Winter 1987, Vol. 39, pp. 305-316.

Mary Ann Rygiel:
      Prayer: Soul in Paraphrase

Appropriating the creative word and work of great artists can assist us in discovering and praising God by paraphrasing our deepest intuitions and longings.

Mary Ann Rygiel lives with her husband and two sons in Auburn, Alabama, where she teaches high school. She earned graduate degrees from Cornell and Auburn Universities and has published on George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins in the Hopkins Quarterly.

MANY approaches to prayer are available to the contemporary Catholic Christian. These range from traditional devotional practices such as the rosary and novenas to more novel forms such as "the Jesus Prayer" and "centering," both of which are modeled on Eastern spirituality. Not as much attention has been given to the practice of using literary and visual art as equally viable foundations for prayerful meditation. However these comparatively unused sources can provide prayerful, meditational experiences equal in richness to the more commonly employed traditional practices. Some of these prayerful poetic expressions, such as St. Francis' Prayer, are generally well-known and have become part of the Christian's memorized formal prayers. Medieval and Renaissance religious art in English and European churches is also well-known for its inspirational power. However, other springboards to prayer have been only infrequently presented to the laity as resources for devotion and meditation.

Two of these, the works of poets well-known to college English department faculties and to students in their survey courses, are perhaps less well-known to the Christian laity generally. These poets are the seventeenth-century Anglican clergyman George Herbert, and the nineteenth-century English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. A third resource, less wellknown to Western culture, is the work of the contemporary Japanese children's author and illustrator, Mitsumasa Anno. The works of these three men can be both powerful inspirations to prayer and even become prayers in themselves. Witness, for example, the lives and the poetry of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins.


Herbert's and Hopkins' lives are similar in several ways. Each man followed a life of direct service to God through priestly ministry. Neither sought fame as a writer; indeed, each lived a life of quiet devotion. Each came from a literary or artistic family who appreciated their talents. Each man died an untimely death -- by today's standards as well as by those of their respective eras. Both Herbert and Hopkins placed a great deal of trust in friends, and it is because of those friends' efforts that we are today able to read the poets' works, since each man lived what appeared to be a life of obscurity.

Their lives were, in fact, lit by the rich inner fire of faith. The 'obscurity' conditioned the development of a profound insight into the workings of the human heart and spirit which sought expression in poetry. The reality of their faith warms their poetry in ways that the mere cunning of insiders at the Jacobean court or the sophistication of Londoners during the Victorian era could never achieve.

Because of their gift of spiritual insight and powerful use of language, both men left records of their relationship to God works worthy of literary merit which also serve as aids to our own formation in prayer. Finally, the poetry of each has been judged by twentieth century critics to have lasting literary value - not so the efforts of some of their contemporaries. Hopkins especially stands out as an oasis of refreshment in the spiritually exhausted desert of late nineteenth-century English poetry, and George Herbert's The Temple is an unparalleled seventeenthcentury devotional masterpiece.


George Herbert was born in England in 1593, the fifth son of Richard and Magdalene Herbert. His mother, a friend of the famous poet and clergyman John Donne, was widowed early in Herbert's childhood and later married Sir John Danvers. Herbert married in 1629, was ordained an Anglican priest in 1630, and died of consumption in 1633, one month before his fortieth birthday. Before his death, Herbert asked his friend Nicholas Ferrar to print his English poems "if Ferrar thought they might do good to 'any dejected poor soul'... otherwise, he should burn them."(1) The first printed edition of his poems appeared shortly after Herbert's death.

Herbert helps us to speak to God through poetry once we become comfortable with his idiom and the conventions of seventeenth century verse. Some of the devices Herbert uses specialized verse forms such as shaped verse (a verse form in which the physical shape of the poem on the paper reflects the matter of the poem itself) and poetic devices such as allegory are unfamiliar to the modern reader. But Herbert amply repays our patient inquiry by allowing us to celebrate with him, for instance, the freshness and beauty of the natural world. Take, for example, the opening of "The Flower":

How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean
Are thy returns! ev'n as the flowers in spring;
To which, besides their own demean,
The late-past frosts tributes of pleasure bring.
          Grief melts away
          Like snow in May,
As if there were no such cold things.

Who would have thought my shriveled heart
Could have recovered greenness?                     (lines 1-9)
In this poem, Herbert explicitly links the beauty of the natural world to the "Lord of power" (line 15). His awareness of the cyclical course of nature, evident in his contrast of frost and flowers or snow and May, is intertwined with a knowledge of the cycles of growth and stagnation in human life. He expresses this insight in his contrast between the "shriveled heart" (winter frost), and the season in which the heart has "recovered greenness" (spring).

