catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 7 :: 2007.04.06 — 2007.04.20


Looking hard

Some may take issue with the phrase “good things”.  Indeed, for many Christians, a belief in the un-goodness of things is central.  As residents of a fallen world, it’s true that we must contend with the ways in which sin has skewed all of creation, but we also must remind ourselves that God permeates and sustains that which He created to be good.  In any way that we may experience goodness this side Jordan, we may find it in the world around us.  If the fabric of the world seems to lack this goodness, the problem may not lie in the objects themselves, but in our ability to see them.

This was the view of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who remarked that "what you look hard at seems to look hard at you."  In Hopkins’s idiosyncratic theology, every object in creation could act as a conduit back to the Creator.  Each thing, he suggested, has a foundational shape that participates in the Objective Real of God.  He called this essence the object’s inscape (think inner landscape).  Not quite a Platonic Form, this inscape demonstrates the timeless and immediate, the universal as well as the specific.  It is akin to what Leanne Payne calls “a whale’s whaleness” or Annie Dillard alludes to when describing “the tree with the lights in it”.  An object’s inscape is in some way the presence of God mediated.

But few of us experience the inscape of things, and that is precisely because it is ‘in’.  The trees of the field do not wear their substance on their sleeve;  it must be sought out.  Here is where Hopkins coined the companion term “instress”.  Instress refers to the process by which inscape is experienced.  It involves an extension of one’s self, almost a participation in the object.  It is an aligning of the will and the eyes with those of God.  This is the “looking hard”, and it is something that few of us take the time and energy to do.

When couched in these terms, Hopkins can come off as a half-crazy, half-blasphemous mystic.  Certainly that is the temptation of my mind when typing the words.  And yet I remember a time, before I had heard of Hopkins, Payne, or Dillard, when I looked at the world in a different way.

I have never been ordinary, and this was achingly clear during my teen-age years.  I never felt that others viewed the world in the same way that I did.  Through some blessed aligning of youth, faith, and creativity, I walked through a world full of lit trees.  I would often sit for what seemed to be ages, staring down a piece of wood, a rippling puddle, the bend of a pipe.  And the wood, the ripple, and the pipe stared back.  As I worshiped God through the care and design inherent in each molecule of the world, I became more aware of the structure of things.  I covenanted with the world bit by bit, and bit by bit it gave up its forms.

At the age of 22, I was introduced to the poetry and philosophy of Hopkins.  A week before my first exposure to the ideas of inscape and instress, I learned about them first-hand.  As I sat in the family room of the house where I was living, I marinated in Hopkins’s poetry.  As they often did, his words became a prayer, an action.  During these times, I communed with God in profound ways.  The night in question, as I prayed and read, my eyes fell on the table in front of me.  It became a focal point for my prayers, thoughts, and emotions.  And I experienced a truly transcendent moment, as each molecule of that table seemed to vibrate and hum, as light seemed to pour forth from its corner, as movement surrounded the still room.  It was the most intense instress of my life, and I was soon introduced to Hopkins’s terms to describe it.

As I became busier and more weighed down with the expectations of adult life in the Western world, my instressing became less frequent.  In fact, the experience of the table was never even remotely repeated.  And while I long to return to the state of peace and faith that allowed me to focus myself in one object and not splinter my mind into past and future in the frenzy of postmodern anxiety, important lessons linger from those days.

I have come to believe that everything is like God.  Yes, everything is like God, but He is not like anything.  Each created thing, whether it was assembled by human hands or those of the biosphere, tells us something about its Creator.  And He is so vast and complex that the entire creation does not even reflect Him but in part.

I think many of us hold to some degree of faith in this idea.  We’ve built an entire enterprise of children’s sermons and object lessons on it.  So, St. Patrick can show us the Trinity in a shamrock, and Jesus can show us the Kingdom in a grain of wheat.  For those who have eyes to see, the world bursts with snapshots of God.  And every thing is made sacramentally good.

The Table

Shape is practicing grace.  Even as you bleed
And stop.  Carried on foreign legs to Joseph’s ring
Of earth while worn women winter-weep and plead
    for something.
And is this the comfort?  Your body decreed
Broken again? Your bloodflow everlasting?

With such timefulness, the press and flesh’s river swelled
In both directions, until you, carried by the staining flood,
Stretched on Eden’s tree, where one look beheld
    both good
And evil.  And by which of these was man felled?
Which more quickly froze his own blood?

When you have stripped it all to blue, the earth involves
Creating and shaping as sight revolves, resolves the eyes.
There is something of the waters here:  hills that dissolve
    to skies.
Your presence and your presentness evolve
With all the care your atworking implies.

The evidence of newborn hills, still soft and wet
With sky—the proof and power of creation’s groans and the sign
That we tramp in the seventh day while the world ages and sets
    like wine.
And who knows what beauty and majesty it may be yet:
Some newness the language of birds cannot define.

The anchoress has walked without a camera, with one hand plunged in
Puget Sound and the other in your exploding right.
She cries ‘Glorious!  Incandescent!’ as she feels the spinning hole spin.
    The light
That burned her wings is showing mine within
The Mirror of Day’s silver backing, Night.

It issues shimmering from shivering kingdom culverts.  Before me
Tonight in light of its veilless valence I am able
To see each molecule vibrate within this glow-glory
And I in trance substantial tell its story
Of insatiable realness, exorbitant and stable.

I am shell-shock shutter-eyed, burning light on light on light.  Oh Master,
It is too real.  The camera cracks, the paper peels
And behind is met by light.  A blinding clarity as plaster
My sight and spirit break like alabaster
As oil and tears mingle at your heels.

This is what it means to see.  To be consumed
By beauty movement newness and you you you—
The incarnation not done but entombed
    for who-
Soever is willing to see your flesh perfumed,
Standing bare of burial cloth, now-new.

Strike me dazzle-dappled by inherent inerrancy on this mountain, and yet
Unmercifully fling the gospel of this gossamer gossipper as wide
As your teachings take me, eagle-back earthward and doubly-in-debt.
I return—lawladen, enraged, and welkin-wet
To the goldsmiths blinded by the sun on their blundering pride.

How can I teach them to understand your overlove when blind
Myself, with only these tablets, these tables, touched with trace
Of you, weighted by life and light, these altars son-wined,
    and this face
To tell me Christ is kind:  kinned and kind,
Cribbed in crisis of shape practicing grace?

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