Lent 5: Wrestling with God

TERRIBLE SONNET (V): “Carrion Comfort,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.

But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruised bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, cheer.

Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, foot trod
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Like I did last week, let me try to paraphrase Hopkins. Yes, sadly, his poetic language is lost in the attempt, but I hope his poetic meaning is preserved in the result so we can be guided in our lenten reflections.

I will not give in to Despair, that decayed comfort, not undo my weak self, not give up. I can do something!

But, God, why do you pressure me, punish me, peruse me, pursue me, when I try?

Is it because you’re ridding my faults and restoring my virtues? I knew that in my turmoil, and rejoiced.

But in whom should I rejoice? in God who sifted me? or in myself who struggled? Which? Both? God! what a dark season!

Rather than over-interpret or mis-represent Hopkins, who, I’m sure, wrote this very personal poem as a prayer born out of his immense struggle and painful experience of what St. John of the Cross called a “dark night of the soul.” We should read his prayer for what it is: deep lament, honest wondering, surprised gratitude. As Lent now hurries on its way to Holy Week, the cross, and — praise God! — the empty tomb and Easter morning, this prayer reminds me of all the stories where God has wrestled with his people, rather than letting them continue on their own course.

Jacob wrestled with God. David, too. Jesus wrestled with God regularly in prayer, but no where more clearly than in the garden of Gethsemane. 

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Just as the journey of Lent begins with Jesus’ trial in the wilderness, so it draws to a close with Jesus’ trial in the garden. Let us keep watch, friends. Let us stay awake. The hour is at hand.

These sites helped me a great deal in reading Hopkins well.

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Lent 4: Bearing Lent with Patience

TERRIBLE SONNET (IV): “Patience, Hard Thing,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

PATIENCE, HARD THING! the hard thing but to pray,
But bid for, Patience is! Patience who asks
Wants war, wants wounds; weary his times, his tasks;
To do without, take tosses, and obey.

Rare patience roots in these, and, these away,
Nowhere. Natural heart’s ivy, Patience masks
Our ruins of wrecked past purpose. There she basks
Purple eyes and seas of liquid leaves all day.

We hear our hearts grate on themselves: it kills
To bruise them dearer. Yet the rebellious wills
Of us we do bid God bend to him even so.

And where is he who more and more distils
Delicious kindness?—He is patient. Patience fills
His crisp combs, and that comes those ways we know.

Poetry isn’t for everyone, I get it. Especially Hopkins, who sort of invented his own “odd” meter. Let me see if I can passably rephrase Hopkins for us.

How hard it is to ask for Patience! Patience lacks (“wants”) excitement and drama. His ways are difficult: to go without, to take beatings, to obey.

These ways are where Patience grows, nowhere else. Like ivy, Patience slowly covers the ruins of our ambitions, and there She* rests.

We groan to hear about Patience, because we have none; and yet we ask God to change us.

Because it is so sweet to be with That Patient Person, and because we know how hard it was for Him to be Patient.

Hopefully that helps? Without ruining all of Hopkins’ artful language, that is.

*It is interesting to me that Hopkins’ refers to Patience as both male and female, and I think it’s insightful that he does.

I will say only this to tie the poem into Lent: substitute “Jesus” in for “Patience,” and the poem is transformed. Read the paraphrase again.

Jesus’ call to the cross is a “Hard Thing!” to bear, because then we must “do without, take tosses, and obey.” It is here that Christlikeness grows, and because Jesus did these things for us, our sins are forgiven. We may feel guilt, and yet God is working to change us, to transform us into Christians — “little Christs” — who, like him, “distil Delicious kindness” for the world.

Paul says the same thing this way:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

~ Romans 5:1-11, NRSV

I read the following posts to help me read Hopkins well:

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.

Lent 2: The Temptation of Jesus

In Lent, we follow Jesus into those desolate landscapes of temptation, doubt, fear, and isolation. This week’s text is Matthew 4:1-11, the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

This text is well-known, often dramatized, and full of food for reflection. I find in this passage comfort and encouragement for the Lenten journey. Jesus himself suffered hunger, was tempted, and resisted the tempter. This is our Lord and Rabbi in our Lenten journey.  

On Monday I reflected on Frodo and Sam’s terrible journey to Mordor, as an image of what Jesus encountered in that wilderness of temptation. I am also reading Gerard Manley Hopkins this Lent, specifically his “Terrible Sonnets.” As I said last week, these “Terrible Sonnets” poetically and emotionally explore landscapes of desolation.

TERRIBLE SONNET II: “I Wake and Feel,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

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!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.

Hopkins is speaking to himself in the middle of the night, as the Psalmist often does.

My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?

Hopkins, overwhelmed with the spiritual wilderness he wanders, cries out. “I am gall, I am heartburn.” He sighs and cries, and God is not listening. “And my lament / Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent / To dearest him that lives alas! away.” Again, he echoes the Psalmist:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.

And just like Matthew’s gospel, Hopkins discovers us all in the wilderness, almost laments that we are there with him. “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.” We are all, whether we acknowledge it or not, wandering in a wilderness of temptation and isolation, lost, our own “scourges.” And it is into this wilderness that Jesus goes, led by the Spirit, for us, to lead us out.

Thanks be to you, O Christ.

Related posts I found helpful: