Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
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Portrait Of The Jesuit As An Alchemist
by Sean O'Leary

I had some reservations about calling this album 'The Alchemist' even though I took the name from Fr Gerard's poem 'The Alchemist In The City'. I feared that, at first glance, the work might be mistaken as 'new age'. However, I kept it as I wanted to stake a claim on, or rather to re-claim, the word 'alchemy'. I will explain why I consider it to be a valid title for a work that I consider to be Catholic and fully orthodox.

"Art alone cannot produce a substantial form" wrote the great Albert Magnus, forever quashing any thoughts that he was a magician. Yet undoubtedly he was considered as such by some. After all, did he not create a magic cup that had a purging and curative effect on those who drunk only water or wine from it? Yes, this is true, but we now know that the 'magic' was accomplished by the clever device of incorporating antimony into the structure of the cup.

Magnus contradicted Bede by saying that it was certainly possible, even likely, that men and animals existed south of the equator. He even predicted that animals living at the South Pole would be white. Likewise his contemporary Bacon could confidently look forward to a time when men would make machines that would take them into the skies and under the sea.

Of course these men and all great men used neither sorcery nor divination to achieve their results. Their only crime was that they dared to think what had not been thought before. They were also men of great faith and knew God, not as a remote mystery but, as a loving presence who delighted to answer mans honest and sincere enquiries.

The outer reaches of mans knowledge, the Ultima Thule of each age, is always alchemical until properly understood. Thus Christ's walking on the water is to us seen as something inexplicable, yet in times to come it will be understood as something reasonable. Science always lags behind the Holy Spirit, and the miracles of the saints show not that they had entered another reality but rather the culmination and fulfilling of this reality.

The secret that such men had found was not occult in nature, it was simply that they had come to see that prayer is not a separate discipline from thought and enquiry and work. I believe that those who grasp this truth are capable of achieving great results in whatever work they are called to. Results that will appear, if not miraculous to their age, then at least startlingly new in their clarity.

The Alchemy Of Salvation

One area in which Hopkins has added new insights of a startling nature is in Marian thought. Anyone who reads 'The Blessed Virgin Compared To The Air We Breathe' is struck that this is no mere work of devotion with Hopkins bowed at the feet of Mary. On the contrary his observations have an almost scientific clarity of thought. They are doubly startling because they come with all the colour and vibrancy that poetry can give to language. One could say that the theology of Hopkins has been ignored simple because it goes unrecognised. When Hopkins says that Mary does 'the death dance in his blood' this is no mere random image employed to shock. He had more integrity than that. He is speaking of a deep truth that he has experienced and he tells us it not in the gushing or fearful tones of a disciple but in the measured tones of a scientist.

It is in Johnine and Marian thought that we approach the present day Ultima Thule of theology and mysticism. John is called the apostle "who would remain" till Christ returns and thus signals the fact that his gospel is of the end times and thus speaks to us not from the past but the future. It was he who took Christ's mother into his house. Although this is an actual event it is also a prefiguring of the doctrine of co-redemptrix that is believed by many Catholics already, though it is yet to be officially defined. It is tempting to believe that when it eventually is, we will then all reap the heavenly benefits just as we already have from the definition of the assumption of Mary in 1950.

It is true also that in Marian and Catholic devotions one has practices that could easily be mistaken as alchemical. The telling of beads, recitations, incense burning, invocations, all these point to the fact that there is a place for mystery and the sacraments of mystery in the church.

It is in these borderlands where knowledge and ignorance play, that alchemy can be said to exist. For truth to bloom as a flower rather than like knowledge growing as a disease as we see today, then this experimentation must be done only on the foundation stone that Christ gave us. The stone given by Christ is the true philosophers stone for it represents the church on earth. It acknowledges the fact that the alchemist must never think he can achieve anything except deception if he does his work on any other foundation. The church has always been a great friend and patron to all who seek for any truth that will benefit man in his quest to return to God.

The Alchemy Of Suffering

Suffering is one thing that always has the effect of changing people. Hopkins knew all about suffering, he said that it was of such a character that he called it "almost a madness". In religious thought in particular suffering is a vital element in the nature of those who seek new truth. For a Christian to think he can progress in truth without suffering is ludicrous. Our founder is "the man of sorrows" and his Mother too was pierced in her heart by a sword. Many of the church fathers were martyred for their faith. Their martyrdom was of a public and physical nature, but any new truth to be refined must first be put to death before it sprouts as a small shoot bringing new greenery or colour to man.

Hopkins had to suffer and die that we might reap his harvest. We are truly grateful that he was able, through the grace of God, to change the substance of that suffering, his 'base metal' if you like, into something golden and eternal. This is the true alchemy. To convert our base natures, through death with Christ, into ones that are capable of mirroring something of the eternal beauty of their saviour.

© Sean O'Leary 2006