Omaha, Nebraska
Fall 1999
Volume 11, Number 1

On the Durability of Ignatian Creation Spirituality

Wendy M. Wright
Professor of Theology

Under the aegis of the Center’s Catholic Imagination Project, Creighton University’s own Dennis Hamm, S.J., biblical scholar and self-described fallen-away English teacher, gave two lecture/performances at Creighton (March 18, repeated July 7) on the poetry of Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Hamm began with these questions: How is it that Hopkins’ imagination was so much at home in the cold worldview of the Victorian age, informed as it was by Newton’s mechanistic cosmology? And why does the poet’s worldview make even more sense now, in our post-Hubble, expanding universe?

To focus the questions, Hamm first reviewed the fashioning of our current world-view. By Hopkins's time (mid-nineteenth century), "Copernicus had de-centered us, Newton had mechanized us, Darwin had dethroned us, and Freud would soon suggest that we were not even the sovereign rulers of our personal conscious lives." In our own century, we have come to see that, spatially, neither our Sun nor our galaxy is central, and that we sit at the edge of a 15-billion-year-old cosmic story that is longer and wider than we had ever guessed. At the same time, paradoxically, according to one reading of the cosmic story (the anthropic principle), despite this apparent displacement, we find ourselves to be qualitatively central: the universe appears to have been "fine tuned" to produce us.

Against the background of this resume of 19th and 20th-century cosmology, Hamm performed seven poems by Hopkins, along with Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach." The familiar Arnold piece put us in touch with an important expression of the Victorian spiritual cosmos. Hopkins’ very early poem, "Nondum," written when he was 22, exemplified his own dry, pre-conversion hope in the face of Newton’s cold and nearly vacant cosmos. Hamm then toured examples of the poet’s mature work - "The Sea and the Skylark," "Starlight Night," "God’s Grandeur," "Ribblesdale," and "In honour of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez." Each poem in its own way celebrated the cosmos as a meaningful home "charged" with the grandeur of God (in ways that cannot be summarized here but only experienced directly in the poems).

In the third part of his presentation, Hamm argued that the source of Hopkins’ enthusiastic celebration of the universe as home is the creation theology of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The whole of the Exercises, but especially the climactic "Contemplation to Attain the Love of God," are suffused with the creation spirituality that informed Hopkins' sense of the cosmos. Hamm finds in the Exercises these points of resonance with Hopkins' poetry: (1) the sense that humanity is part of nature, (2) the sense that all creatures mediate the presence and love of God, (3) the conviction that humankind is equipped through self-consciousness and freedom to be the most responsive of creatures, (4) the awareness that people, nonetheless, regularly abuse that privilege, especially by their inattention to the gifts, which leads to ingratitude and selfish behavior violating the network of relationships with God and other creatures, and (5) the awareness that renewed conversion to one’s creaturehood is always available through response to the love of God revealed in Jesus.

The fourth part of Hamm’s presentation, "Some Afterthoughts," made some applications to our situation as Christians in an emergent universe. What follows are excerpts from those thoughts:

The poetry of Hopkins is an important reminder that Christian faith is not first of all about cosmology; it is about an experience of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth as that has been passed on and celebrated in community. Given that experience and its attendant highly personal worldview, the believer can find a home in the world. Then science and cosmology become further illuminations of an already meaningful universe.

The Christian sense of creation encourages the latter. We need to restate it within the common creation story now emerging from the sciences.

We have moved from a world picture to a universe story. And that move creates a whole new context for the dialogue between religion and science.

Moreover, both scientists and theologians have become humbler in the breadth of their truth claims. Both are becoming aware that they approach reality with different tools and diverse methods.

Hopkins was able to welcome new discoveries and speculations coming from the science of his day regarding the cosmos. These were no threat, but rather further lore and news about a strange and marvelous world in which his faith had already found a home.

We probably ought to admit that our biblical faith does indeed commit us to the vision of humanity as "life's pride and cared-for crown." At the same time, we also recognize that that very status derives from our being "Earth's eye, tongue . . . heart" and carries with it the role of collaborating with the rest of the life community in a "use of creatures" that is reverential and sustainable.

In Hopkins' poetry, we encounter an instinctive, and tutored, intuition that humanity is part of nature - a part that, because of its level of self-consciousness and freedom, has a special responsibility regarding the rest of creation. In our day, the worldview being unfolded by our natural sciences is elaborating that insight with a complex beauty that Hopkins might not have imagined but surely would have appreciated.

At this turn of the millennia, when people of all nations and cultures are becoming aware of our shared universe story - along with our self-induced ecological crisis - we shall have much to contribute if we appropriate and act upon the biblical sense of life as primarily a gift to be shared rather than a possession to be defended.