Thursday, November 27, 2008

God's grandeur in the city?

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 27 November 2008]

Wisdom calls aloud in the streets, She raises her voice in the public squares; She calls out at the street corners, She delivers her message at the city gates.
Prv. 1:20-21

"Glory be to God for dappled things" priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., exclaims at the start of Pied Beauty. Last summer I very nearly stepped on one of God's dappled things. In the early hours of a warm, hazy morning, ambling down a familiar path, my mind was miles away. A commotion in the bushes brought me up short.

Not two feet away, curled up in the middle of a hedgerow that came right out of Hopkins' "landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow and plough" was a newborn fawn, her dappled skin nearly invisible against the sun speckled grass, her nervous mother poised to run me off. At that moment, it was not so hard to see how, in Hopkins' words, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God."

This fall, most of my walking has been through Philadelphia's streets, on days far less gentle than the misty morning I encountered the fawn.

One afternoon, an icy rain was falling as I trudged from Old City to the train station; even wrapped in my raincoat I was damp and cold. At 13th and Market, I watched a toothless man walk bent into the beating rain with no coat, no umbrella, no shoes - just flip-flops and soaking socks. I walked past a woman with all her worldly goods in bags, pressed up against a building in the narrow dry strip of pavement. Where was God's grandeur now?

In his homily on Christ the King, Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx points out that while we might seek God among the great and powerful (or perhaps in glorious country walks), "Jesus lets us find God among the little ones and those of no account." Though we may not realize it, we are standing before God now, even as we will at the last judgment - at 13th and Market.

Like the doe crashing through the brush, Wisdom's challenge in Proverbs brought my attention sharply back to the prospect of uncovering God's grandeur in the city streets and public squares.

Could I bow down before the man with no shoes, throw myself at the feet of the woman against the wall, as I imagine I would before Christ the King? I could not help but think of Blessed Theresa of Calcutta, who believed that in touching the broken bodies of the poor, she was touching the body of Christ himself. I also could not fail to see how far short of this vision of the kingdom I fall.

As I rehearsed the majestic music chosen for Sunday's Feast of Christ the King, the royal fanfares and flourishes resounding in the church, my mind kept returning to the faces of Christ the King on the street corners. What other gifts was I preparing, fit for that King, to bring before His altar?

In his commentary on St. Matthew, Church Father Origen speaks to us of weaving "a garment for the cold and shivering Christ." What cloak am I weaving in both word and deed to wrap around Christ, our King, who is cold and shivering on the streets?

Can I bring myself to look at that cloak, to face my ultimate end, my judgment before God, every day? Not easily. So I listen for God's wisdom at the city gates, poised now to notice God's dappled things tucked nearly invisible against the buildings, continually praying for God's grace not to let my own nerves run me off.

Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us in the sacrament of your body and blood. May we offer to our Father in heaven a solemn pledge of undivided love. May we offer to our brothers and sisters a life poured out in loving service of that kingdom where you live with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Opening prayer from the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ

Photo is on
Avenue du Général Leclerc in the Paris city center, taken by vlastula. Used under Creative Commons license.


  1. you heart is responding. That is what we are called to do even if for now it is not clear.

  2. Yesterday I was talking with a Preby higher-up about possible small churches for internships and calls, and she asked me whether I had a preference for rural or urban, which brought to mind a conversation I had with a director while on retreat last year: How would I feel about a call to an inner-city church, when I depend so much on daily walks in the world of nature?

    You have offered me a way of bringing Hopkins into just such a scenario. Thank you.