Thursday, April 29, 2010

Column: A Dash of Fire and Water

The lines from Hopkins' are taken from The Wreck of the Deutschland (at the end of "Part the First"). Robin's sermon and Stratoz' ruminations on fire got me thinking about fire and water, and finally about water. Though The Wreck is nowise my favorite of Hopkins' poems, I get a kick out of his reference to St. Augustine as Austin -- it always strikes me as a somewhat flippant and familiar mode of address for a saint who seems so staid in my imagination.

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 April 2010.

Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow. — Ps. 51: 7b

Last Wednesday morning I was decorously pedaling along, dressed for work in skirt and stockings, a hundred papers to grade weighing down my bike bags and spirit. Cruising slowly up to the stoplight with the rest of the morning rush hour traffic, I was running through the day’s to-do list, and mentally bewailing a day in which I would hardly have space to breathe, let alone eat lunch. My day had barely begun, and I felt as if I’d already given it away.

Mired in my fretful meditations, I was startled by the sound of water hitting my helmet. Was it starting to rain? I looked up to see a cloudless blue sky. Not even an errant tree branch dripping a last bit of the night’s rain broke the dome above me.

I looked down. Dry pavement beneath me. No lawn sprinklers sprinkling, no one hosing out a bin at the pizza place. Mystified, I rode on, wondering if I had imagined it. Suddenly a sparkling shower of droplets danced before my eyes and hit me square in the face — flung my way by the windshield wipers of the car in front of me.

Utterly oblivious to the asperges he was affording the bicyclist behind him, the gentleman in the maroon car continued to swish and spray his windshield. He was gaining a certain clarity on the world. So was I.
“With an anvil-ding
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still.”
With these words, priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., vividly contrasts St. Paul’s fast and fiery conversion with Augustine’s slow soaking transformation. My morning’s drenching similarly had a bit of both fire and water in it. I had been awash in a gorgeous spring morning, and yet so unaware I required Hopkins’ “anvil-ding” to rouse me to the possibilities of the moment.

With a gentle touch of humor and a literal dash of water, God had found a way to get me to look up, take a breath and see His face in creation. I did have a moment to breathe, and now the clarity to see that I had been squandering it being anxious about not having time to breathe.

When we smell smoke, or hear flames or feel water on our faces, we feel compelled to look for the source. And like the spray in my face, the source can be hard to find, but we are restless until we know where to turn our attention. So we look up, we look around. We call on God.

In God’s hands, fire and water are signs that are hard to ignore. We know ourselves to be fragile in the face of such elemental forces. Too, fire and water are messy vehicles of grace. They leave little in their wake unchanged, even in small doses. They both reveal what is inside, stripping off the outer layers that can cloud mind and sight.

My morning encounter with God on the road side was not as life-changing as Paul’s on the road to Damascus — though my water covered glasses left me momentarily as blind — but like Augustine, I found God soaking into my life, “stealing as Spring.” I rode into the rest of my day, still carrying the weight of papers to grade and an overfull appointment book, but with the sure knowledge of where my next breath was coming from.

Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. — Karl Rahner, S.J., in Encounters With Silence


  1. Bless you! What a delight.

    Over the course of years I have come to a comfortable place of knowing that God is so gentle with me... urging me, reminding me, guiding me.

    You show me, yet again, another way that he loves all of us enough to continue to do this!

    Oh if I have ears to hear (and eyes to see!) let me hear!

  2. Thanks, Cindy! One strong image of God for me is as slightly exasperated, but still filled with humor and love, parent --

  3. I walked in my labyrinth this morning and kept you and yours in my thoughts and heart for many turns!

    Hope you have a wonderful day!

    (my word verification is "nonsuk" which is what this day is doing!!)

  4. a wonderful read on the Sunday morning

  5. I like that poem largely because my gal Gertrud is in it, in a reference to Eisleben ("Gertrud, lily, and Luther are two of a town"). Hopkins has a more pleasant way of pointing out the connection than the person he may have learned it from--Sr. Mary Francis Clare Cusack, the nineteenth century translator of Gertrud's Herald. "Eisleben has the unenviable distinction of being the birthplace of Martin Luther"!