by Claire Brown
“As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manly Hopkins
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The congregation I serve as a pastoral intern, St. Augustine’s Chapel in Nashville, Tennessee, is halfway through a September series on nature and ecology as a way of experiencing God. This week I was preparing to preach the Wednesday evening Eucharist, and this piece by Gerard Manly Hopkins. The poem contains a complex sense of encountering God in creation, and the integrity of purpose in the created order. It corresponds with Psalm 19, which declares that “The skies proclaim god’s handiwork.” These writings prompt us to consider the intricacy of the earth’s systems and the breathtaking wonder of stargazing, the wash of gratitude at catching the sunrise. When Hopkins writes, “Christ plays,” I imagine the creative and playful ways God is present, in strange camouflaged bugs, the astonishing development of children, and the dancing colors of light through a prism.
Then I heard a radio interview with the mayor of Bristol, England, a city of sanctuary with a long history of sheltering and supporting refugees. The town has an active network for refugee support, and has become incredibly diverse over the last few decades. The mayor is preparing to personally host Syrian refugees in his home, and I was amazed by the no-nonsense way he discussed this decision.
I thought to myself, “Wow. The just man justices.”
The skies proclaim God’s handiwork. But God’s handiwork is not limited to the stirring beauty of cirrus clouds and constellations. God’s handiwork is also the prophetic voice of justice, calling God’s people to action.
The pictures of Aylan Kurdi, dead on the Turkish beach, have been circulating the internet and demanding the world’s attention. This child drowned as his family tried to escape from the tumultuous violence in Syria. When the photos came out, snapshots of his little body on the sand, the world was forced to see the situation unfolding in and around Syria. Innocence washed up on shore makes us reckon with the millions who have fled their home for the hope of safety and flourishing, and how the rest of us are failing them. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus told the religious leaders that if the crowds were quieted, even the rocks would shout. The Western church had been too silent, but when Alyan was tossed from the smuggler’s boat, the ocean itself cried out, testifying the injustice of his death. The tide brought his body to shore, and the sea prophesied against our neglect of one another. While the privileged church has been able to avert our gaze and keep silent, the created order proclaimed the senseless suffering and death of our neighbors. The very patterns of wind and current confronted us with our divine call to care for one another, to be just people justicing, to pay attention not only to our own needs, but to the whole order of things.
As we consider the work of the Creator around us, may we not forget that alongside the loveliness, there is grave responsibility. People of faith cannot claim an identity they do not practice. Hopkins reminds us: “What I do is me.” What we do is us. The earth’s rhythm demands our attention and speaks god’s justice. Our contemplative attention toward God and nature is empty if it does not encourage us to act on behalf of those who cannot, unified to one another by our common creatureliness.
Claire Brown is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a postulant in the diocese of East Tennessee