Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt―
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt―
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).

The Wreck of the Deutschland
By Gerard Manley Hopkins

It might seem as if Hopkins hasn’t yet even mentioned the horrible wreckage of the ship Deutschland, in the first six stanzas of a poem supposed to be about that very wreckage. The first stanzas are personal and – according to Hopkins himself – autobiographical, but Hopkins where not onboard the ship. He was sitting at St Buenos, a Jesuit house in north of Wales…

This is a conscious choice made by the author. In the opening we, the readers, are  not placed out on the stormy waters. We are sitting in the safety of our homes reading a poem – but still in the opening stanzas of this poem, there is a murmuring sound of disaster, present in the background. And the tone of the poem, with the help of parenthesis, is confidential: It is like Father Hopkins are leaning towards us and whispers “and few know this” and “there is a common misunderstanding here”… I think it is appealing that Hopkins chooses this personal voice as an approach to write about such a horrible thing as this sea-disaster.

We do all have our personal relations towards disaster. We hear about them on the radio, see them on TV and read about them – as Hopkins did – when he read about the wreck of Deutschland in London Illustrated and other newspapers the days after the incident in December 1875. He was, and we are, sitting in the safety of our homes, while people are dying horrifically all around us.

Most often we don’t think twice about this, but sometimes the horror of it strikes us. A few years ago there was the shipwreck of Estonia outside of Stockholm, Sweden. Hundreds of people died. My co-workers from one of my previous workplaces had a conference on board, they all died. I’m thinking of the terror attacks 2001 and later attacks in US, Africa and Europe, natural disaster as the Tsunami in December 2004 or terrible events on a smaller scale: Having someone dying in your lap after witnessing a car collision – like my mother did, a few years before she died herself – diseases, death and despair, your everyday life that seizes: No one is spared. It happens to all of us, again and again. The just and the unjust are stroke alike.

Why does God let these things happen? How can there be a God who allows such suffering?

In the Wreck of Deutschland Hopkins refuses to explain disaster as either the absence of God or the presence of some negative power which resists God. It’s not through accidents or catastrophes God reveals himself. We are not closer to him when good things happen to us, nor more distant when things go bad. This dilemma is hard to grasp even for the faithful, Hopkins says here: God reveals himself the fullest in an ongoing sacrifice, an everlasting moment, an action that flows in time. In suffering you can relate to Christ.Suffering is not the end, but the means.

So disasters has nothing to do with the final judgement. We are judged in the afterlife. Closeness to God has nothing to do with which disasters we are struck with, or how good we feel or even how successful we are. Feeling a closeness to God is just a feeling. Being successful in life is just being successful in life – not in the heavenly kingdom. There is a grave theological difference  between heaven and earth. There is an eye of the needle.

A theology of prosperity is far from Catholic theology, Hopkins says: Not out of his bliss


During lent I will publish the stanzas from the Wreck of the Deutschland, one by one. Sometimes with a small commentary or with some aspect about the poem. Hopefully someone will be able to use this as a form of prayer during Lent.