As Kingfishers Catch Fire

John James Audubon, "Belted Kingfisher"

John James Audubon, “Belted Kingfishers”

Spiritual Sunday

Last Sunday I talked about how “Adonais,” Shelley’s elegy to Keats, helps me explore what has happened to those who have died, including my oldest son Justin. My good friend Sue Schmidt sent me the following letter in response. Reading her thoughts about the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that she cites, I thought of the German mystic Jakob Bohme, who had a revelation after seeing a beautiful splash of sunlight on a ceramic bowl. Boehme gathered from the experience that  God is sending us messages through the beauty of the world and it is up to us to read them there.

Hi Robin,

I was looking at this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins this morning and it reminded me of the flip side of the post on Justin. First the poem – I’m sure you know it:

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not him
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Here’s how I see this fitting together with the poem by Shelley. If we come from God and, when we die, return to God, what happens in the middle. What happens in this life? Do we indeed have a divine spark within us?

It makes sense that we would, that this is our soul, which is a child of the Father’s. We are not “God” because we are not the Father, but we are “Godlike” because we have divine DNA. I think the Pope in his interview in La Repubblica makes this distinction well:

Francis: From my point of view, God is the light that illuminates the darkness, even if it does not dissolve it, and a spark of divine light is within each of us. In the letter I wrote to you, you will remember I said that our species will end but the light of God will not end and at that point it will invade all souls and it will all be in everyone.

Interviewer: Yes, I remember it well. You said, “All the light will be in all souls” which – if I may say so – gives more an image of immanence than of transcendence.

Francis: Transcendence remains because that light, all in everything, transcends the universe and the species it inhabits at that stage.

Because we have the light of God in us, when we act according to our deepest desires, our truest selves, we are, like Christ, incarnating the Spirit of God. Our ability to get in touch with this divine spark may be different depending on our upbringings and our personal awareness. But we all have the ability to engage in this soulwork, and as we do the glimpses of Christ in us become more and more frequent. We do not do this work alone, but rather with the grace and gifts of the Father, the example and prayers of Christ, and the power and understanding of the Spirit.

Becoming Christlike is to be increasingly permeated with love. Swami Chaitanay Keerti speaks of the divine spark as a fountain of love and encourages us to remove anything that hinders this love so that it flows more freely:

Often I say, learn the art of love. What I really mean is: learn the art of removing all that hinders love. It is a negative process. It is like digging a well – you go on removing layers of earth, stones, rocks and then suddenly there is water. The water was always there as an undercurrent. When you remove all barriers, the water is available. So with love. Love is the undercurrent of your being. It is flowing, but there are many rocks, much earth to be removed. That’s what I mean when I say: learn the art of love. It is really not learning love but un-learning the ways of un-love.”

So we come from God to become like God, “crying What I do is me; for that I came.” Our souls want to do “one thing and the same.”  And what is that? To play Christ, to act out love in a thousand places, in a thousand ways. Myriads of combinations, overcoming a multitude of hurdles. And when we end our lives, end our “performance,” we return to God, bringing our unique improvisation as a gift, having “clothed God” (Rilke) the best we can. And I think that all who seek to honor God by incarnating love will be honored. And those who haven’t will be dealt with truthfully and compassionately so that ultimately the love of God will, as Francis says, “invade all souls.”

Well, there are some thoughts – I feel like I’ve written a homily! How do they strike you?


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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