Hope is unsinkableDONALD DEMARCO
December 7th evokes the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, "a date which will live in infamy". It also evokes, to those who love the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins (S.J.), the less epochal but nonetheless tragic morning of December 7th, 1875, when the S. S. Deutschland ran aground off the east coast of England.
The shipwreck claiming 64 lives, including those of five Franciscan nuns who were on their way to St. Louis to serve the needy in the state of Missouri.
It was the seemingly pointless death of the nuns that aroused deep compassion in Hopkins and turned his mind once again to the unanswerable questions concerning God's watchful care of His beloved children. Hopkins was an intellectual who lived in a milieu in which it was fashionable for intellectuals to view God as merely an interesting uncertainty. For Hopkins. God (to borrow the words he penned in a letter to a friend) is "an incomprehensible certainty".
"For I greet him the days I meet him and I bless when I understand." This line, which closes the fifth stanza of his immortal poem The Wreck of the Deutschland, may capture his final resolve: We know enough through personal experience about God's love, mercy, and justice to validate His existence and His goodness. Let us then rejoice in that and consign to faith what we do not, and perhaps cannot, understand. For God is both "lightning and love".
Hopkins knew in the core of his being what it means to be an exile. The eldest of nine children, he was exiled from his family, particularly from his parents, when he became a Catholic. His criticism of the Church of England was harsh, contending as he did that it had given rise to "religious persecution, the jurisdiction of tyrants, and an establishment whose highest praise for itself was that it admitted a variety of opinions". On the other hand, he credited the Church of Rome for giving Great Britain so much that was "high, elevating, majestic, affecting, and captivating". Throughout his life, he took to heart the words of the Salve Regina: "Turn, then, O most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus." He died in Ireland, exiled from his home in England.
The five German nuns were exiled by the infamous Falk Laws, legislation named after Adelbert Falk, Prussia's Minister of Justice. The laws reflected the mind of Prince Bismarck, who passionately hated Catholicism. He considered Catholicism the religion of Italians and peasants, and would not accept the fact that Catholics were more eager to please God than to please the state of Prussia. And so, as the Falk Laws decreed: "All religious orders and similar groups are to be excluded from the territories of the Prussian state."
Hopkins's poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, was never published during his lifetime, having been rejected even by his Jesuit editors. One editor complained that reading the poem gave him a headache. It is now considered by literary critics as a truly great poem, and is included in numberless anthologies of modern poetry. There is no doubt that Hopkins both suffered for and revered the five nuns. He would request their intercession so that he would always be a good priest.
The link between Hopkins and the good sisters was more than spiritual. The bodies of four of the nuns were found and laid out in elm-wood coffins. No fewer than fifty priests attended their Requiem Mass on December 11, 1875. Cardinal Manning preached a moving sermon in which he connected the untimely deaths to Germany's persecution of the Catholic Church. The nuns were buried in Saint Patrick's cemetery at Leytonstone, just one mile from the village where Gerard Manley Hopkins had been born.
The twenty-fourth stanza of the thirty-five that make up Hopkins's masterpiece contrasts his own peaceful and unthreatened life with the terror and death of the nuns. This stanza was said to have been his favourite. Ron Hansen, in his book about the Deutschland tragedy, Exiles, says that the Times of London reported that the nuns "clasped hands and were drowned together, the chief sister . . . calling out loud and often 'O Christ come quickly!' till the end came." This cry reappears in this stanza as a gallant reminder of the grace and the good that can be won through the acceptance of Christ at the moment of death. This was the kind of hope that Hopkins lived by, namely, that God can bring good things out of apparently senseless tragedies:
Donald DeMarco. "Hope is unsinkable." Social Justice Review. (September/October, 2008): 132-133.
This article is reprinted with permission from Social Justice Review: A Pioneer Journal of Catholic Social Action and Donald DeMarco.
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