The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

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Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) was a Jesuit priest (a convert from Anglicanism) and perhaps the greatest modern (?) poet of the English Language (ok, he’s my favorite). I first posted this poem back in 2007, making among my earliest postings. It was brought to attention by my daughter, Khouria Kathryn Rogers, dear to my heart. Like my other children, she is also in every breath I take.

The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe

Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that ’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink;
This air, which, by life’s law, 
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race—
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

       I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

       If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

      Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.
So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

      Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

31 comments:

  1. Beautiful. I am reminded also, as we anticipate the upcoming feast, of St. Bernard’s hymn to the Virgin Mother in Paradiso XXXIII:

    Virgin Mother, Daughter of your Son,
    more humble and exalted than any other creature,
    fixed goal of the eternal plan,

    You are the one who so ennobled human nature
    that He, who made it first, did not disdain
    to make himself of its own making.

    Your womb has relit the flame of love—
    it’s heat has made this blossom seed
    and flower in eternal peace.

    To us you are a noonday torch of charity,
    while down below, among those still in flesh,
    you are the living fountainhead of hope.

    Lady, you are so great and so prevail above,
    should he who longs for grace not turn to you,
    his longing would be doomed to wingless flight.

    Your loving kindness does not only aid
    whoever seeks it, but many times
    gives freely what has yet to be implored.

    In you clemency, in you compassion,
    In you munificence, in you are joined
    all virtues found in any creature.

    It saddens me greatly that nowadays many in my tradition (Confessional Lutheranism) greatly disvalue our Lord’s Mother.

  2. —Addendum:

    Above translation is by Robert and Jean Hollander, available at Princeton’s online Dante Project. The original Italian is even more beautiful.

  3. Father –
    I will not comment on the aesthetics of the poem; I am no poet (unless you count the number of different words I can name which rhyme with “Nantucket”). However, there is profound theology with Christotokos.

    The Father’s name — the famous tetragrammaton of the Hebrew Y-H-V-H — is un-pronounceable. The Authorised translators rendered it “Jehovah” in the absence of vowels. Nowadays, we might try with “Yah-way”. But the Jewish sages said the way to pronounce the Name was the sound of breathing.

    “Breath of life” comes from Him who is our breath. Rob Bell, in his earlier better moments, liked to say that whenever we open our mouths to speak, we utter God’s Name. And as long as we breathe, we say His Name. And when a living creature ceases to say His Name, the creature dies.

    Breathe in, breathe out. Say His Name.

    And consider how CoViD kills its victims: taking away their breath.

  4. Dysmas,
    I will only add a word of “correction.” The Virgin is properly titled, “Theotokos,” rather than “Christotokos,” the latter being a term associated with the heresy of Nestorianism. The not infrequent reluctance of many Protestants to render her the proper title is not a comment on the Virgin herself, but on the many inadequacies of Protestant thought. “Christotokos” will, perhaps, give something profound – but is most likely to give heresy – or so the Fathers of the Church thought.

  5. Father, thank you for clarifying the history of the use of the term Christotokos as Protestant. Since I hadn’t heard Roman Catholics use the term, Theotokos, I had the mistaken understanding that they too would use the term Christotokos.

    But, I’ve read a little more now, thanks to your comment, and appreciate the lesson.

    Indeed all the great Church councils confirm the name Theotokos and the related theology of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which the term points to. And the councils confirmed that the rejection of the use of the term is heresy.

    Most Holy Theotokos save us!

  6. This poem brings to mind God’s breath of life, what I might call His energies, in all of creation.

    Conveying the works of God in poetry, expresses the reality of the experience in a way that an argument cannot. It’s painting icons with words.

  7. Father, if you ever have time, it may be very helpful to do a series of blog posts on the Councils of the Church. Something like a synopsis of each with observations for today.

    I know one can look up tons of information online or read various books on them, but that is often fairly convoluted and can be confusing, especially to new converts and non-Orthodox. Anyway, just a thought.

