The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is smeared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights of the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, God's Grandeur
Reflection - So I depart today from Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire, U.K., hopping on the train in Scarborough to Manchester, and flying out tomorrow morning for Toronto. It has been just three weeks since I made the trip in reverse. (On a practical note, blogging may be a bit sparse the next couple days - I'll do my best, but travel does make it difficult).
I want to begin this post by apologizing in advance to any English readers - I know there is nothing more galling than someone coming to spend three weeks in your home country and then making all sorts of learned ponderous statements about it, on the Internet no less. I will try to avoid that particular brand of folly (having plenty of my own specialized brands). I am well aware that I have spent a mere 21 days in a very small corner of North Yorkshire with vast stretches of England on all sides, unseen, unknown to me.
That being said, what I have experienced is best put precisely in this famous poem of Hopkins. Simply, I have experienced beauty, and a sort of ineradicable goodness here that took me (just a bit) by surprise. England gets a bad press, you know. The global picture of England on the whole is not a positive one: football hooligans and ASBO-laden re-primitivized slum dwelling yobs, all presided over by a Nanny State government doling out benefits with no thought of the future. This, and more negative pictures yet that I won't go into on this blog, is the general picture one picks up of England in the global media consciousness.
Well, all that may have some foundation in truth - after three weeks, how would I know? But what I experienced was beauty. Beauty of the land, which I expected - the North Yorkshire coast is spectacular, the moors lovely, the North Sea imposing and entrancing. Beauty of architecture, which I also expected - the stone houses, the ancient churches, the unique harmony born of a long co-existence between God's created beauty and man's, the blending of human craftsmanship with the divine architecture.
But there is beauty in England itself - the people, I mean. And in the English spirit, the soul of England. 'There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.' And I touched that freshness many, many times. I touched the holiness of the heart of Christian England in Durham Cathedral, praying at the tombs of St. Bede and St. Cuthbert. It is hard to go much further back into the mists of English Christianity than that... and the freshness of their holiness is there still, deep down, radiant.
And then the strange and painful beauty that came out of the English Reformation. I touched that in York, at the Bar Convent where Mary Ward and her sisters kept the faith in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. I saw the priest hole there, and the hidden chapel, the altar disguised as a bed board, the vestments disguised as a bolt of cloth. And Margaret Clitheroe's shrine, remembering this woman crushed to death with a stone at her spine for the crime of hiding priests. All very dark and painful and sad... but the Holy Ghost broods over the world in such places, and those bright wings can be felt, if not exactly seen, if you know what I mean.
But there is a goodness, a beauty, a light here - for all the problems, all the falling away from faith and church life and practice, all the social-political-economic troubles. Nature--and even more, super-nature--is never spent. There has been a Christian spirit, a Christian culture in England for over a millennium, the light and freshness of which will not quickly be spent indeed. And my reflection in all this is that it is our Christian task in general, wherever we are, to bear witness to this, to look earnestly for this, and to honor and welcome it when it is found.
Too often, Christians can seem like global scolds, continually bemoaning the failures and evils of the world and of their neighbors. This may be exaggerated, but there is a thread of truth in it at least. We can be a bit mopy at times, if we're not careful. The good Lord know there's enough to be mopy about - the problems are real, and serious. But we really should be so attuned to any stirring of goodness, any and all traces of beauty, and and all shining forth of truth and light in our brothers and sisters, since any and all of it comes from God and is His in source and in essence.
To bear witness to beauty, goodness, and truth wherever it lingers in this bent world of ours, and to foster and encourage it to grow to the fullness of its divine life - this is key to the mission of Christianity in our poor neo-pagan, apostasized world. And this is what I have touched in my little English experience, and what I carry in my heart as I return to Canada where that dearest freshness is deep in things, too.
As we move through these next weeks of Passiontide, when beauty and goodness, truth and light assume strange and appalling forms in the face of the Crucified One, let us call on the Spirit to show us where love is present and where love is winning in the hearts and souls of men, and our own hearts as well.