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Reading Hopkins after Hubble: The Durability of Ignatian Creation Spirituality

  • M. Dennis Hamm (a1)


The Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins already demonstrated a special sensitivity to nature as a young Anglican. But his conversion to Catholicism, followed by his formation as a Jesuit, nurtured a creation spirituality that moved him from the rather cold view of the cosmos typical of his Victorian era to a vibrant sense of God intimately revealed in nature. This new sense of being a creature involved in an intimate personal relationship with the Creator comes from Hopkins' appropriation of the creation spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola. After reviewing the evolution of worldviews from the medieval synthesis melded with the Newtonian mechanical model (the Victorian picture) to our contemporary cosmic “story,” this article then samples poems that illustrate the creation spirituality that Hopkins absorbed from Ignatius' vision. This vision is remarkably in tune with the new sense of the place of the human creature in the cosmic story that the sciences now tell regarding the emergence of matter, life, and persons.



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1 For a helpful discussion of this synthesis, see Wildiers, N. Max, The Theologian and His Universe: Theology and Cosmology from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Dunphy, Paul (New York: Seabury Press, 1982). Another classic and accessible treatment of this synthesis is Lewis, C. S., The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964). The point of Lewis' subtitle is that one needs to be introduced to the late medieval world picture to understand medieval and Renaissance literature.

2 My portrayal of the contemporary worldview derives from a wide variety of sources. For a recent comprehensive survey of the full sweep of theologizing regarding creation, from the biblical traditions into the early twenty-first century, see Clifford, Anne M., “Creation,” in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, ed. Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler and Galvin, John P., 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 201–53. For a thoroughgoing treatment of the interface between Darwin's argument in On the Origin of Species and the Nicene Creed, see Johnson, Elizabeth A., Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014). A top climatologist, Hansen, James, has written an account of climate change that is both powerfully personal and accessibly technical: Storms of My Grandchildren (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). For concrete examples of the extinction of species occurring in our own day, see Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Henry Holt, 2014). Some earlier works that I have found especially helpful are Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988); Ferris, Timothy, Coming of Age in the Milky Way (New York: Doubleday, 1988); Boslough, John, Masters of Time: Cosmology at the End of Innocence (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1992); Barbour, Ian, Religion in an Age of Science, The Gifford Lectures 1989–91, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Doubleday, 1992); McFague, Sallie, The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993). For a charming reflection on how faith can relate to the cosmic story in the mind of a contemporary Jesuit astronomer, see Coyne, George SJ, “The Fertile Universe: Science and Religion,” Origins 35/36, February 23, 2006, 601–6.

3 On the relationship between Newtonian cosmology and Christian faith, see Buckley, Michael J. SJ, “The Newtonian Settlement and the Origin of Atheism,” in Physics, Philosophy, and Theology: A Common Quest for Understanding, ed. Russell, Robert J., Stoeger, William R., and Coyne, George V. (Vatican City: Vatican Observatory, 1988), 81102.

4 “Redshift” is the apparent increase in the wavelength of radiation emitted by a receding celestial body as a consequence of the Doppler effect. It shows up on a spectroscope as a shifting toward the red end of the spectrum.

5 The precise number—13.7 billion years—comes from a newspaper account of a report of readings from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a robotic instrument with two telescopes that sweep the sky every six months in an orbit one million miles from Earth (a Baltimore Sun article carried in the Omaha World-Herald, March 17, 2006).

6 For an excellent discussion of the cosmological anthropic principle and theology, see Mooney, Christopher F. SJ, “The Anthropic Principle in Cosmology and Theology,” Horizons 21, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 105–29.

7 MacKenzie, Norman H., ed., The Poetical Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 9193. Unless stated otherwise, the poems of Hopkins quoted in this article are taken from this definitive edition of his poetry. For the most part, when I supply notes on Hopkins' diction, the information is taken from the notes that appear in MacKenzie's commentary on the particular poem (the latter half of MacKenzie's edition of Hopkins' poetry consists of such commentary). I am aware of the more recent edition of Hopkins' works by Catherine Phillips (rev. ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). However, I have chosen to stay with the MacKenzie edition, as representing the version of Hopkins' work familiar to most readers.

8 Feeney, Joseph J. SJ (“The Collapse of Hopkins' Jesuit Worldview: A Conflict between Moralism and Incarnationalism,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins Annual, ed. Sundermeier, Michael [Omaha, NE: Creighton University, 1992], 105–26) alludes briefly to the worldview of this poem (109), but to make a different point, namely, Hopkins' moralistic preoccupation with self before his Catholic conversion.

9 Allott, Miriam and Super, Robert H., eds., Matthew Arnold, The Oxford Authors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 135–36.

10 MacKenzie, Norman H., A Reader's Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 7374.

11 These notes come mainly from MacKenzie, Poetical Works, 365.

12 MacKenzie, Poetical Works, 432.

13 At this point, I realize that what I mean by “worldview” is something other than what Feeney means in “The Collapse of Hopkins' Jesuit Worldview.” By “worldview” I mean the poet's understanding of God's presence in creation and creatures, whereas Feeney seems to mean the poet's experience of God's presence in creation and creatures. In the latter sense Hopkins' Jesuit worldview does indeed collapse during the Dublin years, but I would argue that the poet's understanding of how God relates to the world endures even in the desolation of the Dublin years, as demonstrated powerfully in the sonnet celebrating the Creator's presence in the world and in the life of Alphonsus Rodriguez, written a year before Hopkins' death.

14 My reflection on this question owes much to the stimulating study of Ong, Walter J. SJ, Hopkins, the Self, and God (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986).

15 As Hopkins himself made clear in his own correspondence and notes, another powerful influence on his vision was the work of twelfth-century Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus (on this see, for example, Ong, Hopkins, the Self, and God, 106–12). In the larger picture, I am convinced, this was for him a nuancing of the contemplative vision already established in his life through the Exercises of Ignatius.

16 Ganss, George E. SJ, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: A Translation and Commentary (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992), sec. 23. I will cite this English language edition henceforth, and citations will be included parenthetically in the body of my text in an abbreviated form by section number (e.g., SpEx 23).

17 For a full commentary on this passage, see Tetlow, Joseph A. SJ, “The Fundamentum: Creation in the Principle and Foundation,” Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits 21, no. 4 (September 1989): 153.

18 For example, Ignatius' discussion of “swearing by a creature” in his section on the General Examen (SpEx 39): “To swear by a creature is more permissible for persons spiritually far advanced than for those less advanced. The perfect, through constant contemplation and enlightenment of their understanding, more readily consider, meditate, and contemplate God our Lord as being present in every creature by his essence, presence, and power. Thus when they swear by a creature, they are more able and better disposed than the imperfect to render respect and reverence to their Creator and Lord.”

19 On this point, see Velecky, Lubor, Aquinas' Five Arguments in the “Summa Theologiae” 1a2, 3 Studies in Philosophical Theology 9 (Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1994), esp. 3467; 113–34.

20 The best help I have found for getting this sense of the universe story as cosmogenesis is Swimme, Brian and Berry, Thomas, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992).

21 On this see Mooney, Christopher F. SJ, “Theology and Science: A New Commitment to Dialogue,” Theological Studies 52 (1991): 289328.

22 On Hopkins' (and Newman's) interaction with the sciences of the mid-1880s, see Zaniello, Tom, Hopkins in the Age of Darwin (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988).

23 See Clifford, Anne M., “Postmodern Scientific Cosmology and the Christian God of Creation,” Horizons 21, no. 1 (Spring 1994): 6284.

24 This thought is developed in White's much reprinted chapter, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” in Machina ex Deo: Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1968), 7594.



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