I was recently reminded of one my favorite poems, Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and reconsidered what the poet was saying. Hopkins wrote:
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
It has been noted that the first line echoes the motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad majorem Dei gloriam, “To the greater glory of God,” and that is unsurprising, given that Hopkins was a nineteenth century Jesuit. Equally unsurprising is Hopkins willingness to “see God in all things” – another root of Ignatian spirituality. Pied Beauty – Patched Beauty – celebrates the non-uniformity of the world: the streaked cow, dotted trout, and patchwork of land.
In that celebration of mottled colors, in his revel in things that are swift and things that are slow, sweet and sour, adazzle and dim, Hopkins has much to say to us now. The poet is not merely tolerating differences, he is decidedly celebrating them. What a boring world it would be, he suggests, if all was monochrome and unchanged. At first glance, this might seem to say little to us; after all, don’t we already have events that “celebrate diversity?” Maybe we know what Hopkins knew, and the poem has little to offer us.
But I think Hopkins has much to say to us, not only because we always fall short in celebrating the variety of life, but also because Hopkins advances one more step: he bookends his poem with reminders that all of this wonderful diversity finds a common source in “He [who] fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.”
St. Paul made a similar two points in his first letter to the Corinthians (who were trying to “live according to the gospel in [a] multiethnic and crosscultural society at Corinth,” see Raymond E. Brown in An Introduction to the New Testament, 511). Paul wrote that each part of the body should be celebrated for its unique and important function within the body: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended.” 1 Cor 12: 17-19. Paul then goes on to make the equally important point that, just as the body is made up of many parts, all those parts find themselves inseparably a part of the “one body.”
Today, in the United States, I think we too often say to those who speak a different language than us, espouse a different political philosophy than us, or believe something different than us, “‘I do not need you.’” (St. Paul: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I do not need you.’” 1 Cor 12:21.) This attitude showed up as recently as the days after public officials and ordinary citizens were gunned down at an outdoor town meeting in Tucson, Arizona. The host of one morning radio show said that the local sheriff’s post-shooting comments about the heated political rhetoric in Arizona, “have incited stupidity around the world.” Callers to another radio show called the sheriff a “buffoon” and “a blithering idiot.” (Sam Dolnick & Timothy Williams, Talk Radio Hosts in Arizona Reject Blame in Shooting, N.Y. Times, Jan. 10, 2011). In modern parlance, these are tame comments, and that is sad. Rather than consider the complicated and profound issues facing us, the tendency is, far too easily or quickly, to attack a person’s character and thus dismiss any possible contribution they might make.
The Catholic theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill was recently profiled in an article in Commonweal. The author said this about Cahill’s approach to her scholarship: “Natural Law discourse emphasizes public conversation about the social good, and Cahill believes that the Church and other Christian communities can both contribute to this conversation and profit from it, culling truth from a broad diversity of settings and assumptions. Everyone has a capacity for reasonable judgment; no one should be dismissed out of hand.” William Bole, No Labels, Please, Commonweal, Jan. 14, 2011, at 10 (emphasis added). That is quite a bit different from castigating those with whom we disagree as idiots.
The tendency to cut off dialogue with persons who share a different viewpoint is as alive within churches as it is in larger society. But we are made to strive for something more inclusive and more celebratory of the whole of life. Sr. Margaret Scott, acj, suggests this in her book The Eucharist and Social Justice: “The Eucharist is about inclusivity, and is both a protest and resistant to social exclusion.” Both within the Church and outside it, we should be asking ourselves what litmus tests we require others to pass before we invite them to our table.
In a section of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything entitled “Six Paths to God,” James Martin, SJ, discusses the dangers of those who have never doubted their faith in God, saying, “Certainty prevents some believers from being compassionate, sympathetic, or even tolerant of others who are not as certain in their faith.” The same could be said for the danger that certainty brings in secular debates. By recognizing that danger, we do not need to abandon strongly felt and carefully reasoned positions, but we can allow ourselves the opportunity to seek compassion towards and indeed even a celebration of those who are different from us in beliefs, language, nationality, religious identification, social strata, sexual identification, political persuasion (and the list goes on). We can try to live out this compassion just as passionately as we work for our hoped-for outcomes.
By embracing differences rather than fearing them, we recognize that all are integral to the one human family. Then we, with Hopkins, can jubilantly proclaim: “Glory be to God for dappled things.”
— John M. Bradley