Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Last year, I posted a devotional reflection on a short Gospel passage for each day of Lent. This year I knew that I could not sustain such a rigorous schedule of posting with all of the other commitments of my life. Nevertheless, I feel that I must pick up something to keep me anchored in Christ’s journey to the cross.

In my planning, I felt drawn to the Ignatian exercise of Examen (a daily prayer of self-examination in the convicting and consoling company of the Spirit), and as I did more research into actually practicing this exercise, I was brought again and again to the concepts of consolation and desolation, and found these to be particularly important for experiencing the season of Lent. As I went further down this path, I encountered a Victorian English poet whom had been recommended to me by a friend and mentor.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889) was born at Stratford in Essex, England, on July 28, 1844. In 1867 he entered a Jesuit novitiate near London. He spent nine years in training as a Jesuit, and was ordained in 1877. Upon entering the novitiate, Hopkins vowed to “write no more…unless it were by the wish of my superiors.” He burnt all of the poetry he had written to date and would not write poems again until 1875. These poems weren’t published during his lifetime, but his friend and fellow poet Robert Bridges edited a volume of Hopkins’ poems that first appeared in 1918.

– this information is drawn and quoted from Poets.org.

Toward the end of his life, Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Jesuit deeply attuned to Ignatian spirituality, wrote a series of poems called the “Terrible Sonnets” that poetically and emotionally explore landscapes of desolation. Desolation, as this same friend and mentor has shared with me from Richard Rohr, consists of whatever is “life-thwarting,” whatever squeezes or squelches or squashes the life that Jesus came to give abundantly (John 10:10). Regular prayers of Examen seek to attend to when and why we feel desolate, our lives thwarted. Hopkins’ poems help sharpen my attention.

TERRIBLE SONNET I: “To Seem The Stranger,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

TO SEEM THE STRANGER lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace my parting, sword and strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.

I am in Ireland now; now I am at a thírd
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Heard unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.

These “Terrible Sonnets” were not written in any order, nor were they necessarily intended. Hopkins wrote to his friend Robert Bridges on September 1, 1885: “I shall shortly have some sonnets to send you, five or more.  Four of these came like inspirations unbidden and against my will.” Hopkins’ laments are wrung from him, much like Jeremiah’s were: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

This poem seems to me appropriate for Ash Wednesday, and for entering Lent’s journey. Hopkins laments his isolation from all that he loves and from all that love him, even Christ. He laments how his voice is “unheard, heard unheeded,” seemingly by “dark heaven’s baffling ban” or “hell’s spell.” How fitting a lament to usher us — albeit startlingly — into Lent’s desolate landscape, where we encounter few comforts as we follow Christ to the cross.