Lessons from As Kingfishers Catch Fire

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for 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.

“As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Gerard Manley Hopkins


Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” offers prescription for contemplative action with lessons for the individual and for communities. I read this work for the first time in my theology class, a survey course in which we read hundreds of pages from a different theologian for every class. “It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” a classmate rightly pointed out after a lecture. Reading Hopkins, in contrast, was refreshing, like crisp autumn air after a humid September.

The professor asked, “Do these poems do anything that other theology texts do not? To what extent does the power of the poem depend on knowing some theology?” For the first time since arriving at Yale, I felt fully confident in my response: “Both can inform one another, but poetry is more accessible than traditional theological texts. Though knowing some theology would enrich a reading of the work, it isn’t necessary. The poem’s beauty speaks for itself; its message holds weight without theological argument.”

The beginning of my time in divinity school has been encased by dense theology and critical theory. The more I have read, the more I’ve felt my apprehension of faith, of grace, of God’s nature slip beyond my grasp. The academic impulse is to deconstruct, but Christianity’s impulse is to redeem. This cognitive dissonance has been draining, frustrating, and illuminating at once. Under Hopkins’ poetic spell, however, I felt hope and relief swirl inside me.

Hopkins begins the work meditating on the individual nature of wild creatures. The kingfisher thrives differently than the dragonfly. Even stones, though inanimate, express blessed uniqueness. Animals and things are effortlessly in touch with their true natures, and their beauty is reflected in their “selving,” flourishing as God intended. A rose fulfills its purpose by growing as a rose, not, for example, as a sunflower. A spider, an owl, a deer: these creatures flourish differently from one another, but are beautiful in their own right, just as the Adirondacks and the Pacific Ocean are entirely different, but equally breathtaking. Through honoring distinctiveness, Hopkins’ work asks the question, what if we “selved” like Nature?

Individuation is essential to human flourishing, Hopkins suggests. Selving provides freedom and inspires humility, but more is required in a human life. We must also “justice.” Action, compassion, and consideration are a part of God’s call for human beings.

In this troubled world, I look at our sweet cat, Isabel, whose world is contained in our apartment. She is overjoyed when Jack walks in the room. She tries to participate in our hugs by walking over and leaning her head on my shoulder. She watches the birds fly outside of our window with rapt delight. She is a little afraid when it rains. Her favorite blanket is one my best friend gave to me nearly seven years ago and seems to think it belongs to her. She lives an individuated experience within a contained world that is graced.

As much as the die-hard introvert in me would like to remain in my pajamas and hide from the insanity of the world with Isabel. I feel an undeniable pull for connection, for love, for creation, for service, all of which happen in community. And community calls for justice and work towards righteousness. Navigating the course of human lives requires awareness, which, if we are paying attention, should lead us to service. The world needs our conscious participation.

Since arriving at Yale, I’ve felt more indecisive about my path than I’d previously expected. In the midst of information overload, I have spun into doubt. In conversations where students have expressed confidence in their purpose and direction, I have felt isolated. Hopkins’ meditation sparked a clearer examination of my vocation. As I bounce between wanting comfort and safety and wanting community and connection, I have been asking myself: how do we honor our selfhood and seek justice at the same time in a rapidly changing world where “progress” is not grounded by wisdom?

The Bible provides simple and helpful instruction that mirrors Hopkins’ poetic vision: Be still and know. Begin with stillness and act according to what you know is right. Inner peace, stillness, contentment, goodness provide the path to indignation, communication, healing, and collective redemption. Hopkins asks us to selve, to justice, and to keep grace. Right action requires joy and compassion, love that spills over from a soul filled to the brim.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Vocation stands at the intersection of your joy meets the needs of the world. I write to you now from a sea of uncertainty. With waves of questions rolling in and light that’s circling, I will continue to ask in the same breath: what brings me joy and what does the world need? 

All things that grow, unfurl.