Lent 3: Leaving Comfort “Root-Room”

It’s officially week 2 (following the second Sunday) of Lent, and I’ve been posting each Wednesday one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Terrible Sonnets.” Depending on who you read, Hopkins is either exhibiting severe psychological depression or profound spiritual desolation, a “Dark Night of the Soul.” I tend towards the latter reading, but either way, these sonnets get pretty dark.

Looking over the 6 sonnets, written in no particular order, I found myself getting more and more depressed by them, overwhelmed by Hopkins’ grating and groaning tone. These are a valuable collection of poetry for our Lenten reflections, because like Lent, the journey leads us through “the valley of the shadow of death” on our way to Good Friday’s cross. But then I read this.

TERRIBLE SONNET (III): “My Own Heart,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

MY OWN HEART let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size

At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

In her article for Biola’s Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, Jessica Brown writes,

The distance between who we are and who we want to be often registers in how we talk to ourselves. . . . Examining our self-talk in the gentle brightness of biblical light can help us realize how such self-talk could be hindering spiritual formation by drowning out the honest warmth of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, moving toward more gracious self-talk can correspond with the Spirit’s work, guiding us to tend our hearts by following God’s tending care.

Maybe thinking about how you talk to yourself — or about yourself — and whether its kind or harsh is new to you. It kind of is to me. As it turns out, I say some pretty nasty things to myself, pretty often. I wager most of us do. Hopkins’ poem instructs me to stop myself mid-chiding, and instead, “My own heart, let me more have pity on; let me live to my sad self hereafter kind, charitable.”

In a recent blog post at Conversations, Jan Johnson has also explored the importance for speaking to ourselves as God speaks to us. Richard Rohr, in his book Breathing Under Watercoaches us how.

Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve StepsJust watch yourself objectively, calmly, and compassionately. You will be able to do this from your new viewing platform and perspective as a grounded child of God. “The Spirit will help you in your weakness” (Romans 8:26). From this most positive and dignified position you can let go of, and easily “admit your wrongs.” You are being held so strongly and so deeply that you can stop holding onto, or defending, yourself. God forever sees and loves Christ in you; it is only you who doubt our divine identity as children of God.

We now have an implanted position and power whereby we can see ourselves calmly and compassionately without endless digging, labeling, judging, or the rancor that we usually have toward our own imperfection. Don’t judge, just look can be our motto — and now with the very eyes of God.

~ from Breathing Under Water, by Fr. Richard Rohr.

Last year I entered an intense season of what Richard Rohr playfully refers to as “shadow boxing;” however, I did not then have his instructions for doing it constructively, or for exiting it fruitfully. Gracious self-talk is essential to drawing the benefits from shadow boxing, and for emerging from it with those benefits. Thankfully, I have those instructions now, and see the benefit of regularly practicing shadow boxing. Now I also have Hopkins’ warnings: “leave comfort root-room,” room to take root and grow and flourish in the midst of the harsh “goop” I discover within myself.

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