Tending the Soul: Christ Plays

“Christ plays,” wrote the great Victorian poet and classical scholar Girard Manley Hopkins in 1877, in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.” Years ago I took notice of the poem’s title since the kingfisher, a creek-diving bird with bright colors, was a prized sighting on my childhood wilderness forays. We don’t find a single abstract noun anywhere in Hopkins’ sonnet. He writes of beauty and delight, but nowhere names them. For the poet, abstraction distracts; the concrete carries all. Everything we know of beauty and delight unfolds for us by way of this-worldly things we encounter. Kingfisher birds, clanging bells. A rock tossed in a well, rippling its sound. Each thing, being true to itself, selves its way to our awareness through sensuous impressions.

Slow way, way down here. Hopkins is worth more than a skim. “Christ plays in ten thousand places” is more than a mystic’s bumper sticker.

“Each mortal thing does one thing and the same,” goes a line of the poem. Each dragonfly, each stone, each face in the entire world. And what exactly does a dragonfly or a stone do? It “selves.” The self, this abstract individual entity we imagined only as noun, Hopkins turns into an active, robust verb, with the world its playground. “What I do is me!” every last thing cries out in his poem, “for that I came.” As the bird, so the person, so the eternal Christ as revelation of God. Each one plays its emerging self onto the jungle gym of the world. The bell “finds tongue to fling out broad its name.” Each “acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is.”

Hopkins elsewhere refers to “the inscape” as the act of being what one is. Following his intellectual and spiritual mentor from the middle ages, Duns Scotus, Hopkins believed this to be the way both God and the created world exist “in Christ.” In their incarnate particularity they exist in the same way: in being themselves, they reveal something of all. A tight string sings; In so doing, it reveals not only its string-ness – worthy enough - but something about everything. Everything! Including my unfolding self, including the ever-revealed Christ, interrelated and whole.

A tight string sings;
In so doing, it reveals not only
its string-ness – worthy enough -

but something about everything.

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 out 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 What I do is me: for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. 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.

Does a neighborhood have an inscape? A self? A body, mind, and soul, as Fr. Benigno Beltran (following Edgar Shein’s organizational theory) suggests about cities? Embodied by streets and structures, informed by stories and slogans, and enlivened by iconic symbols? How does a neighborhood selve? How does it keep grace? How does it act in God’s eye what in God’s eye it is – Christ?

Many of us schooled in modern Western Christian teaching grasp individual human spirituality, but together with our secular counterparts we’ve lost any sense of the spirituality of things, places, or systems. Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Melitos (c. 600 BCE) could say the world is “besouled,” and Jesus of Nazareth could imagine stones crying “glory” and “blessed,” but we no longer commonly cultivate such ways of seeing unless we happen to be artists or poets.

And so it is with Christ, presumed to be merely the last name of a man from Nazareth who came and went. How slim our religious imagination has shrunk from the Apostle John, who sees in Christ the Word of creation itself! Or from the Apostle Paul, who sees “Christ in us” and ultimately, “all, and in all.” To behold such Christ would require new eyes – and possibly an entirely new way of being, if in fact “we see things as we are.”

How shall I see my neighborhood? And how shall I BE in my corner of the city, of the cosmos, so that I may see truly? How shall I selve, as my neighborhood selves?


Continue reading “Playground” here, as part of a longer companion essay for our recent Seeking the Peace of our City urban exploration retreat. In these retreats we explore contemplative ways for actively engaged people to SEE and BE in our neighborhood contexts.


For Soul Tending

What do you notice “at play” in your neighborhood? How might you learn to see divine playfulness in your world, and in your own unfolding life?


Scott Dewey, director of Centering Way, is a spiritual director and community chaplain.