Free Not to Be You and Me

I’m still worried about Father Gerard, and I wonder if anything could be done for him:

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.


The opening line naturally resonates with me; my sight has now dimmed to the point where I have awakened and not been able to tell at first whether it is day or night.  It is indeed a rather fell thing, though Hopkins presumably didn’t experience it in such a literal way.

But it’s the rest of the poem that really makes me sad for GMH, not only his sense that all his prayers are dead letters piling up in some desolate warehouse basement, but also and especially the visceral disgust at his “sweating self,” fermenting in its own contamination (yeast in the Bible signifies defilement or pollution, since the sacred bread must be unleavened).

It is fascinating to imagine that the torment of Hell is simply continued selfhood, that this is the worst punishment Hopkins can think of.  This neatly inverts Christianity’s great selling point: though we are contaminated with sin, if we attain salvation we can live forever.  The taint will be removed, but you will get to keep being yourself.  To judge from the results, this supposedly Good News is not giving Hoppy what he needs.

Reading Stephen Prothero’s God is Not One, I have been reminded that different religions do not necessarily offer the same things to their adherents.  Prothero is reacting, correctly I think, against writers (Karen Armstrong comes to mind) who treat diverse religions as paths to the same goal, different routes up the same mountain.  You could say the same about different governments but a political science course that belittled the differences between North Korea, Austrailia, and Iran would be pretty unhelpful.  Anyway, Prothero’s survey of major world religions has me thinking about which ones could have given Hoppy more help in his quest, and nourished him rather than feeding his despair.  I don’t think that my own creed of atheist humanism would have done the trick.

He definitely would have been drawn to the discipline and asceticism of the wandering Hindu sages of the Upanishads, though I’m not sure it would be healthy to encourage his lust for extreme physical discipline.  The techniques of yoga probably would have offered more tranquility than Christian modes of meditation did, but the emphasis on the illusory nature of the sensory world (maya) runs counter to his ecstatic  appreciation of natural beauty.

You might think that Confucianism would appeal, with its rules and rituals for every aspect of life, and certainly this must have been one of the attractions of becoming a Jesuit.  On the other hand, Confucius was all about showing respect and obedience to your parents, something GMH was not down with at all.  Plus he mostly punted on what happens after you die.

My vote goes to Buddhism, preferably a monastic variety, since he liked discipline and hanging out with other guys.  At least some versions  of Buddhism (perhaps all, I don’t know) would endorse his longing to see nature as it is, from soaring birds to the patterns of frozen urine crystals.  Most importantly, the goal could not be farther from the Christian reward of personal immortality.  For those Buddhists who focus on reincarnation, the goal is release from the cycle of rebirth, and for those who focus on this life, it is to become aware that you are not really your sweating self even now, that the unitary, separate self is an illusion.

For many of us, this rejection of the ego is the hard and strange part of a world-view that otherwise has many charms.  But for GMH, if he could only have found himself in a place where it was available, I think it would have come as a blessed liberation.

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One Response to Free Not to Be You and Me

  1. beth mchugh says:

    I really liked this post, Roy! Especially your comment about the torment of hell being continued selfhood…perhaps what many who believe in a heavenly afterlife are dreaming for is a life where everything is better and they can actually like themselves, because still being who they are would definitely be hell?

    I wonder if GMH would have fared well in the Native American belief world, where the rejection of ego you mention is a part of believing that you are simply a part of a greater whole with all of nature, and superior to none of nature? Anyway, great post!

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