In human life, the cycle of chastening and renewal is a familiar one. We experience frustrations in work, in our relationships with family, co-workers, and friends - even in our avid pursuit of hobbies and of leisure. Yet Herbert's likening of the cycle of growth, decay, and rebirth in nature to our own life patterns makes us remember these words from Hebrews: "For whom the Lord loves, he chastises" (12:6). We can compare the natural decay of winter with our own spiritual winter - through which we may be disciplined so that we may better appreciate the spring. This spiritual discipline is not just for current mortification; it also serves as a stimulus for future growth. A bruised fruit which is carefully and sparingly pared in the morning may yet be part of a fragrant pie in the afternoon.

We also experience a more pervasive sense of defeat when we follow the global scene: racial strife in South Africa, massive starvation in sub-Sahara Africa, conquest by a foreign power in Afghanistan, and political and religious unrest in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, and Central America. One can adopt various defenses or barriers towards these events: nihilism, sensual escapism, cynicism, or negativism. Such self-constructed carapaces become our protection against perceiving the pain felt by others in distant parts of the world. However, by inuring ourselves to others' pain because their situations seem hopeless, we neglect the simple acts of charity which are still open to us: prayer, almsgiving, and witness. George Herbert suggests an alternative posture to such unwholesome "-isms." A person may strive to accept what he cannot change, but still see his own life as unfinished and therefore hope-filled. He continues to seek spiritual rain and sun, still wants to blossom, and continues to see himself in relation to God. Herbert's poem "Prayer (I)" well illustrates this vision:

Prayer the Church's banquet, Angels' age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against th' Almighty, sinners' tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-day's world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

In this poem, Herbert gives a list of synonyms (music, color, the trusting love of children) for the key word "prayer." By so doing, he invites the reader to do the same. Simply engaging in the exercise of finding acceptable comparisons makes one more aware of the blessings all around, blessings which frequently abound in very simple things which we take for granted. If original comparisons do not come to mind, one can read and reflect on Herbert's. Prayer becomes "the soul in paraphrase."

Strictly speaking, of course, paraphrase means to state a same or similar idea in other words. In those instances when our own feelings are said to be too deep for our own words, we might use the words of the poet. At those times, when we pray by using a received prayer or even a poet's words, our souls may be said to be "in paraphrase." When praying, it is perfectly legitimate to compose our introduction to God by borrowing the exact words of another; better to attempt to speak than to leave everything unsaid.


Gerard Manley Hopkins also provides us with sublime words which we can use "in paraphrase." Although in temperament he appears to have been quite different from Herbert (holiness, of course, does not wear only one personality), many of Hopkins' concerns are the same. He was born in England in 1844, the eldest of eight children. Two of Hopkins' brothers grew up to be professional artists. Hopkins, an Anglican, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1866. Two years later he entered the Jesuit order and was ordained in 1877. He died in 1889 of typhoid fever and attendant complications. When his poem "The Wreck of the Deutschland" was at first accepted by and later rejected for publication in The Month, a Jesuit magazine, Hopkins no longer sought publication of his poetry, but sent copies with letters to his friend Robert Bridges. Bridges edited the first edition of Hopkins' poems in 1918, almost thirty years after Hopkins' death.

I offer as an example of meditation occasioned by poetry some of my thoughts upon reading Hopkins" "The Lantern Out of Doors." The text of the poem is as follows:

Sometimes a lantern moves along the night,
That interests our eyes. And who goes there?
I think; where from and bound, I wonder, where,
With, all down darkness wide, his wading light?
Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them: wind
What most I may eye after, be in at the end
I cannot, and out of sight is out of mind.
Christ minds: Christ's interest, what to avow or amend

There, eyes them, heart wants, care haunts, foot follows kind,
Their ransom, their rescue, and first, fast, last friend.(2)

My first thought is the clash of contexts between Hopkins' poem and Shakespearian tragedy. This is not surprising. Since the influence of Shakespeare on Hopkins is well-documented, it is logical that even a person reading Hopkins purely for devotional purposes would be reminded of the Bard. In Hopkins' poem, the night setting and the way in which the setting is particularized are reminiscent of the atmosphere in Macbeth. Hopkins' phrases "all down darkness wide," and "our muchthick and marsh air" remind me of the "fog and filthy air" (Macbeth 1.5.12)(3) -- the element of the three witches in a play in which the social, political, and natural order are inverted. A consummate inverter of natural order, Lady Macbeth invokes the "spirits / That tend on mortal thoughts" (1.5.38-39) to "Make thick [her] blood" (1.5.41), and calls insistently, "Come, thick night" (1.5.48).

