A few years ago, while still an agnostic, I had an experience of a divine voice speaking to me. Sometime later, my wife asked me whether I had ever had any kind of “religious” experience before. At first, I said “no.” But then an early experience came to mind. When I was just a kid, one of my chores was watering the lawn. I had run water in the shrubs and bent down to turn off the faucet. I don’t know why but I lingered for a moment, crouching down, looking at the tap, as a last drop of water slowly formed on the bottom edge and hung there. I looked at that drop of water in a way I had never looked at anything before. I saw it – how to describe it? – in its full presence, its suchness, its integrity as an independent existent in the community of being. Some years later, when I read Buber about encountering Nature as Thou, this experience came to mind. I no longer saw the drop as an It, merely an item in the inventory of the universe. I saw it as, to use language I learned a bit later, a member of the Kingdom of Ends, the community of all beings who should be respected as ends-in-themselves, not just as means for the use of others. This is, of course, language I used later. I don’t know how I would have described it at the time. I was just a kid, after all, and it didn’t seem worth telling. (Martin, 33-4)
Today, I would go not to Buber or to Kant, but to Duns Scotus and draw on his concept of haecceitas, “thisness,”’ which captures better the unique particularity of that drop of water as a full-bodied existent, in Latin an “ens” (that which is).
Scotus had been struck by the difference between accounting for “a” horse and accounting for “this” horse. Aquinas had used matter as the principle of individuation: two copies of the same statue have the same form but different matter. One is made of this bit of clay; the other of that bit of clay. But, to Scotus, that answer merely pushed the question back one step. What makes this bit of clay, this bit? His answer is its ‘thisness’ or haecceity. A particular horse isn’t just added to the sum total of horses; it has its own existence; it has “this” existence; it does not just have the form, “a horse,” it has the individual form, “this horse.”
As David Knowles explains:
“This form or ‘thisness’ (Haecceitas) is a novel notion: it is the ultimate intelligible factor beneath the generic and the specific, the basis of individuality that makes a being different from all else and present to our consciousness here and now. For Duns, the first attainment of the understanding is the singular, not the common, essence. . . . The whole of being is thus covered, as it were, by a metaphysical network of forms, the ‘inscape’ of metaphysics, to use the term coined by the poet [Gerard Manley] Hopkins, himself a disciple of Scotus.” (Knowles, 306)
Before discovering Scotus, Hopkins had perceived that each thing has multiple “inscapes.” It is a word related to “landscapes” and “seascapes.” But, unlike a landscape, an inscape is discerned in the inner depths and soundings of a thing. The inscapes are really in the things, but require a viewer to actualize them. In this respect, inscapes are like vistas, which are real but require a viewer.
Each thing has myriad inscapes – true ways of encountering or apprehending it. They lie latent, like unseen vistas, until an observer arrives, and not just any observer, but one with eyes to see, one capable of stretching himself or herself into the thing seen, an activity Hopkins calls “instress.” As he writes in one of this poems: “These things, these things were here, and but the beholder/ Wanting.” (Quoted in Ward, 189)
As Bernadette Waterman Ward explains, “The semantic field of ‘instress’ is nearly coextensive with that of the Scholastic term intentio.” (Ward, 200) “The Latin intendere means to intend but also to intensify. Its root meaning is “to stretch toward.” “The kinship of tend and tension nurtures the word ‘instress.’” (Ward, 201) One thinks, of course, of Eric Voegelin’s penetrating use of the phrase, “tension toward.”
Early in his studies, Hopkins read Parmenides, and pondered the philosopher’s claim that being and thought are one: “I have often felt when I have been in this mood and felt the depth of an instress or how fast the inscape holds a thing that nothing is so pregnant and straightforward to the truth as a simple yes and is.” (Quoted in Ward, 115) The object is, recognized and affirmed in the observer’s yes.
