Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Finding Comfort in "Carrion Comfort"

Students in my Humanities survey class had to write three short essays at the end of the semester. In the third--and the one always the most fascinating to read--they are asked to select a few works from the semester and explain how these works have challenged, affirmed, or even altered their world views (keep in mind that they have been reading Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, O’Connor, Sartre, Coupland, Spiegelman, etc). Although this is a more reflective essay (the first two are more traditionally academic), I find that it is very important for students to have the opportunity to think in writing about how these works of philosophy and literature CAN become a part of their own spiritual formation (by the way, I provide another essay option if anyone does not want to write on something that can be so personal). I want them to think through how what we are reading in the classroom is not cloistered off from the world outside the classroom --or from their internal worlds.

I am often humbled when reading these essays, especially in seeing some revelations that I certainly had not planned or anticipated (thus indicating that what I am teaching and what the students read is not really under my control, but that the Holy Spirit does things far beyond my own imagination). One example (and there are many) has just really struck me as a perfect example of this. One student wrote about "Carrion Comfort," one of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets," poems about spiritual depression and doubt. Of course, Hopkins, a devout Jesuit, is more known for his beautiful praise poems such as "God's Grandeur" and "Pied Beauty" (and I spent much more time on these, actually).

But this student says that this one line from "Carrion Comfort" has "changed my life": "I wretch lay wrestling with (My God!) my God."

I barely spent any time on this line in class--but it was used to transform this student's thinking. Several students were moved by Hopkins' poetry which helped them to be honest about their own doubts and struggles. And several felt a sense of freedom and encouragement in recognizing that this devout believer could both earnestly and beautifully praise God, yet also have dark nights of the soul. The seemingly contrasting poems actually interrogate a sometimes false binary of doubt/faith--and express that perhaps doubt and honest admission of struggle can be a part of faith (an honest, complex faith) rather than a denial of it.

"Carrion Comfort" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year

Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God. 

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