Thick blood, thick night - Shakespeare's play speaks to our post-industrial, postmodern society - computer-cogged, physics fond, values forlorn. Though Americans have no earthly King Duncan, we find temptations all around us that lead us to believe and fear what Macbeth says ironically after the discovery of Duncan's murder:

There's nothing serious in mortality.
All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left ....                     (2.3.89-92)

Caught as we are in this very late historical time between Steven Weinberg's The First Three Minutes and the physicists' doomsday clock edging through the last three minutes towards a midnight cataclysm, we may find a grim stoicism our only response. We might be tempted to believe that we, like Macbeth, must say with the only courage open to us:

They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But, bearlike, I must fight the course.                     (5.7.1-2)
But, should we be so tempted, the faith-charged work of Hopkins can furnish a "sweet antidote" to this very contemporary sentiment and its gloomy context.


In "The Lantern Out of Doors," Hopkins uses the cliches we both recognize and use as social and mental sedatives; however, he changes them to make us wake up to a deeper level of reality when he says:

Men go by me whom either beauty bright
In mould or mind or what not else makes rare:
They rain against our much-thick and marsh air
Rich beams, till death or distance buys them quite.

Death or distance soon consumes them...
          out of sight is out of mind.
          Christ minds....                     (lines 5-12)
These men, whom the poet forgets, for "out of sight is out of mind," are not forgotten by Christ. Clearly we are all both the observer and the observed. We see others who are momentarily interesting. Then they are gone. We go past others who forget us, for then we are gone. But Hopkins states the consolation for us in this dark world:
Christ minds... heart wants, care haunts.                     (line 12)
Christ, our "ransom... [and] rescue," is our "first, fast, last friend" (line 14). Here, Hopkins' metric pattern suggests a variation on the cliche "fast friend," where "fast" is used in the sense of loyal or firm. The metrical emphasis adds the kinetic, almost muscular sense of "fastened, not readily moved, removed, or loosened." Hopkins also recalls for us an appropriate echo in George Herbert's "The Flower":
    O that I once past changing were,
Fast in thy Paradise. (lines 22-23)
One sonnet by Hopkins may not alone be sufficient to cure us of the infected vision of humanity embodied in a full-length play such as Macbeth, but it can be a healing draught which enables and urges the convalescent spirit to seek sustained good health through the exercise of daily prayer. A single Hopkins poem invariably leads me to read others over a period of days. Prayer should be like this; a continuing conversation, rather than a series of disjointed mechanical mental calisthenics which we engage in either sporadically or only in moments of crisis.

Hopkins' poetry makes us aware of three levels of reality to which we need to be resensitized. The first level involves the natural world.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.                     ("God's Grandeur;' lines 9-10)
Hopkins' work, like Herbert's, enjoins us to seek this freshness. We need to become newly aware of what children naturally see and feel. This is one of the gifts our children give to us. Because of the very newness of their lives, their delight in growth, and their sense of wonder, they can reacquaint us with the magic of nature's seasons. For those of us haunted by clock time and calendars in the workplace - deadlines, meetings, appointments, goals, quotas, seconds, minutes, hours, numbers - it is hard but necessary to escape the tyranny of secular time. Recapturing the freshness that a child perceives helps us do this.

This is the message of Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34, where Jesus exhorts us to put first the kingdom of heaven and righteousness. Then our diurnal needs - food, clothing, shelter - will be provided. Work remains a necessity but the lives of children, like medieval books of hours, show us a way in the hours and days and seasons of one's working life to lift partially the veil of physical reality and glimpse what lies beyond it. This way is by regular prayer and meditation. But the perfect harmoniousness of nature, work, and one's prayer life, we may object, was much easier for simple peasants, planters, and gleaners in another man's golden fields. They didn't fight smog and traffic, or other subway commuters, or nonworking elevators, only to end up in obscene sheaths of glass and steel each work day from nine to five. Still, we all breathe the air, sense changing seasons through nature's perfumes and colors and animal harbingers, and benefit from the bounty of our fruitful fields.