When Hopkins, who was a serious student of philosophy, chanced upon – or providentially discovered – Duns Scotus, it was as if, at last, he had found the philosopher who articulated in metaphysical terms what Hopkins understood intuitively. He writes in his journal:
“I thought how sadly the beauty of inscape was unknown and buried away from simple people and yet how near at hand if they eyes to see it . . . At this time I had first begun to get hold of the copy of Scotus on the Sentences [of Peter Lombard] in the Baddley Library [at Oxford] and was flush with a new stroke of enthusiasm. It may come to nothing or it may be a mercy of God. But just then when I took in any inscape of the sky or sea I thought of Scotus.” (quoted in Thorton and Verene, 50)
Scotus he describes in his poem “Dun Scotus’ Oxford”: “Of realty the rarest-veined unraveller; a not / Rivalled insight, be rival Italy or Greece.” (Quoted in Ward, 160)
If Hopkins had encountered my Drop of Water, or another in his own vicinity, he might have found a comparable inscape. As he wrote in his journal, “the self can in every object it has see another self, personal or not, and . . . can treat any one thing how great or small soever as equal to any other thing.” (Quoted in Ward, 16)
Or Hopkins might have seen it differently or seen more. He writes, in an unpublished manuscript: “Suppose God showed us in a vision the whole world enclosed first in a drop of water, allowing everything to be seen in its native colours . . .” He continues, drawing on his deeply sacramental, even incarnational, Catholic understanding, “… then the same [vision] in a drop of Christ’s blood, by which everything whatever was turned to scarlet, keeping nevertheless mounted in the scarlet its own colour too.” (Quoted by Pick, 44-45
Is one of these viewings or instresses truer than the other, or might a drop of water contain such multiplex possibilities? To his friend, the more successful poet Robert Bridges, whom the unpublished Hopkins sometimes describes as his only audience, he writes:
“Study it yourself until you see my meaning … if you do not like it, it is because there is something you have not seen and I see.” (Quoted in Ward, 123) That was about a piece of music Hopkins had composed but he often said the same thing about his difficult-to-fathom poetry. He would advise Bridges to read it aloud: “read not slovenly with the eyes but take a deep breath and read it with the ears.” (Quoted in Ward, 192)
When, after recalling my encounter with the Drop of Water, I prayed about it, I received, as if God were whispering in my ear: “That was an encounter with Me. I was in the drop of water. Why not? Where else would I be? I am in everything. You suddenly became open to My presence in that drop of water.” (Martin, 35)
That divine response would not have disturbed Hopkins’ theology. He writes, in his Notebooks: “Nor do I deny that God is so deeply present to everything . . . that it would be impossible for him but for his infinity not to be identified with them or, from the other side, impossible but for his infinity so to be present to them.” (Hopkins, Notebooks, 316) God’s infinity makes it impossible to be simply identical with things in the world, but that same infinity requires God to be present to them.
But there is more to the world than drops of water and the inscapes of nature. There is us, in our particularity. As Arthur Mizener explains, “His poems are accounts of the instress, the felt experience, of inscapes and are, therefore, themselves inscapes of Hopkins.” (Mizener, 99)
And his poetry is not the only point of entry. In his remarks on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, Hopkins says (quoted in Mizener, 100):
“I find myself both as man and as myself something most determined and distinctive, at pitch, more distinctive and higher pitched than anything else I see. . . . And when I ask where does all this throng and stack of being, so rich, so distinctive, so important come from / nothing I see can answer me. . . . And this is much more true . . . when I consider my selfbeing, my consciousness and feeling of myself, that taste of myself, and I and me above and in all things, which is more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, more distinctive than the smell of walnut leaf or camphor. . . . Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own.” (Hopkins, Notebooks, 309) “Is not this pitch,” he asks elsewhere, “or whatever we call it then the same as Scotus’ ecceitas?” (Hopkins, Notebooks, 328).
One of the perverse Nietzchean fallacies that has distorted modern thought is the idea that perspective is subjective, hence arbitrary, hence the source, not of insights, but of fictions. But perspectives, like vistas, are how the world reveals itself to embodied beings like ourselves as we encounter it. These encounters reveal aspects of reality.
