For Christ plays in ten thousand places,“As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, Gerard Manley Hopkins
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Adapted from portions of a May 2021 reflection I wrote for HMN302: Tradition, Revolution, and Poetic Transgression
The choice of Adam and Eve is the choice of each individual soul. Do we choose to attain fulfillment by our own power, resting our self-actualization in our own will and what we believe to be in our power to attain? Or do we rest on grace and Divine providence in that good which we cannot attain on our own? Adam chose the first, choosing himself by choosing to be with Eve rather than to do his duty in the order of creation and protect his wife, that which he had been given to guard He fell by wanting to be with her, but on his own terms, thinking that it would be better to be with her and to possess her than to risk at all being separated from her. This was the “new idea” of self over the community of others, and ultimately over community and communion with God which Satan had first introduced into the cosmos as we saw in Paradise Lost. Such an idea, that it is better to achieve by one’s own power than relying on anything given from another, is the central “idea” of every transgression, of separating from God by turning inwards to oneself. It has been played out over all of human history and is even now a struggle and temptation within each of our lives.
This idea of self-actualization above reliance, on creativity over continuity, on mutation over propagation, is quite tempting, even at times appearing virtuous. Isn’t it better to be a self-made man, to become high by the merits of your own hard work and initiative, to take pride in yourself and your accomplishments rather than being raised to high estate merely by a seeming fortune or fate? Isn’t it better to take on the challenges of the world and seemingly grow in practical virtue by encountering difficulty? We talk here at Wyoming Catholic College about handling the arduous well as a strength, a goal, a virtue. Even as Americans there’s a cultural sense in which we love to take pride in our accomplishments, we love to praise great deeds, and we honor those who have risen from low places to dominance and glory.
But we also see, often, or at least perhaps ought to see more often, how often our great plans fail, how often we trample over others unknowingly in our belief that we can do whatever we want in our modern conception of the world as a tool for our own aggrandizement. We are in a political and social tradition now formed by glorifying rebellion that we only sometimes have the grace to see past. When we actually consider anything we do, we have to admit that we deceive ourselves when we believe we can accomplish anything solely on the basis of our own agency with no help from another. This self-deception nurtures and inflates our pride and leads us to further deception. In effect the mistake behind every sin is tragic. We believe that we are great but have no idea of from whither this greatness comes. We look inwards for God and look past the grace working within us that is actually the only way we can like be God. We lose sight of the true blessing of grace, that the toil and pain that accompanies “hard liberty” is not what we were made for. We are made for the enjoyment and peace that can come even now through the grace of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
But yet we still fall, and it is ultimately through the experience of our free choice that we do become aware of our true dignity. This idea, that God lets us fall so that through experiential knowledge of the pain of sin, of doing it ourselves, we may each come as St. John of the Cross tells us in his “Romances on the Incarnation” to freely love God and find true happiness. This is evident in every example of transgression that is redeemed throughout the semester as is a further conclusion, that often, because of God’s grace, the redemption we get to because we fell is made almost greater and beautiful than it would have been without our fall. God works even more, in other words, to help and save the repentant sinner, that one sheep gone astray, “than the ninety-nine who did not stray.” Often the very process of redemption comes about through some lower desire, which when connected with God’s providential overseeing of all events, allows the sinner to find redemption, to find a path upwards to God, perhaps through the very things or pride which first led him to fall.
We enslave ourselves to ourselves when we revolt against Providence by trusting wholely in ourselves and finding our ends in ourselves. Sometimes we tragically never break free of willing our own damnation because we will to achieve on our own what is meant to be given to us by grace. Satan never repents. However, man, having “seized the fire”, can lay it down again because the process of our thoughts and actions, our moving between states of intellect and will, is discursive and worked out over time and space in our material reality. We have the time and space in the stage that is this reality to work out our return, or, far more properly, for God to work it out in us in ways that we can only perceive and imagine in retrospect and by grace. This is a world like unto Dostoevsky’s novels, a cosmos pervaded with hope because God so orchestrates every situation through seemingly chance occurrences, though seemingly chance events, through what is truly the impact of grace that we are led, even as we still remain in sin, to slowly and discursively find the way back to him. What seems to us when we do not understand it to be chance, to be fate, to perhaps as Raskolnikov saw the circumstances leading him up to confession to be fate working against him, is ultimately God’s providence in and within our lives. Only grace shows us later how it was God’s love “working even now in our tears” to make us love, long, and believe in Him, that it is now, Christ who “plays in ten thousand places” as the Romantic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it.
And I write this because of the experience of my own life in having read these works so providentially in a time in which God has himself been working out my salvation from this very same desire of transgression to do all things by my own power, to master plan my own life, to be for myself my own providence rather than to wait for God. It was through such a thought that shaped my thought throughout the past year that I remained here at Wyoming Catholic College when such a desire had for a short while made me want to leave this school. It was through, as I realized incredibly two weeks ago because God had seemingly placed an opportunity in my path and then took it away, that I am still here at WCC and now again at peace. It was through an experience where I realized that what at first had seemed to be a disappointment, that what I first, like Raskolnikov, saw as providence setting me up for failure, that I have come to a renewed awareness of my own faults. Through this awareness, I realized that Christ had been working even now “in my tears” again as St. John had said, that the realizations of the semester were not just theoretical, but that Dostoevsky’s vision is the solution to our practical struggles in this cosmos. I realized that I was one of these ten thousand places in which Christ was working.
And so I have found a peace and a new vigor of life at least partially through the experience of this course, in, although I must admit still failingly, realizing that I cannot do anything on my own, but that I can do great things through “Christ who strengthens me” as long as I submit my will to his. The choice of Adam is the choice of each individual soul. The choice of Raskolnikov is the choice of each individual soul. The choice to join the rebellion of Satan, to be isolated or to turn back in hope to God, crying out from the depths. Further, it is our choice not just once, but at every moment of our lives. At every moment we have this choice, will we choose to receive, or do we wish to create on our own?
Will I stay here with this vision? I need grace. But that is the hopeful vision for the here and now provided this course. If we rely not on our power but on grace we are sufficient to stand but free to fall. We must boast not in ourselves, but in grace.