  8. Dee,
    Hopkin’s poetic imagination is very rich. Normally, the Theotokos is not compared to the wind or the air. But, when we are reaching for images of the ontological relationships that are the very ground of our being, such uses make sense.

    More commonly, the air we breathe is seen as an image of God Himself. But she is the birth-giver of God, united to the wind in some manner, so to speak.

    Fr. Sergius Bulgakov famously made speculations about Sophia (Divine Wisdom) and, in some manner or other, sought to connect the Virgin to that. It was a failed attempt, condemned as a heresy. His failure, I think was founded in a too great reliance of Western philosophical images (drawn from Solovyev and others).

    However, that failure created a deep reluctance to speak about Sophia (Wisdom) at all – a serious mistake, I think. I also find that the modern engagement with Protestant cultures has made the Orthodox too shy when speaking about the Theotokos (which might be why I’ve been as bold consistently on the topic as I am).

    The Theotokos (as “Theotokos”) in the fullness of its meaning, is part of sacred dogma. The Christian faith cannot be truly taught without it. It is, I think, the lack of ontological understanding that makes it problematic for some. Frankly, it wasn’t until the birth of our first child that I began to get an inkling of the matter.

    I have four children (3 daughters). All of my daughters are “fractals” of their mother – something that is strikingly apparent now that they are all adults. I have 2 brothers – the 3 of us all bear a striking resemblance to my father. Such realities underline the fact that we are bone of bone and flesh of flesh. To be related to someone is, in some strange manner, to “be” them in an altered fashion. We are echoes of our progenitors. And the closer the relative, the stronger and clearer is the sound of the echo.

    Mary resounds loudly in Christ – there is nothing about His conception that serves as a barrier between Himself and her. He is bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh. Though we do not know the mystery of the Virgin Conception and Birth, we know that that much must be true. He was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary.”

    And, on a personal note, my devotion to the Theotokos, which has only grown with each passing year, is intensely personal – in time we come to know her person – her love and care for us – her unceasingly motherly protection for all of her spiritual children.

    One of her titles is “the Softener of Hearts.” I have ever found her to be so.

  9. I just recently was looking at one of our children and realized how the mere sight of them evoke the past, present and future all at the same time….all in one glance. All with one breath…with one heart.
    I think of the Theotokos and of Liturgy.

  10. Why not say Mother of God instead of Theotokos?

    Is it because it doesn’t capture all the nuance of the word of Theotokos? Yet there is power in vernacular, power of intimacy.

    Personally I love how slavic languages and finnish/estonian languange call Mary: Bogorodica/Jumalansynnytäjä/Jumalasünnitaja.

    And to hear Mary being called and to call her Jumalasünnitaja, is something very visceral and personal. There really is no way to dispute the divinity of Lord Jesus after saying that.

    It’s literally God-birther, but I guess for english language this verb turned into a noun is an odd thing. Some languages are more flexible in these matters. I remember one night I played around with giving Mary honorific made up titles, by turning all the verbs (what she did) into nouns about her (what she is).

    Jumalaema (Mother of God), Jumalasünnitaja (God-birther), Jumalakuulja (God-listener), Jumalauskuja, (Believer of God), Jumalateenija (Servant of God), Jumalaarmastaja (Lover of God)… etc, all following the same grammatical structure.

    It was a playful, yet reverent moment.

    But what was my original point? Oh yes. I’m kinda saddened by the english orthodox usage of Theotokos. It’s something that needs explanation, rather than directly strike an image in your head.

  11. Joosua,
    Your point viz. English is spot on. In the British translations, the Orthodox chose to render “Theotokos” as “Mother of God,” sometimes, “Birth-giver of God.” In the US – particularly with the OCA, the decision was to keep the Greek, Theotokos. I find that we have to explain to our converts what “Theotokos” means. I have been Orthodox (OCA) now for 22 years – and developing a visceral attachment to the word “Theotokos,” has taken time. I will say that it is there. The Greeks, more often than not, call her “Panagia” (“All-Holy”) but it’s like a term of endearment for them.

