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Fragments on Fragments #12: Being Human in a Pandemic

Fragments on Fragments #12: Being Human in a Pandemic


12 Living and dead are potentially the same thing, and so too waking and sleeping, and young and old; for the latter revert to the former, and the former in turn to the latter


Heraclitus was known as ‘the Obscure’; this fragment reminded me of the equally difficult poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection”. The title gives fair warning of what is to come! Hopkins loved language, a love which was expressed through coining brand new words, and asking the reader to work hard on understanding the sense behind the music of his poetry. Here he mourns the inevitable coming of death, and the forgetting that overcomes all of us as time goes on:


Manshape, that shone

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark

                            Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time beats level.


But for Hopkins (and for me), Heraclitus’ vision of eternal interchangeability of life and death is interrupted, broken by the message of resurrection. The poem continues:

Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.

and a few lines later

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am


Resurrection for me is not something which signifies an unimaginable far future beyond death: it’s about a different way of living now, as if life had moved into a new dimension. In some form or other, Heraclitus believed that there was an eternal circle of life and death. For Christians, as for many other faiths, that cycle is broken by the promise of a different sort of life beyond death That promise also gives a completely different quality to the life we live on earth. 


Hopkins contrasts the natural cycle, in which fire is a central component for Heraclitus, with the resurrection life. The world’s wildfire may leave but ash – but the matchwood of humanity is transformed into immortal diamond. It’s impossible to say or imagine what that might look like; the point is the promise. 


With shelter at home orders and social distancing restrictions, and the anxiety of rising numbers infected and dying, the world can feel as if it is closing in. Hopkins invites us to see it instead exploding outwards into something utterly other, eternal and beautiful.


Fragments on Fragments are written by the Right Reverend Jonathan Clark, Bishop of Croydon in the Church of England. He introduces the whole series here. Alongside the words is an image by Alison Clark of a broken sand dollar, gilded in reference to the Japanese practice of kintsugi: you can find more of her work here.


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