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Friday, April 27, 2018

The Windhover

This is the first poem I ever read by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-   
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding   
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding 
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing 
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, 
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding   
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing! 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here   
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!       

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion 
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,   
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Hopkins uses the flight of the windhover, a kind of hawk, to point toward the glory of Jesus. I've always loved the language in this poem (as in most of Hopkins' work), the careful, beautiful, exciting use of words to describe the grace of the hawk's flight. Hopkins is a master at that kind of thing, and he very intentionally lets the emotion of his description of this bird's aerobatics point beyond itself toward the beauty and grace of Christ. 

There is something, I've been thinking lately, in the grace of a flying bird. I've watched the V's of geese high over the landscape this spring, the late-evening swooping of swallows, the all-or-nothing swoosh of ducks coming in to land on newly open lakes, and just today the graceful, heavy flight of a loon over New London itself, and the roller coaster comings-and-goings of chickadees and woodpeckers at my feeders. What a miracle is flight! It is not hard to picture the Wright brothers and many before them watching the miracle of birds flying, imagining what it would be like to leave the ground themselves, until that fateful day at Kitty Hawk they actually left the ground in intentional, exuberant flight! 

There is another kind of flight, isn't there, in the daily living of human beings. People around us, perhaps without they themselves fully knowing it, take wing and inspire us to fly. Do you know people whose lives are so filled with excellence, people who may not even realize how you watch them, heart in your throat, as their words, their actions, their loving, their living soars above mediocrity into excellence and you delight in watching them, in wordlessly cheering them on? We all need these inspirations in our lives, and how privileged we are when those we are closest to, those we love the most, inspire us in this way! Almost two thousand years earlier, Irenaeus had the same idea as Hopkins' windhover when he said, "The glory of God is human beings fully alive." 

Adam and Eve in the garden were imbued with the grace and dignity and majesty of God in a way that, though marred by sin, is not wholly lost. That grace and majesty, that dignity, continues to come through in the everyday glory of human beings fully alive. And when we see those we love fully alive we come alive in a way ourselves. We begin to spread wings and take flight, maybe only in short hops and jumps at first, extending weak, fragile wings that begin to gain strength and substance the more we use them until we begin to fly, to soar upward into the beauty and grace God intended for his children. 

The Greek story of Icarus, of course, is all about this flight and the dangers it poses. Icarus and his brother Daedalus use wax to fasten feathers to their arms and bodies in order to fly, and they soar upward -- but their father cautions them not to fly too high, because the sun will melt the wax. Icarus disregards his father's warning and falls from the sky. The voice of caution says flight is dangerous. Careful restraint is necessary. And yet we are somehow fascinated by those who dare to take to the skies and soar beyond us. 

I was reminded a few days ago of what a precious gift it is to know and love and celebrate those who inspire us to fly, and how important it is not to shut down that impulse, that siren song that calls us to leave the earth behind. I was at a park frequented by elementary school children. A viewing platform overlooked a capacious marsh, and there along the cattails you can see eagles, hawks, gulls and many smaller birds in a complex dance in and out of the trees, high above the open water, up and down and around. On the side of the viewing platform, the park staff had placed a sign that reminds us that we are not simply mud-bound creatures designed for the ground, but we are created in some sense to fly. I had to return later to take a picture, the more I thought about it, and wanting to remember the joy, the absolute delight, of being in that place and pondering the miracle of flight. Here's the sign:

We recognize our kinship with flying things, and our hearts' desires to spread our wings and reach for the heavens is a God-given desire. While the voices of cautionary reason have their place, it's a good day to celebrate those who soar above and beyond us, who remind us that we are created for a glory that goes beyond staring enviously at the sky, that we are created to spread our wings and reflect the glory of God -- and even if they don't always realize they're doing it, those in our lives who cause us to look upward are gifts from God who spur us toward taking flight ourselves. 

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