“What I do is me: for that I came.”
The above quote is from the celebrated poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. This poem explains that each person (and animal and thing) is placed here to be who and what we are: unique to the universe with nothing like us coming before in all time and nothing like us coming after throughout all of eternity. This is it. This is our time. Celebrate who you are, the poem extolls because that is why you were made. Do not deprive the universe of your beautiful essence. Kingfishers fish. Dragonflies fly. People “selves” according to Hopkins. Let the world experience the light of your being.
And yet, the poem says, there is more. Unlike things or animals or the cosmos, we humans are called to do more than merely be ourselves. We are called to do justice and to act in grace and to make that a part of our life on this planet. But there is a catch: it is difficult to “do justice” or embody grace if we are not secure in who we are.
I think about it this way: If we are not secure in who we are; if we don’t spend the hard time each day in quiet reflection of our own blessings and trials, then our attempts to do good become conditional. If we don’t acknowledge – and more importantly - accept our own sins, then the sins of others can easily be viewed with disdain. We end up in a cul-de-sac of unstated expectations: I will act for justice on behalf of others, but only if they behave in a manner I deem worthy. Here are a few examples: We can give a needy family food stamps but they must take a drug test, or I’ll forgive my friend if she apologizes first and means it.
I’ve written before about the need to love ourselves. This isn’t some touchy-feely, new age mantra, it is vital. How we feel about ourselves drives how we treat all others. Critically important is how we arrive at the place where we can embrace ourselves. The best way, I believe, is to look at yourself as if through the eyes of God. Reflect on your blessings and know that you are loved by God. But also, acknowledge your failings and know that God loves you all the same. No matter what you do or say, you are God’s beloved.
Once you embrace the idea that you are loved just as you are, then you can turn around and begin to show that same kind of unconditional love to others.
Love of God, begets love of self. Love of self, begets love of others. Once we begin to see all others – without exception – as children of God, then justice and grace will naturally flow from us. We will become the embodiment of love: providing mercy within mercy within mercy.
(Note: Below is the Kingfishers poem. Here is a link to an interpretation of it which may help to unlock some of the tricky phrasing and imagery.)
As Kingfishers Catch Fire
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
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.
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.