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Between the warrior and the monk (iii): poetry and sacrament

[ by Charles Cameron — a warrior, a monk, and (still to come, in a fourth and final post) where that leaves me ]


How I have loved that handwriting! How I loved that man! How I have loved that book…


I am fifteen, seventeen years old. I walk a few hundred yards in the chill English dawn to our little parish church to “serve Mass” at 6am, for this man whose intense gaze and tireless care for those he is with made him take of his hat to Mrs Tutu, and ask Hugh what would get him out of his hospital bed fastest. He brings the same gaze and care to bear on me, and talks to me about the English Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose work he loves.

Trevor Huddleston taught me to love poetry when he showed me Hopkins, and I cannot exactly tell this story without “reading” you a bit of the man’s work, because it gets to the heart of the matter.

Hopkins has a very brilliant poem, As king fishers catch fire, which requires quite a bit of “unpacking” since Hopkins writes poetry as though packing an intolerable amount of sound and meaning into a very small space. The poem is about what Hopkins calls “selving”: being the self you are, ie being true not just to your possibilities, but to your flavor, your individuality. In the theological termino0logy of Duns Scotus: hacceitas.

Here’s how Hopkins expresses it:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

We selve, we become ourselves — we deal out into the world that being which dwells indoors, inside, within us.

The second half of the poem goes like this:

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Let me try at least to unpack this much:

The man who is just, he’s saying, goes about doing acts of justice (there’s no difference between his nature and his deeds), he is tethered to grace (has an inward center with which he is perpetually in touch), and that tether is what ensures his actions (“goings”) are of the quality of grace.

He — and here Hopkins tell us what this is really all about, from his own perspective as a deeply religious man and a Catholic priest in the Jesuit order — acts Christ, for that is how God sees him. Each one of us is, in God’s eye, Christ, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places”. That’s the great gift Hopkins brings us, the understanding that being made in the image of God, we play here on earth like so many Christs, each with its own character and “self”, each one capable of grace… and thus, each individual beautiful to God “through the features of men’s faces”.

Here, should you care to read it, is the whole poem.


Trevor offers his hands and voice as a priest at Mass to the great poetical transformation of “bread” into “body” and “wine” into “blood” that stands at the heart of the Christian mystery, and eats, digests, the divine presence among us, and offers that divine presence in the appearance of a wafer of bread and sip of wine to whoever “partakes of communion” with him.

And walking to Mass, or walking back from Mass, he talks to me about South Africa, and the kids he knew there — Desmond and Hugh among them no doubt, though I learned those particular stories far later — and the pass laws which penalized his students when they were late getting home from work in a “white” part of town, and his fights in the courts and in the press for young people he loved — Hugh or Desmond or Oscar or whoever goes to Mass, receives Christ on his tongue, and that “keeps all his goings graces” — because “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, and Sophiatown, a shanty town just outside Johannesberg, is one of them.

Father Trevor, school teacher, photo credit Constance Stuart Larrabee

Am I making any sense? It was Trevor’s love, which “saw” the divine in each individual child he taught and coached and loved, which could not tolerate apartheid, which could not stop at a boy’s skin color and segregate or tolerate segregation.


Loving the individual before him with that gaze and care, he loved and taught me, for seven or eight years, in four hundred wonderful letters and many visits, Masses, days spent flyfishing for trout, voyages by car or train to visit a friend or a cathedral…

And if I could express the essence, it was this: that you tether yourself to the divine on the inside, by belief, by ritual, above all by contemplation — and then you move through the world infused with that sense of the sacred in and around you, and do whatever is needful to bring about a more just society.

You justice, you keep grace. That keeps all your goings graces.

Christ the King, Sophiatown, photo credit Eliot Elisofon

Not surprising, then, that his devotion to the kids of a shanty town in South Africa led him into court battles, into association with Luthuli and Mandela, into becoming one of a handful of “white” signatories of the African National Congress, into the award of the Isitwalandwe, the writing of his great book, Naught for your Comfort [link is to a free download] — which was smuggled out of the country to be published just a day ahead of the Special Police impounding all his papers — to bestsellerdom, to stirring the conscience of the world, to the Presidency of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and finally to an archbishopric and a knighthood.

He saw Christ, which was his name for love, and served him.



Father Trevor Huddleston wrote what I think must be among the most powerful words of eucharistic theology I have ever read in Naught for Your Comfort — and they convey as nothing else can the immediacy with which he connects his ritual gestures and acts as a priest with the political necessity to overthrow the apartheid regime in his beloved South Africa — and for that matter, any and all hatred and oppression everywhere…

On Maundy Thursday, in the Liturgy of the Catholic Church, when the Mass of the day is ended, the priest takes a towel and girds himself with it; he takes a basin in his hands, and kneeling in front of those who have been chosen, he washes their feet and wipes them, kissing them also one by one. So he takes, momentarily, the place of his Master. The centuries are swept away, the Upper Room in the stillness of the night is all around him: “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” I have knelt in the sanctuary of our lovely church in Rosettenville and washed the feet of African students, stooping to kiss them. In this also I have known the meaning of identification. The difficulty is to carry the truth out into Johannesberg, into South Africa, into the world.

9 Responses to “Between the warrior and the monk (iii): poetry and sacrament”

  1. ken cowan Says:

    Ahh, I understand a little more, now. Thank you, friend, for the revelation.