Although Hopkins' comparison of the Blessed Virgin to the air we breathe may be too strange a conceit, we can appreciate his celebration of the birds, trees, and flowers in nature, and possibly even weeds, especially if they are as he says, "long and lovely and lush" ("Spring," line 2) in some other homeowner's yard. (Or, at least, we can rejoice that the blight on our garden is embroidery on the poet's coat.) In all his celebration of natural beauty, Hopkins points to God, behind and over what is visible, brooding over all creation and individual creatures, who "groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free" (Romans 8:24).


A second level of reality which Hopkins revivifies is the human world. Just as his poetry points to God's existence behind the physical world, Hopkins teaches us to be more attentive to Christ's presence in the human world as well. He says

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.
These lines (12-14) from "As kingfishers catch fire" remind us of our own citizenship in a polyethnic country that strives to recognize and respect the rights and dignity of all.

A twentieth-century artist whose work and whose very face I like to think of when I read these lines is Mitsumasa Anno, a Japanese illustrator. His picture book, Anno's Italy, represents the author's journey through Italy. Anno's journey takes place on two levels, the literal and the allegorical. He is both traveller and spiritual seeker. Anno, a Christian, intertwines the story of the life of Christ with scenes of the patched and humming gaiety of beautiful Italy. The Botticelli-like figure on horseback who encounters Christ during his journey, passes the Crucifixion, and afterward rows alone into a vast water in a little boat is indeed an artist's depiction of the individual soul on its spiritual journey.

Anno's book ends with a most interesting author's note. He repeats a question so often asked him: "How is it that, although you are Japanese, you understand so well the history and cultural heritage of Europe?"(4) He answers by sharing his thoughts about a wedding he happened to pass by near Fussen, West Germany. He tells how easily he could distinguish the various major figures in the wedding, and concludes that "... although languages, alphabets and customs are different in various parts of the world, there are no differences at all in our hearts ...."(5) He goes on to say,

The laws of physics and nature are universal, as are the principles of plant and animal life throughout the world. Among living creatures, more things are shared than are different. Seeing a sunset in Europe, I was impressed by the natural truth that we have only one sun -- that, no matter where we are, we all see the same sun.

Although it is difficult for me to understand the languages of the western world, still I can understand the hearts of the people. This book has no words, yet I feel sure that everyone who looks at it can understand what the people in the pictures are doing, and what they are thinking and feeling.(6)

I respond to his words by recognizing how readily I identify with Anno the horseman and Anno the rower in the boat. I look at Anno's work and I look at his face. His eyes are not my eyes, yet he has helped me to see. And I know the truth of Hopkins' lines: "Christ plays in ten thousand places,... lovely in eyes not his ...." Christ, who became man for us, is in each man and woman. We must look for the "immortal diamond" in ourselves, in those we meet, and in those we already know.


A third level of reality to which Hopkins sensitizes us grows naturally out of the other two. We've already noted that he invites us to see the hand of God in nature and the face of Christ in other men. In addition, he invites us to a closer examination of our own relationship to God. In a gentle, reflective mood in the peaceful setting of "In the Valley of the Elwy," Hopkins asks God to

Complete the creature dear O where it fails,
      Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.           (lines 13-14)
In the later meditation on the individual's response to physical beauty "To What Serves Mortal Beauty?" Hopkins concludes quite surely that the best desire is for "God's better beauty, grace" (line 14). Each of us has many inadequacies, deficiencies, and failures. To remedy physical or intellectual weaknesses, we do not seriously seek finer physical beauty or better mathematical talent. Instead, we seek grace - the ultimate means by which we are completed and made whole.

One of the effects of grace is that the individual develops greater skill in talking to God. The scholar Sholem Asch has said of writing that it "comes more easily if you have something to say." I think this is true of prayer, too; we find by a kind of miracle of multiplication that the more we say the more we will have to say. Surely, our meditating on the poetry of George Herbert and Gerard Manley Hopkins and on Mitsumasa Anno's visual and literary depiction of a spiritual journey can give us that "more to say" in prayer.

  1. Joseph H. Summers, ed., The Selected Poetry of George Herbert (New York: New American Library, 1967), p. ix. Unless otherwise stated, the poetry of George Herbert is quoted from this edition.
  2. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, ed. W.H. Gardner (Baltimore: Penguin, 1953), p. 28. Unless otherwise stated, the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins is quoted from this edition.
  3. All quotations are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Alfred Harbage, gen. ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).
  4. Mitsumasa Anno, Anno's Italy (New York: William Collins, 1980), "Author's Note," unpaginated.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.