians of different hues.
Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who had an uneasy relationship with his own writing. On entering holy orders in 1867 he burned all his poems, considering such works incompatible with his life as a servant of Christ. The biographers continue to plough through pages of letters and journal entries in search of what troubled Hopkins most about poetry. It could have been that the absorbing work of writing distracted him from prayer. Or maybe indulgence in self expression and writing about darker places in human experience was considered a temptation to sin. It may be that the concept of pursuing beauty in poetry came into conflict with the theology of pursuing God in prayer. It seems that a person who writes like this is at risk of transgressing good doctrine and leading others astray.
Whichever of these things are true, we see in Hopkins a poet who would try and escape these restraints every time he penned some verse. This is literature as an act of rebellion against repressive faith cultures and their need to control (a need that incidentally, is rarely if ever found in God). Artist may often approach matters of faith in this (subversive) way, very human people certainly do. Why would the church have problems with people who feel or hurt or ask questions? Why would a little thinking outside of the box send it into a wild panic, why does it run from difference or self expression?
In later life biographers tell us the Hopkins succumbed to the depressive illness that had hovered on the horizon most of his adult life. The vigour of religious life and the austerities he had imposed upon himself, including a refusal to publish poems whilst he lived, finally ganged up on him. Towards the end he felt he had been neither a good priest nor a good poet. The poems of the time heave under the weight of a sickness of spirit that one of his friends called a “terrible crystal”, meaning that they represent a crystallisation of his inner conflict. Hopkins wrote, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day. / What hours, O what black hours we have spent / This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!” Yet the last recording he made in his journal read, “I am so happy, I am so happy. I loved my life.” I’m glad it ended well, but I can’t help wondering whether a person like Hopkins would find a home where he could flourish in the church today.
When the American Presbyterian minister and writer, Buechner, came to write about grace he penned this now famous quote,
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
Placing grace in the settled context of God’s love, Buechner has won the hearts of so many Christians struggling to hold in tension the messiness of their human lives with their purpose in a troubled world.
Every pale shadow, every blemish, each slant of sunlight, the white of silver birch trunks in a wood striped with shade, the patterns of tiny plants in the turf under my feet, the crawling insects, the nettles and thorns. The story I heard on the news, that special birthday coming up, a friend’s hospital appointment, an unexpected bill, the flowers you brought me when I was ill.
The only world I know right now is deeply beautiful and deeply troubling. I throw myself on God, immerse myself in now. Life is a whirl or life is a flutter. Lingering, hurrying, patient or hasty. Before my eyes and in my head. The world is botched and blessed.
Pay attention! There is no denying this dappled life.