Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Being Good and Making Good Are Not the Same Thing

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,

Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,

Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Thou art indeed just”

Reflection – Yesterday’s blog about Psalm 1 put me in mind of this Hopkins sonnet. All the references to trees planted by water, to the just flourishing and the wicked perishing—all of this can easily be misconstrued as a sort of prosperity Gospel, an essentially self-centred affair of ‘be good, and you’ll make good’. Virtue not being its own reward, but a sort of shrewd investment strategy, and the ROI is out of this world.

So Hopkins’ poem is a good corrective to this. We really don’t see the obvious flourishing of the good and the righteous and the obvious perishing of the wicked—it is not so simple in this world. Indeed he complains here of the seeming fruitlessness and waste of his life spent ‘Sir… upon thy cause’. It is a particular element of the celibate vocation in the Church to confront this mystery of fruitlessness and seeming sterility in a direct immediate way, and this poem is very much about that in particular.

And this is a reality, a very definite and painful reality of life in this world, and not just for celibates. Any one of us can rightly ask just what the good of our life is, just what we are really accomplishing. Anyone, even someone with twenty children, can feel a bit sterile and pointless at times.

And it is a permanent temptation to slide into a sort of cynicism or jaundiced attitude—God says He is going to reward the just and that wickedness perishes under its own weight. Humph—don’t see any signs of that happening, yet. Tell me another one.

Instead we are meant, I think, to go deep in the face of the mystery. And in this going deeper, I find myself contemplating the Blessed Virgin, who I think holds the key to the matter. It is this last line of the poem – ‘Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.’ It is the Lord who makes our life fruitful. 

This is the deep truth of Mary’s virginity, which is not simply a mystery pertaining to herself but is a theological sign to all humanity of the very nature of things, the very deepest and most essential nature of life in this world.

It is God who makes our lives fruitful. ‘If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.’ That God chose to be incarnate of a virgin is no accident; it signifies that no matter what a person’s vocation is, what their state of life is, it is God and God alone who will bring their life to its proper fruition.

This is also the meaning of celibacy in the Church and why those called to celibacy are so essential to the life of the Church. It is witness to the provident will of God to create life as a direct action of grace and not merely or even primarily through the natural means of life-creating.

And so we are called in our efforts to live by God’s law to trust that we are these trees planted by the water, but the water is not natural water, not natural prosperity and wealth and health. We do not strive to be good so that our lives are filled with strictly natural goods.

The water is the Holy Spirit coursing mysterious and free through the life of the world. And this Spirit is the one who gives life to our being and nourishes us in hidden ways, even as we seem to fail and falter outwardly. And this is the deepest meaning of Psalm 1, which G.M. Hopkins ably captures in his sonnet here.