Diary: Spencer Reece, Reading Hopkins

I was forty-five when I decided to be a priest finally. Committing to a religious life, I hesitated still. How would my sexual and spiritual life play out? It reminded me of what Gerard Manley Hopkins had said about Walt Whitman: “I may as well say what I should not otherwise have said, that I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. As he is a great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined I will not.” Was I a scoundrel? Rubbing up against a religious vocation it felt more likely. Someone might take issue with who I was. Could I be out and in?

For Seminary I moved from Florida to New Haven, where the alleys were splotched with wet newspapers smelling of morning mouths. Seminarians crammed the week. Morning prayer started in Saint Luke’s chapel at 7 AM: a motley throng of the pious, Southerners who had grown up on Bible bingo, androgynous organists smiling like courtesans, and young balding men with crumbs on their cheeks who talked of early Church Fathers, and then, well, whoever I was.

I took my straw-woven seat, genuflected, knelt on the Oriental rug, embraced the other hopefuls during the peace-be-with-you. Psalm 34 went: “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” I began to taste and see in that chapel. On the wall, a Byzantine icon dedicated to Tim Dlugos, an American poet. In 1987, Dlugos tested positive for HIV. In 1989 he was diagnosed with AIDS. He’d come to this same chapel wanting to be a priest but was unable to complete his studies due to illness. Dlugos died in 1990. The icon was of Saint Luke, the healer. I stared at that icon. The icon stared at me.

In my spare moments I picked up a biography of Hopkins by Robert Bernard Martin, A Very Private Life. Hopkins’ spirit came back strongly to me in those days. During his time as a Jesuit priest celebrating the mass, Hopkins faced the altar. The bread snapped like a light switch and he saw no one. The lonely celibate priest in the sacristy lurked in my mind as a likely paradigm. Towards the end, Gentle Hop, as Hopkins was called by his Jesuit colleagues, wrote the sonnet, “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” He was forty-one years old. Six in all, “the terrible sonnets,” as they are known, were written, to use Hopkins’ words, “in blood.” He felt confined “in a coffin of weakness and dejection.” The sonnets came to be known as terrible because, according to his friend, Canon Dixon, they crystallized his melancholy:

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!

From the outset “feeling” and “falling” are yoked together, a terrible echo chamber of isolation, a search for God. I hoped I’d left such loneliness behind me, but loneliness is a patient thing and has a habit of waiting. Then the lines grow ecstatic; when he writes further on, “Hours I mean years, mean life,” time bends, speeds. He slashes his “I” into the paper, unable to acclimate himself to Ireland where he’d been sent to teach classics to large classrooms of diffident Irish students, cut off from his family, his workload heavy; he worked past midnight in a room at the back of a house off Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Migraines pounded in his temples. Estranged from family and himself, bound up by his religious calling, being a Catholic in a family of Anglicans, denying, displacing, repressing his attractions to men, he’d orphaned himself countless times.  

Hopkins died in 1889. He was forty-four years old. Four years before he died, as if to solidify the conviction of his self-repulsion, England criminalized unspecified acts of “gross indecency” between men, in the act known as the Labouchere Amendment. This amendment led to the love that dare not speak its name being fog-horned in the Oscar Wilde trial ten years later. Could I have an illuminated personal passionate life and be a priest?

In my second year, a movie star came to my seminary. He wanted to ask permission to film my poem, “The Clerk’s Tale.” He wanted to make a short film, fifteen minutes, a film in miniature. He came in a black limo. Suddenly, from the stacks and from the large wooden tables, we, the dandruff-ed theological students looked up, we pushed our greasy hair away from our temples, and we glued our eyes on him the way we usually did obscure Biblical criticism.

“What is this like for you, this fame?” I asked him later as we sat in a restaurant. The nervous hostess put a screen in front of our table so no one would see us. As she stretched out the screen, fame encroached our peace: this made me protective, something in the neighborhood of paternal feeling.

“It’s crazy, crazy,” he said, looking caged.  

Meaty and intelligent and fifteen years younger than I, he had spent his life yearning to be captured on screen and had succeeded. His smile was large and unzipped his face with pizzazz, a mouth that had stretched across buildings and screens and multiplied itself in glossy magazines.

