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.