“Can’t you put a brick on his head?” Every Sunday, the older adults at church would gently tease my mother regarding my brother’s height. My brother, growing into his 6’4” frame, would smile graciously, and on the way home, the two of us would wonder aloud why they seemingly wanted to impede his growth.
But now I find that same urge arising in me—to keep the children eternally children. Certainly, I long for the time when mine can pour their own milk and do their own laundry, but more often, I discover moments when I wish time would stop, when I am arrested by their beauty: their sun-kissed cheeks and shining, wet bodies as they play in the pool; the sweet prayers of gratitude from a child too young to know sin; the wonder and concentration as they crouch on the ground inspecting a ladybug; the toddler strutting around in his bowtie and suspenders, suddenly aware of his own finery.
How do we hold onto these moments, these fleeting years of our children’s childhood, and why is the awareness of the passage of time so painful? What is it that we are losing? Is my compulsive use of my camera phone, filled with images of my children’s faces, a reflection of some lack of trust—of my own memory, or of God’s benevolent design?
The experience of beauty in both nature and youth, as well as its inevitable loss, is the subject of many of the poems of the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. He has long been a favorite of mine, but it wasn’t until my eldest daughter was a toddler, with a head full of enviable ringlets, that I learned from him how to respond to beauty. During that time, I re-read “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” a poem packed with imagery of hair of all things: “How to keep—is there ány, any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, lace, latch or catch or key to keep / Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty . . . from vanishing away?”
The first answer, given by the voice of the Leaden Echo, is “No, nothing can be done / To keep at bay / Age and age’s evils, hoar hair, / Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying . . .” If we cannot keep the physical beauties of the created world, the very things which tell us of God’s love, if we ourselves are “tumbling to decay,” then it follows that despair is the proper response. But as the Leaden Echo doles out its death knell of “despair, despair, despair,” the voice of the Golden Echo chimes in, cuts off, and transforms it into, “Spare!” The Golden Echo spares the despair, forgives it, and offers a key to keep beauty.
In order to keep it, we must, paradoxically, give it back. During my conversion to Catholicism, the theology of redemptive suffering was new and attractive to me: “Offer it up,” my friends would remind me, and it gave suffering a meaning it didn’t previously have. But it wasn’t until I read the following lines that I developed a sort of theology of beauty, of how to respond to that very particular form of suffering, of that anxious urge to grasp what we can’t keep:
“Resign them,” Hopkins says of all those fleeting, dear things we try to hold—the “sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks . . .”
Sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them . . . early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Hopkins claims these things are kept “with fonder a care . . . than we could have kept them,” and points us heavenward, “yonder, yes yonder,” to the Resurrection.
So go ahead and click the camera lens on those baby curls, but also send them heavenward with soaring sighs. For there is One who will keep them even better and more fondly than the iCloud. Do not fret, for God, who is Beauty’s self, abides outside of time and gives and holds all these things everlastingly.