Gerard Manley Hopkins
A nun takes the veil I have desired to go Where springs not fail, To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail And a few lilies blow. And I have asked to be Where no storms come, Where the green swell is in the havens dumb, And out of the swing of the sea.
“A nun takes the veil.” In the quietest, most humble moment, vows are taken; any ceremony distracts from meaning. A human being binds her earthly life to an eternal promise.
I can’t say enough about how incredible this is. I’m basically middle-aged at this point, just waiting for more crises to hit. If I see someone younger take such vows, what impresses is the desire for faith. It’s not that nuns don’t have faith – they do, but that’s not really what’s important. To put yourself in a position where you would continually pray for the world, pray for everyone else’s concerns, hope that God would make himself known to all: this is asking directly for the mustard seed to become the great tree. It’s asking on the terms God Himself laid down, but also on the proposition that belief is so fundamental it must be regarded on its own terms. I don’t know what to say about that, as it is a completely different notion of living than trying to obtain some independence and struggling with that experience. It instead makes self-sacrifice the heart of living and attempts to purify belief. There are therefore corresponding spiritual experiences of which I cannot speak.
How will a nun taking the veil be regarded when I am older? When I’ve watched some of the elders I admire engage those who are younger, they praise them for their spirituality. They wisely acknowledge that there’s something special about people willing to live for ideals. However, their appreciation ends there. I don’t know that they think too much more about what it means to try for an ever greater faith. Or what is gained and lost in having an everyday, normal life. I have to bring up the perspective of those who are older because there are so many I’ve run into recently who are embittered. I’ve seen parents teach their kids to hate Muslim kids and spout racist stereotypes. I’ve seen a lot of people who are older throw everyone else under the bus for things they themselves have done that are wrong. I definitely live in a country where a 70 year old man-child bully is considered a leader. There’s an idealism in taking the veil that could protect a nun’s mind and heart from this, but can we use it for our everyday, secular lives?
I’m not sure. Let’s start with the title, for “Heaven-Haven” comes from a prior poem of Herbert’s, “The Size.” “Heaven-Haven: Refuge from the Sea of Tears” notices this, quoting the relevant passage:
Then close again the seam
Which thou has open’d: do not spread thy robe
In hope of great things. Call to minde thy dream,
And earthly globe,
On whose meridian was engraven,
These seas are tears, and heav’n the haven.
“Do not spread thy robe in hope of great things.” Call to mind your dream and the globe of the earth, and you’ll see all longing for success in this life is for naught. The seas are composed of tears, and to be in port, to be in a haven, is heaven. Hopkins starts with this essentially tragic view of life, and starts responding with the joy Christianity could be:
I have desired to go Where springs not fail, To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail And a few lilies blow.
“I have desired to go where springs not fail.” The nun states a desire for perpetual refreshment, for the clarity, purity, and nourishment of water. It is, perhaps, the simplest, most essential element for life. This natural baptism is accompanied by a longing for peace, for growth, as she wants to go “To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail / And a few lilies blow.” If you visit that “Refuge from the Sea of Tears” link, you’ll notice that the author of the post, David, argues that “blow” should be taken in an older sense. It probably means something more like “bloom.” I guess you can argue that, as I’m certainly no expert on Victorian poetic conventions. I’ll just say that it is no sin to note that “springs not fail” and “few lilies blow” both imply motion. This haven is a peaceful, restful place for the living. The dialogue the nun is having, in her vows, is less with the world and more with other spiritual notions. The nun may accept martyrdom, but it is not her calling. Nor is any notion of spiritual warfare or physical suffering – again, things that can quite easily be associated with monks and cults – present in this vision. Rather, her vows are an all-too-human gamble. I will place my trust entirely in God and accept spiritual peace. I pray I will be sustained in this. Note well that “to go” implies strongly that this is the end of her journey, but since the kingdom of God is something one works for in this life, there is significant overlap between the destination and getting there.
The vows continue. She asks to be “where no storms come,” where the crash of the sea cannot be heard, and she herself is “out of the swing of the sea:”
And I have asked to be Where no storms come, Where the green swell is in the havens dumb, And out of the swing of the sea.
The desires of the first stanza are more apt to be fulfilled than this stanza. Here, the vows are a gentle plea for supernatural support. Can one really live life, in any way, “where no storms come?” One needs to ask God for this even as one enters a convent: one can take care of internal storms to some degree, but what about storms themselves?
Where she wants to be, what she wants to be, is dependent on a strength beyond her. That it might seem impossible is a mere challenge for belief. With the right faith, one can move mountains. That faith ignores the crash of the “green swell,” an enormous sea of tears. She has no use for self-pity or failed dreams. She knows she asks to be where no storms come; this does not mean her strength when confronting a storm is absent. She knows she asks to be “out of the swing of the sea.” On the one hand, her joining a convent, her taking the vows, will help further that. On the other hand, she will always be in the swing of the sea. What grounds her faith is a profound realism: she knows the value of not being hammered by chance. That value is not life in some static, fixed sense, but living in a gentle, pure way, able to appreciate the simplest things that have been given, building from there.
I think you can understand why I brought up elders and older people earlier. Maybe what people should be impressed with is not “spirituality,” but the ability to think through what one wants, what kind of person one wants to be. Maybe those are the things we should be talking about, as it is most notable in this poem that a nun, with all that she is required to believe, has not started declaiming all she thinks she knows and chiding us for not accepting them.