    Bogoroditsa in Russian, at least as I’ve heard he spoken from pious lips, seems to carry a deep devotional sense. I often pray the “Most Holy Mother of God, save us!” in Slavonic in my prayers. I first heard it from the lips of a nun in England – and I hear her voice when I use it.

    English, of course, once had a devotion for Mary. It is found more in the phrase, “Our Lady,” than anywhere else, I think. But, “Lady” has ceased to have as much heart attached to it. Alas, 500 years of Protestantism as made English less able to speak its heart in this matter. It is a loss.

    Now – Estonian/Finnish – there’s a true exotic set of isolate languages! It’s wonderful to learn of her praises in those tongues! Of course, I wouldn’t dare try to pronounce what you’ve written for us!

    Perhaps the highest praise I know for Finnish, was that Tolkien used it as a model for his invented Elvish tongues. He used Welsh as the basis for the Orc language. I’m not sure what that says…but it doesn’t sound like a compliment.

  12. Father thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the Theotokos! They are so edifying and helpful to give us a window into the life with her. As you say it takes time for our relationship to develop with her. I like your usage, describing our relations as fractals. That too is helpful poetic idiom.

    Thank you!!

  13. Father,
    Thank you for this lovely poem and post! Holy Theotokos pray for us!
    As for Tolkien, I believe he based the speech of the wood-elves, Sindarin, on Welsh, not Orc language.

  14. Andrew,

    Yikes! I gladly stand corrected! What a terrible mistake for me to make. I had heard that somewhere and didn’t bother to ever check it out. Glad to be disabused of such a notion.

  15. The Byzantine Catholic Church in America (the Carpatho Rusyns) now uses Theotokos in its 2006 English translation of the Divine Liturgy.

  16. American English has difficulty with expressing intimate holiness. For one it is a leveling language and also it has become an engineering language. Thus, I think the seeming lack of a word that adequately expresses the reality of Mary as the Mother of God. Although the Akathist to The Mother of God gives us a lot to choose from. Perhaps she is so unique that there is no adequate way to name her? Beloved Queen, Blessed Lady Theotokos is how the prayer to her that my wife and I say every morning begins.

    Although I must admit that the one from the Akathist that always gets my attention is “mystic heifer”.
    In my personsal prayers I tend to see her as the icon that is above Orthodox altars. The entrance to my inner temple, warm welcoming incredibly holy all at the same time but always directing every one to her Son. There is just a touch of warning too–approach in reverence!
    Icons and poetry are perhaps the only avenues to begin to express and begin to apprehend who she is.

  17. After Hopkins poem which I had to read about five times and then reading the comments below some so terribly profound, I feel as though I am floating on the fringes of Heaven. All of my Christian brothers and sisters and especially father Freeman so deeply loving and learned. The comments and expressions on love and Panagia are the beautiful fruits of the One True Faith. Glory to God indeed!

  18. Hopkins had me at “Glory be to God for dappled things …” While by no means forgotten, his is sadly overlooked in the present pantheon of poets. Thanks you for sharing this.

  19. Father, the existence of fractal geometry in nature is also helpful as a means to explain how it was possible that I was capable of “seeing the Resurrection” in the Higgs Potential Energy Field, without being a Christian at the time. Simple equations can lead us to amazingly complex, surprising and beautiful underlying realities. Not at all unlike our painted icons.

    I offer an icon here of the Holy Cross, expressed in fractal geometry:
    https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2002/nsf0120/nsf0120_man.html

  20. Forgive me, one more comment as addendum:

    Your use of the word fractal has eminently helped me to breathe more deeply of the relationship between the Most Holy Theotokos and Jesus Christ. Indeed she is His mother, her womb encompassing both the ‘un-emcompassing’ Divine and the human in Him. May her bright star-dappled veil protect us!

    Thank you for this!

  21. Hopefully the last one for the day! (I guess I can’t help myself and shut up!)

    The image you have shared with us Father, also points to this fractal relationship in their aureoles. (But you probably knew this from the start)

    I’m curious how we Orthodox, might retrieve from “what too great reliance of Western philosophical images” to ascribe to her the name, Holy Sophia? Is the possible Father? And if so, is it needful to read what he wrote to avoid the pitfalls, or can we read a commentary to point us in the right direction? I guess this means I have a yearning to be bold with regard to the Theotokos, but not un-Orthodox.