As Ward explains:
“The potentially infinite multiplicity of understandings” – of instresses – “is not the spinning of fictions but the serial revelation of the actual structure of truth, in the only way it can be perceived by temporal [and embodied] creatures. . . . . Like formalitates” – the metaphysical category that encompasses individual essences – “inscapes are present in the object and available to the intellect. Hopkins often mentions ‘catching’ or ‘calling out’ the inscapes of something. An inscape is one of an intensive infinity of formalitates, ‘scapes,’ really contained in the object, and available to the perceptive intellect . . . “Hopkins believes that every being proclaims God’s truth in the infinity of its inscapes.” (Ward, 190),
Let us return to the Drop of Water. Its inscape. The instress, which was my stretching into it, in my own childlike, inarticulate way. That moment also revealed an inscape of me, as observer, as participant in this particular encounter, revealed again in memory.
A person’s life may well consist of such moments, may be defined by them. But these are not “peak experiences.” They are perfectly ordinary, though they require a certain undistractedness. As Hopkins writes, “Unless you refresh the mind from time to time you cannot always remember or believe how deep the inscape in things is.” (Quoted in Ward, 204), The depths may reach all the way to the divine.
Philosophies and theologies that pay attention only to the human essence and neglect the particular tend to understand life as a spiritual journey with a predetermined goal. But haecceitas opens the possibility that, as John Hare puts it, that God, in giving us our individual natures and what Scotus called “our unique names,” “is giving us a direction that is unique to us.” (Hare, 172) Making the noun, “self,” into a verb, Hopkins takes it as our task to “selve,” in which one fulfills one’s individual purpose, the point of his or her existence. We respond howsoever we are called.
Understandings focused solely on our species-nature tend to posit a single preferred outcome for our spiritual journeys and even prescribe a fixed sequence of steps toward that goal. Often, as in the influential work of James Fowler, they establish stages from the particular to the universal, so that Aristotle’s ethics centered on practical wisdom, which is particular to the person and situation, represents a lower stage than Kant’s maxim that can be willed as a universal law. But, as Hopkins writes, “[T]he universal cannot taste this taste of self as I taste it, for it is not to it, let us say/ it is not to him, that the guilt or shame, the fatal consequence, the fate, comes home.” (Quoted in Ward, 209)
The divine is often portrayed in pristine distance from the human beings who encounter it, and whom It encounters. “Hopkins’s God,” writes Ward:
“treasures, rather than annihilates, all the individual details of his beloved, not despising even the most fleeting graces: ‘[W]hatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that’s fresh/ and fast flying of us, seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away . . . ’” Hopkins says, is, in God love,
kept with fonder a care
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it). (Ward, 183)
Our instress into things actualizes – makes visible and palpable — the inscapes of being, including divine being. Those interactions may be the defining moments of our spiritual journey. But it is not a journey for ourselves alone. Our spiritual journey with the divine may also be the divine’s spiritual journey with us. For, as the poet asks,
“And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart but dear and dogged man?” (Quoted in Ward, 205)
Hare, John. Why Bother Being Good: The Place of God in the Moral Life. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2002.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. The Early Poetic Manuscripts and Notebooks, ed. Norman H. MacKenzie. N.Y.: Garland, 1989.
Knowles, David. The Evolution of Medieval Thought. N.Y.: Vintage, 1964.
Martin, Jerry L. God: An Autobiography, as Told to a Philosopher. Doylestown, Pa.: Caladium, 2016.
McKeon, Richard. Selections from Medieval Philosophers, vol. II. N.Y.: Scribner’s, 1930.
Mizener, Arthur, “Victorian Hopkins,” in the Kenyon Critics, Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Critical Symposium. N.Y.: New Directions, 1944.
Pick, John. G. M. Hopkins: Priest and Poet. London: Oxford University Press, 1942.
Scotus, Duns. Philosophical Writings, ed., trans. Allan Woltere, O.F.M. Edinburgh: Nelson, 1962.
Thorton, John F. and Susan B. Varenne, eds. Mortal Beauty, God’s Grace: Major Poems and Spiritual Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins. N.Y.: Vintage, 2003.
Ward, Bernadette Waterman. World as Word: Philosophical Theology in Gerard Manley Hopkins. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002.