Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Beautiful Brokenness

One of the themes of our staff covenant this past year was “beautiful brokenness,” the idea that God is present in even our deepest flaws and greatest weaknesses. This spring, I studied a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins in my Victorian Lit class that sums up “beautiful brokenness” better than anything I can think of. It’s dense, but I’ll unpack it a bit, just as my professor did in class.

God’s Grandeur
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The poem begins with two images for how God’s greatness is present in brokenness: God’s grandeur is like an electric charge in shaken metal foil, and it’s also like oil, which is produced by the action of crushing. Something to ponder: what does it mean that God shines through things that are “shaken” and “crushed”?
“Why do men then now not reck his rod?” means “why do men not regard or obey God?” The following lines give a description of our broken world and our separation from society. Linger a bit over these words. Hear how their sounds echo their meaning, try to see the images they describe, feel how their rhythm gives the sense of trudging through a devastated landscape.
“And for all this, nature is never spent.” God’s presence and hope wells up from the things that are broken. The sun sets in the west, but it rises with the morning in the east. God is present in our brokenness.
One reason I love this poem is that it offers hope, but this hope doesn’t come cheap. Hopkins was intimately acquainted with both personal and communal brokenness. When he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, he became estranged from his family. For years, he suffered from depression and doubt. It could not have been easy to see God in his brokenness.
The temptation is strong to avoid pain, to try not to see how broken our world is. As I leave this community and move into the unknown, I am facing the fact that my life will become less comfortable, that I will face challenges that will force me to confront the brokenness in society and in myself. What this poem communicates to me is that we can acknowledge brokenness for what it is and still possess a rebellious hope that God is restoring what is fallen. We will all feel “shaken” and “crushed” in life, but it is my prayer that we will be able to see, or at least trust, that God’s beauty is made manifest in our brokenness.