He was curious about my decision to enter the Episcopal priesthood. I still had a hard time articulating why I was becoming a priest. But I pushed my brain. I pushed my tongue and my teeth. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” So what was that mind that I was hoping now to graft to mine? Herbert would say it was a mind of love. I hadn’t known much about God’s love in my youth, but the forgiveness and compassion that had worked me over in midlife gave me some awareness of its measure and weight.

The choice to become a priest came from some place beyond words. Becoming a Christian had to do with unlatching my own cage. Somewhere below the crucifix around my neck, near the gut more than the head, lay the answer, a hunger. I wasn’t changing my accent or speech, but I was adopting a way of existence. I scarcely knew what I thought, why I’d been called to poetry or the priesthood.

There I was becoming a priest before the eyes of the professors, though I was being largely ignored. Hopkins must have often felt this peculiar isolation. According to his biographer, Paul Mariani, Hopkins had “a pronounced tendency to overelaborate, to go on at too great length, and so lose his audience.” Despite graduating with a first from Oxford, Hopkins had barely passed his theological Jesuit exams, which prevented him from rising in the Catholic hierarchy. Painfully there is a story that the Jesuit Fathers snickered knowingly during one of Hopkins’ sermons to the point that Hopkins lost his place. Ignored, laughed at; yet maybe these slights were hidden blessings, they gave him space for the poems. That was true for me as well.

When Hopkins died of a virulent form of typhoid fever his parents came over on a boat from England, barely understanding who their son was: there had been much estrangement. The air smelled of rotten eggs from all the sulphureted hydrogen coming out of the factory stacks. The Jesuit priest gave Hopkins last rites and Hopkins said, “I am so happy, I am so happy.” I’d outlived Hopkins now a few years. Happiness, that elusive emotion, was near.

The sound of Hopkins swirls with complexity and I often leave the page unsure if I know what he means, but it doesn’t matter much to me. He wrote in defense of his poems to his friend Robert Bridges: “I was not over desirous that the meaning of all should be quite clear, at least unmistakable … the lines and stanzas should be left in the memory and superficial impressions deepened … I am sure I have read and enjoyed pages of poetry that way.” I don’t mind it, and as I still well know the ceiling of silence for a gay priest can be thick, so why not make up your own language to sing to yourself to celebrate your world if you can’t talk to anybody about it? Hopkins was doing so even though he was told it was at odds with his priesthood. He sang of his despair.

Sadly, Hopkins was far from the freedoms I’ve seen and known, just as Plath was to miss the women’s movement by a few years so Hopkins missed gay liberation by a century. Knowing that makes me want to stick around, makes me think you never know what hope might come: what seems fixed and insurmountable, one day, is not, is not, is not, is not!

Like Dickinson, as Hopkins grew in his art he discouraged any publications to surface. He felt when he was stirred by the poetic passions it was sacrilegious to “make capital” from them. Priesthood trumped poet-hood for him. The collected edition of the Hopkins poems would not be published until forty years after he died. Bridges, his friend, decided at last “the war within” Hopkins would cease.

Some time later, walking towards St. Luke in the Fields in New York City, I was about to enter a congregation where my difference made no difference: the woman who swung the incense had been a man and the choir soloist belted out the doxology like Freddy Mercury. I thought of Hopkins and his sonnet, “God’s Grandeur,” written early when he was full of hope and faith and less disappointment:

… for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Bright wings I had. The Holy Ghost was in the air. My brothers and sisters from Oscar Wilde to Stonewall had trod and trod to get to where I was now. That war within quieted. A large debt of sorrow had been paid. To the busy New York air I said, “Thank you Gentle Hop.”

Spencer Reece is the author two books of poems, The Clerk’s Tale and The Road to Emmaus. Last year he published a book of poems in translation by his writing students at the Our Little Roses orphanage San Pedro Sula, Honduras: Counting Time Like People Count Stars. This post is drawn from his work-in-progress, The Little Entrance: Devotions. He is Chaplain to Bishop Carlos Lopez-Lozano of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Madrid, Spain.

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