Monday, 6 August 2012

Fire and Water

picture from NASA
Some thoughts for the Feast of the Transfiguration...
There's something magical about sunsets over the sea. I can understand how some of the ancient philosophers believed that at the end of each day the sun melted into the ocean, to be created anew the next morning - that all is in a state of flux and re-creation. Well, we know better than that now, don't we? Only today the robot rover Curiosity landed on Mars and we shall know better than ever what the Red Planet is made of... but cue one of my favourite quotations from C S Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"In our world," said Eustace, "a star is a huge ball of flaming gas."
"Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."
(For what Mars might be in this Lewisian sense, see here...)
It's rather wonderful and, I think, divinely-given, that we have this ability (unique to us humans?) to hold two concepts together and see truth in them both. So as I watch the sunset I can know that this is happening because the Earth is spinning away from the star that provides its light and warmth. And at the same time I can wonder at how the Sun seems to become liquid and set the water ablaze. It's a powerful and comforting image to hold when I pray the Examen, the review of the day... comforting to see the Sun, the day, dissolve into the boundless ocean of God's love and mercy and be washed away; to know that the day to come will be completely new.
The Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, above all, believed that the whole of creation is in a state of flux.  "Everything is flowing", he said, and "you can never step into the same river twice". At this season, as the year's wheel turns towards autumn (where I live, anyway),the days begin to shorten and plants in the garden go to fruit and seed, it's easy to believe him.  And yet, something else is true too...
The disciples, who lived and ate, travelled and rested with Jesus, knew well what he was "made of", beautiful but fragile and changeable human flesh. At his Transfiguration Peter, James and John caught a glimpse of who he is - Lord of Life, Alpha and Omega. Both are true: truly human and truly divine.
Gerard Manley Hopkins understands this. In this poem he can delight in the change and flow of nature because of his faith in everlasting life.

That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

Cloud-puffball, torn tufts, tossed pillows  flaunt forth, then chevy on an air-

Built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they throng; they glitter in marches.

Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,

Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long lashes lace, lance, and pair.

Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare

Of yestertempest's creases;  in pool and rut peel parches

Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches

Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there

Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature's bonfire burns on.

But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selvèd spark

Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!

Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark

Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone

Sheer off, disseveral, a star, death blots black out; nor mark

Is any of him at all so stark

But vastness blurs and time  beats level. Enough! the Resurrection,

A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping,  joyless days, dejection.

Across my foundering deck shone

A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash

Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire, leave but ash:

In a flash, at a trumpet crash,

I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and

This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,

Is immortal diamond.


  1. "Still - facing autumn" (Stewart Henderson) speaks to me similarly.

    Thanks for the Gerard Manley Hopkin's poem; one of his that I'd not come across before, surprisingly!

    1. Thank you! If I remember rightly, the last words of the poem "Immortal Diamond" are on GMH's plaque in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. Will now look for Stewart Henderson... Isn't it lovely to share treasures? It's what I love about blogging :-)

    2. ...well, I Googled the Stewart Henderson poem and guess where it led me? Greenpatches! Ha!

  2. I love your image of the Examen as the sun melting into the boundless ocean of God's merciful love. I shall try that for myself, and definitely use it when I next lead an examen-type reflection. Thank you!


    1. Thank you, Silvana - good to have your comment. Welcome!

  3. I love your take on holding two ideas in the head at once. Life is so complex and multilayered but we tend to forget that at times.
    For me, the sunrise and sunset are the bookends of my day. Early morning for contemplation of where God is leading me this day, evening for reflection on the day past and how well I followed . Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks you, Barbara. Good to have you here! I like your image of "bookends" of the day - important to have them there, whatever the multiplicity of stories in between!


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