Fathom Mag

Hope is a cousin to courage.

Finding the poetry of hope in my own hollowed-out landscapes of Arizona summers and North Carolina winters

Published on:
September 12, 2022
Read time:
5 min.
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Phoenix summer bleaches out the last remnant of life and color in our Arizona landscape, leaving only the bare presence of heat. The effects seem most evident at a gas station where heat shimmers over the dead asphalt, concrete, pumps, glimmering spots of oil, discarded cigarettes, and candy wrappers (which my four-year-old calls “glitter” instead of litter). The only presence of life at a gas station corner during a Phoenix summer is the brief reveal of feet that would be scalded if the flesh came into contact with the ground.

It’s funny, though, because Phoenix gas stations and their ilk—the ugly places in the hearts of cities, the weed-covered abandoned lots, freeway underpasses—always remind me of a glorious poem by the 19th-century English Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Grandeur of God”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And 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.

I recognize that dirtiness, the oil, sterility, and unfeeling shod foot on barren soil. It’s a Phoenix gas station in August. 

Hopkins’s bleak imagery captures a driving tendency towards destruction that we collectively possess. Hopkins sees it in the Industrial Revolution, the new urge of its time that turned everything into money and in the process destroyed the natural world and the people who fueled the machines. I see it in the politicians elected and algorithms built to generate outrage for cash and power, and our own devouring acquisitiveness—a trait we share with Hopkins’s Victorian world. 

Hope was so easy as to be meaningless for a middle-class and much-loved girl who expected nothing but good things from the future.

Yet there is more to see than bleakness. The world is charged with God’s glory nonetheless. An undaunted determination of things to grow, from weeds to baby birds, open to us that “dearest freshness deep down things,” the reminder of the presence of the living God. This is Hopkins’s poem of hope. Even his hope comes curiously: the last lights are winking out, and it’s a “brown brink eastward” that heralds the morning.

With the buoyant arrogance of youth, I used to wonder why hope was one of the three primary gifts, or virtues, of the Lord, alongside faith and love. Hope was so easy as to be meaningless for a middle-class and much-loved girl who expected nothing but good things from the future. I confused hope with confidence that everything would turn out okay for me, on a personal level, and for America, on a public level. I think a lot of Americans felt like me. 

These last years have crushed that inherent hopefulness into a sludgy let’s-just-not-think-about-it attitude. That change itself is Hopkins-like. He went from serving God in the freshness of rural Wales to the smoke-smeared skies of Liverpool and Dublin before he died young. It turns out that hope does not come naturally. In this difficult season of sterility, perspective blurred by greed, and smoldering public anger and fear, I have lost that blithe confidence in my own bright future. I’m scared about climate change’s effect on my kids. I’m frightened of the rhetoric emerging from politicians. I’m even scared of my fellow Americans and fellow Christians. I feel powerless. 

Strangely, I am rediscovering what it means to practice the virtue of hope when I do not feel hopeful. What does it mean to practice hope, when we are so used to conceiving of it as a feeling that arises naturally when we desire something with confidence? In that definition we have trapped ourselves. I cannot conjure up feelings of that kind of hopefulness in the present smeared, bleared world I inhabit. And I know many who feel the same—exhausted by an onslaught of information and manipulation, most people I know, regardless of age and ideology, are not excited by the future but terrified of it. 

What’s more, hope is repetitive; as a habit, it’s the practice of that painful stretching towards the good.

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas writes that hope denotes a “movement or a stretching forth of the appetite towards an arduous good.” For Thomas, this “arduous good” is life with God. Hope is the painful stretching of a muscle needed for the race, which can be a quick movement forward, or the plodding of the tortoise over long stretches, depending on the pursuit at hand. What’s more, hope is repetitive; as a habit, it’s the practice of that painful stretching towards the good. It’s the cultivation of the longing for the truth, an arduous good if I ever heard of one. Hope is a cousin to courage.

For Hopkins, as for another Victorian poet Emily Dickinson, hope is bird-shaped. “Hope is the thing with feathers,” Dickinson famously wrote a few decades before Hopkins wrote “God’s Grandeur.” Hopkins’s hope is the wing-borne Holy Spirit brooding on the edge of the horizon even as the last lights in the dark night go out. “Brooding” is a good word here; we are most familiar with it as dwelling upon something, thoughtfully or seriously, even darkly. But the older word for brooding means when birds sit on eggs to warm them with their bodies so that the egg can hatch. The world is bent. But over it, the Spirit broods, ready to generate new life just as he did in Genesis, hovering over the deep. 

Like Dickinson and Hopkins, I see hope in birds. I especially love cardinals. A few years ago, my husband badly broke his foot. We had two toddlers and my doctoral defense was six weeks away. As he recovered from bone reconstruction surgery, he was in intense pain, unable to walk, let alone chase a child or cook a meal. I could not sleep from the overwhelming stress and fear. 

One early morning I sat at my desk and stared out my window, unable to keep pressing on. It was late January, and the massive trees of North Carolina were leafless. I noticed, at first dully, then with total astonishment, that the tree across the street was filled with bright red male cardinals. There were at least ten; it was a shockingly bright vermilion sight in the empty grey dawn world of winter. For me, it was a moment of that “dearest freshness deep down things.” The party lasted only a moment and they began to fly away, but I was struck with tears for reasons I could not closely analyze for several days.

Hope has very little to do with being positive or negative.

I do not want to overexplain this moment. Like a flower made from tissue, it falls apart when handled too much. But here’s what I began to take from it slowly. That period of my life was wintry, and not the cozy hibernation of a bear, but the hungry season, when meager seeds do not go very far and many things have been laid bare. Ugliness isn’t hidden by the abundant greenery of the summer, the colors of fall do not cause distraction; instead, there are just the blank limbs suggesting where leaves may eventually grow. Yet if there had been leaves on the trees, I would not have received the gift of the cardinals, their bright bodies achingly beautiful against the austere landscape. And I began to attend to the previously unseen, unnoticed truth in my own hollowed-out landscapes of Arizona summers and North Carolina winters, to what had been exposed inadvertently.

Hope has very little to do with being positive or negative. I have been thinking a lot of the cardinals these days. The trees of public life are losing their leaves, the world is less beautiful and welcoming and warm than I felt it was as a teenager, but what have the empty limbs revealed? In seasons where growth is absent and struggle is everywhere, when foliage can no longer hide either the rot beginning to infect the tree nor the bird life that plays along branches, or when oil stains the simmering surface of the concrete-floored gas station, let us attend to what is unveiled. In doing so, we practice hope and stretch towards the arduous good. 

Grace Hamman
Grace Hamman, Ph.D., is a writer, speaker, and medievalist with a passion for sharing the truth and beauty found in literature of the past. She runs a podcast on historical literature and its relevance to our lives today, Old Books With Grace. Grace lives in Denver with her husband and three young children. You can find her on Twitter, @gracehammanphd, and Instagram, @oldbookswithgrace.

Cover image by Juan Carballo Diaz.

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