We know Gerard Manley Hopkins as a Jesuit priest who loved God’s creation. ‘Glory be to God for dappled things’. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, ‘Margaret, are you grieving Over Goldengrove unleafing’. His poetry perhaps seems difficult, but richly repays perseverance.
What is not always known is that later in life his mood changed. He was appointed Professor of Greek and Latin at University College, Dublin, and, because he felt the work was beyond him, entered a state of depression, from which he fought to extricate himself, wrestling, as he puts it ‘with (my God!) my God.’ ‘Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee,’ he writes.
We often use the word ‘despair’, as in ‘I despair of Newcastle’s chances’ or ‘I despair of the General Synod’, which are wild overstatements. Fr Hopkins meant that questioning of divine love which is the true Despair. This is a genuinely spiritual matter, in which all point in living disappears, religious belief is gone, and suicide beckons.
So the occasion of our malady may seem severe at the time, yet be comparatively trivial. The postman does not arrive, so we despair of the postal service, which may even lead us towards, but I hope not more, to that ultimate Despair.
The temptation to us, who try against powerful forces to maintain our beliefs, is at times very strong.
We too must fight, and we may feel comforted in our struggle by what Hopkins wrote before his death: ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend With thee, but…why do sinners ways prosper? and why must Disappointment all I endeavour end?’
We recognise that question, and, as we read, recognise that the good Father had the same answer to it as Job and St Paul and the Church after them: the answer of faith.