In her essay “The Kingfisher: Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Recovery of Wonder” in Issue No. Sixteen of Second Spring, one sentence of Sr. Margaret Atkins, O.S.B., particularly caught my eye. She had said of Hopkins’ understanding of the “manner in which industrialism was damaging the natural world” that in this he was ahead of his time. She added, “Hopkins does not only identify the problem, he points to its cause: the loss of wonder.” As I read those words I thought of a morning not too long ago when I was following my little granddaughter Mary Catherine around the yard. A young woman, now, she was a toddler at the time. It was a beautiful early summer morning, and Mary was simply walking around learning to see the world; as Adam and Eve might have walked through paradise early in the morning, I have often thought. She stopped in her ramble and looked down. Then she bent over, peering intently, as I came closer, at something which had caught her eye. I stood a pace or two behind her and heard her say, “Oh, little blue flower, I’m so glad you’re here.” I don’t think I’ve heard such a lovely, simple and beautiful sentence since.
From Hopkins’ sense of wonder, and from his ability to see what was in the world, as well as in what the world is, has come a body of work that is in itself beautiful, lovely in line and lovely in word to hear, to paraphrase the poet himself. He has taken what he has seen and formed it beautifully, a work like the world itself, this world which has been from the start “charged with grandeur,” the lovely world that makes us glad it is here, and us in it, lovely ourselves, drawing flame, catching fire.
I did not see it as it happened, but I did see some clips of Pope Benedict taking final leave of the Vatican, the helicopter carrying him to his retirement home a few miles outside of Rome. I read that the monastery where he will live or the estate where he now is, I can’t remember which, was once the home of a Roman noble, ruins of which are still on the grounds. All that area was once the retreat of the upper class from the unhealthy miasma [right word?] that ancient Rome became during the summer months.
Of course, within an hour or two of that historic flight, critical remarks about taking a helicopter to a palace began to emerge. Folks complained that the man was trading one palace for another only slightly smaller and they wondered what was the sense of it all; that big empty house, all those rooms, all that luxury. What Would Jesus Do? From the Pope their remarks rippled out to the Vatican, to the museums, the cathedrals, the art work, the vestments. The list went on.
I sat quietly in a little room while the sun set and evening came on. A number of things were going through my mind. In his book “Inside the Third Reich”, Albert Speer chronicled the life of a young architect, his life, as a member of an inner circle of madmen bent on destroying Western Civilization and raising up in its place a new structure based on a stew of old German myths, discredited racial theories, Wagnerian music, Nietzsche’s philosophy and murderous madness. Speer illustrated part of the book with photos of himself and Hitler looking at models of the new Berlin, and the monumental buildings that would show the glory of National Socialism to the world. Most of these buildings remained un-built, but those which were built and remain standing are simply ugly squat reminders of an ugly squat time. Even the name given to the “style” of the architecture is ugly and squat: “Fascist Stripped Classical”.
They would have replaced an awful lot with their “new” art, their “new” architecture. They had plans and standards. One remembers the “book burnings”, but little is known of the looting that went on. After the war hoards of looted art work were discovered in caches all over Germany and the occupied countries. These objects were banned for the population by the rulers. Beauty was to be replaced by “Fascist Stripped Classical”, and the world was to know the power and might of a new thing: Germania.
Funny, that, I thought as I sat thinking about the folk calling for the Church to be stripped to the walls, emptied of centuries of beauty and art, and an old man made to walk away to – where? Possibly to a rented room somewhere dark, preferably with bars in an only window … It has happened before.
When Scipio Africanus had finished with Carthage there was nothing left of her, or her people. Maybe that was a good thing, but all we know of Carthage now is what the Romans have decided to tell us. Well, that was the way of things back then. What was the beauty, what the richnesses of art, poetry or music that might have given us some pleasure, or taught us some lessons today, that were ground into dust or carried off in triumph? Who will ever know? Was such complete erasure necessary? Africanus thought so who came home a rich and famous man and was said to have wept when he saw what he had thought necessary. He may have been the last one to weep at such a thing.
For better than a thousand years two monumental sculptures of the Buddha stood in Afghanistan, carved from the living rock, wonders of the world, tolerated and admired in that wild and Muslim land, until Mullah Omar and his Taliban seized power. They emptied schools, especially of girls and decreed an Islamic state which would tolerate no other faith but their own, and worshipped in the way they said it should be worshipped. And so, one morning the statues were blown to bits and the Taliban praised God. Now a blank hole is the reminder that Taliban blindness sees nothing good outside itself, and girls in Afghanistan stay ignorant unless some angry “scholar” sees fit to tell them what he thinks they need to know.
In the brilliance of the Enlightenment for the sake of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, the French rose against their king, and killed him, and killed thousands of others; all whom the new and better rulers thought needed killing. Their zeal for humanity led them to kill and to destroy all that had threatened these noble sentiments on which they based their new movement. Among the most powerful enemies of Man, the New Man, was the Church, and all her riches, and all her servants. Priests and nuns were martyred, monasteries, convents, churches emptied, goods seized, schools closed, all in the name of man. And, where God was praised, hogs were fed. And, life was proclaimed to be made better.
A little more than a hundred years later, The New Man became The State, and man became the state’s slave in Russia then later in China, which together grew fat on the bodies of 100 million slaves. The same sad story was re-enacted there that had been played out finally, one would have had reason to hope, in France: death and destruction to all that was not for the equality of gray misery, the “stripped style” of totalitarian dictatorship, the glorious murder of wonder, joy and grandeur.
Begun in the late twelfth Century and completed after a number of years the Cathedral of Chartres is recognized as a work of art almost unequaled in the world. Her sister cathedrals in Europe, such beauties as Notre Dame in Paris, Cologne and Strasbourg, and in tens of other places throughout the continent stand today as monuments to the faith of the hundreds of thousands who contributed with prayer, labor and donations of money to see them built, to make them their own. They are works of wonder and praise, filled with the works of wonder and praise, the offerings of and the outpourings of the faith, the love and the devotion of millions of people over a thousand years.
I have not been to the Vatican, but hope to go, to stand before St. Peter’s, to walk up and down its aisles. I hope to see the Sistine Chapel and view the works of art on display for all in the Vatican museum. I hope I may wonder at the beauty of it all raised and gathered in praise and in thanksgiving of the gifts so freely given to us all whose only reason for being here to begin with is Love.
Ignorance may look at them, and the art contained within and say, “it would be better spent on the poor.” Ignorance melts the precious vessels down for cannon, rarely for poor folks, and fills sacred spaces with swine and cattle, prefers hogs squealing where once hymns rose, and murders the work of God. Ignorance and blindness; where all is always winter.
“My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:10-13 – KJV)
Pope Francis walked out of the Vatican on his first morning and went to Mass. He preached that we must not be worldly. Rather we must be disciples of the Lord.
He said those who build on worldly values instead of spiritual values were like children building sand castles on a beach. “Then everything comes crashing down,” he said.
Someone commented, “Refreshing. Perhaps less money will be spent on finery and more sent to the poor.”
He has a lot of work to do, but, oh, Pope Francis I am so glad you are here.
(This appeared earlier on the Facebook page of The Christian Book Corner.)