  22. To put “mystic heifer” into context Ode 3 of the translation used in my jurisdiction:
    ODE THREE
    As a living and copious fountain, O Theotokos, do thou strengthen those who hymn thy praises,
    and are joined together in a spiritual company for thy service; and in thy divine glory make them
    worthy of crowns of glory.
    Most-holy Theotokos, save us!
    As a clear and untilled field, thou didst make the Divine Ear of Grain to sprout; Hail, thou living
    table that held the Bread of Life; Hail, thou unfailing fountain of Living Water.
    Most-holy Theotokos, save us!
    Hail, O mystic heifer that didst bear the Spotless Calf; Hail, ewe-lamb who didst conceive the
    Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the whole world; Hail, thou fervent intercessor.
    Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
    Hail, O radiant dawn, which alone dost bear Christ the Sun, the dwelling-place of Light; Hail, thou
    who didst dispel the darkness and reduce to naught the demons of gloom.

  23. Father,
    I want to ask my question again because it probably was too convoluted to understand what I was asking. And I hope to ask it more clearly.

    Part of what draws me to understand ‘Sophia’, Holy Wisdom, in the scriptures minimally as a ‘type’ of the Theotokos is that my mother believed that the reference in the scripture was to a real person, and specifically a female person. As far as I know, without going into a lot of detail, this was an idea that arose in her Seminole culture, which had been introduced to Christianity from several generations in the past.

    My mother tried to convey the reality of her to me as something as close and as ‘real’ as any other person whom we might touch.

    Is there an Orthodox tradition (perhaps not?) that makes these associations of Sophia with the Theotokos? And if Fr. Sergius Bulgakov went too far, using western philosophy to express his perception of her, is it still possible to say that these scriptures are about her as a type (similar to the tradition about the burning bush and the temple gate that no man entered), while not falling into the same pitfalls that Fr Sergius fell in?

    Acknowledging he made a critical mistake, is it possible to isolate his mistake, from the rest of the work and still have something that edifies us and teaches us about the Theotokos?

    I’ve only read a little of Fr Sergius Bulgakov’s works and not enough to know the nuts and bolts of what the problem was all about. And all that I have done in my readings of scripture is make my own associations, and wondered how far I was stretching the meaning of the scriptures. Perhaps there might be hymns that might allude to this relationship, but I don’t remember any specifically that associate the Theotokos to Sophia.

    Do you have further thoughts on this?

  24. Dee,
    I suspect there is clearly a sort of type to be found that links Sophia and the Theotokos. Bulgakov, more or less, was pushing this into the Godhead itself (at least I am told this). There are some things of which I am pretty certain:

    1.Though we generally do not use feminine language with regard to God (with a couple of notable exceptions), that which we call “woman” has something of which it is the visible expression. Maleness and Femaleness are not mere accidents of creaturely existence (despite Gal. 3:28). I say this because I do not think there is anything in the visible creation that is not also a type of something in the invisible. That is a common notion in some of the Fathers.

    2. Of that which we name as woman and female, Mary is the purest example and archetype that we have. She fulfills what Eve was to have been (in some manner).

    3. Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anna, is a “mere woman.” And yet, there are eternal archetypes that point towards her, and many Old Testament types that do so as well. In that sense, she has an “existence” that has spanned the ages – at least in that limited manner. This is not so strange to say. God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

  25. Indeed, isn’t it that for the Theotokos, she is most pure in her humility, so having thereby shown herself to be what man was created to be, in loving likeness to God, and thereby the model for all.

    Perhaps the confusion lies in that sometimes Wisdom appears to be an appellation given to Christ himself, metaphorically speaking? Whereas she is most human, and it is her own flesh she freely offers, ‘He having regarded the humility of his handmaid’. But it is a delicate difference; there is certainly an intimate understanding between them.

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