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    I really enjoyed the poem by Hopkins. I am glad you translated it, but when I was looking just at the words they seemed like one of those pictures that if you stare at it long enough a picture of a zebra or shark or something else appears. Maybe I have just been reading too much, but very interesting none the less. 

    I am one of those persons who is able to easily read a sheet of paper where every word is miss-spelled except the first and last letters of each words are correct. Perhaps I am just looking at something that, while not miss-spelled, it isn’t configured normally. Still very strange to me.

    Speaking of strange, at a time when things are strange for Catholics and Mormons, perhaps this is a timely set of postings. Thanks for sharing.  

  3. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Larry:
    You’re right in my view, Hopkins’ meaning “isn’t configured normally” – I think of the meaning he wants to get across as like a garment in words — he’s walked out wearing it in sunshine and rain, it now holds the fragrances of wildflowers and cornfields, and maybe the odd thorn from a rose, too — and in writing it out as poetry he has indeed “reconfigured” it to squeeze out of it the maximum of musical and emotive power, all those scents and fragrances and burrs of memory and thorns of love and grief, twisting it ever tighter until it is far shorter and thicker than it began, like a garment twisted between his hands…
    The final message is essentially in a kind of code, to be decoded, unpacked as meaning — but still carrying the intensity, the evocative power, of those scents and thorns…
    I don’t know if those words of mine will help, but I’d say to you, look closely, see how he has tightened his words to create his music — king, catch, dragon, draw, fishers, fire, flies, flame in the first line alone, then tumbled, rim, roundy, ring, string, well, tells, bell’s, hung, swung, tongue, fling … and we’re still in the first four lines… — and then he slams into a straightforward telling of his theme in the fifth — 
    Each mortal thing does one thing and the same
    He’s playing with us, he wants us to see kingfishers flash by, dragonflies, to hear bells — all the while telling us that as mortals, we “selve” — we too, like the dragonflies, the bells, “do” who we “are”:
    Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

  4. Marcus Ranum Ranum Says:

    It’s hard to square the rosy view of catholicism in Africa with the fact that the RCC is doing everything in its power (including lying about their effectiveness) to deny the AIDS-ridden continent with condoms. I realize that as a human organization, the church is inevitably going to be a mix of good and bad – but such a disgusting mix! I wonder that anyone with a working brain can associate themselves with it; it has utterly betrayed the principles Fr Trevor invested his life in upholding. What’s sad is that great men can still be great without that shabby umbrella, but they can’t realize that the goodness comes from themselves and not from some mystical dimension.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    Hi Marcus:
    FWIW, Trevor was an Anglican (equivalent of US Episcopalian) monk, not RC.  But I don’t think that’s the point.  
    The point as I see it is that he didn’t depend on any “umbrella” whether secular, religious, of the left or right, for his insight. He was actually reproved by the then Archbishop of Canterbury for “meddling in politics”.  What you call the “mystical dimension” was inside him, and it pushed him to push the limits of the world’s “umbrellas”.  Including the Christianity of his day.
    That’s how it works. 

  6. Lexington Green Says:

    I got the Kindle version of Nought for your Comfort.  It is on my phone now.  Not sure when I will get to it, though.

  7. Charles Cameron Says:

    I’m glad, Lex — all things in due time.
    Someone I follow on Twitter just posted a quote from Desmond Tutu that I wanted to bring here to tie Leah Farrall’s posts about not dehumanizing one’s enemy in with my two posts about Fr Trevor.  Asked what the word ubuntu means, Tutu replied:

    That we are interconnected. That when we dehumanize someone, whether you like it or not, in that process you are dehumanized. A person is a person through other persons. If we want to enhance our personhood, one of the best ways of doing it is enhancing the personhood of the other.

    When I went to check the quote for accuracy, though, I found Tutu describing his first meeting with Fr. Trevor — not by name, but in terms of his impact:

    Some mentors don’t even intend to or realize they have influenced others.
    “Some things are caught not taught,” says the Archbishop, recalling when, as a nine-year-old boy, he saw a white priest tip his hat to Tutu’s domestic worker mother, a rare showing of respect in a country so racially divided. “Coming out of a situation where you are told, and this was official policy of a country, that you are inferior, it was important to have elders as role models—people who you didn’t know at the time were influencing you.”

    That’s Fr. Trevor through and through: influencing people almost unknowingly. And I suspect that’s “unknowingly” in the sense of the great Cloud of Unknowing.

  8. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Good points, Charles. The much lauded book, Grand Strategies by Charles Hill makes the following point that reinforces the concepts you describe above:

    “One of history’s great rhetorical events took place in 1550 in Valadolid, Spain; the debate between Bartolome de las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda on whether American Indians were natural slaves of the Spanish. Las Cassa prevailed. His view based on Francisco de Vitoria’s treatise “On the Indies” and ratified by the University of Salamanca, determined that Native Americans had souls and were fellow humans, and that conquest of the New World was unjustified on its merits. The Conquistadors, as Las Casas portrayed them, were no better than cannibals. “I love the University of Salamanca,” said Johnson with great emotion to Boswell, “for when the Spaniards were in doubt as to the lawfulness of their conquering America the University of Salamanca gave it as their opinion that it was not lawful.”

     [emphasis added]

  9. Charles Cameron Says:

    Great quote, Scott.  I should have thanked you before. Thanks plus.

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