The Air We Breathe

Emily Heyne // Genius of the Call


May 22  

Twenty years ago this past January, I was received into the Catholic Church. Friends, for whom I am ever grateful, had introduced me to the truth of the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist, and I had developed a deep desire to receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. The Church’s teachings on Mary, however, inspired no such fervor. With some hesitation, I had intellectually assented to the Marian dogmas. I had also begun RCIA during the Church’s dedicated Year of the Rosary, and thanks to John Paul II’s Rosarium Virginis Marie, I agreed with the Holy Father that the rosary is a “marvelous prayer!” But my agreement was more in theory than practice. I struggled to rouse feelings of love for or devotion to my new-found Mother. 

A year later, however, I took a class in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and read “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.” More than any prayer, papal letter, or Marian hymn, Hopkins’ poem moved me. And still does today. Every year in May, I mark the “Lady Month” by making sure I still have the 126 lines committed to memory. They serve as food for reflection all year, but particularly in May, when the colors of spring seem to glow afresh against the blue sky. In alliterative rhyming couplets and triplets, Hopkins draws out an image of Mary as the very air we can’t help but breathe. She, like the atmosphere all around us, provides a mantle of mercy for the whole earth, leaving “His light / Sifted to suit our sight.” Just as the blue heaven transmits the sunlight perfectly, so too does Mary transmit the Son to us.  

Hopkins’ poem helped clarify for me Mary’s ongoing role in our salvation: she who gave Christ birth, now “mothers each new grace / That does now reach our race.” I think what most strikes me about Hopkins’ poem is his sheer joy at the mystery of her motherly work:

Of her flesh he took flesh: / He does take fresh and fresh, / Though much the mystery how, /  Not flesh but spirit now / And makes, O marvelous! / New Nazareths in us. / Where she shall yet conceive / Him, morning, noon, and eve . . .

I love that he rhymes “marvelous” with “in us.” It truly is a marvel that Christ, through Mary, is conceived in each of us. We become the place of conception and birth of “Both God’s and Mary’s Son.” Then, as Christ is born in us, he is and I am at once a “New self and nobler me.”

What I find both beautiful and challenging about Hopkins’ comparison of Mary to the air is how she is so close to us and yet so transparent, letting the light of her son shine through her. With Mary as my model of motherhood, the poem challenges me to both recognize her mothering hand in all the graces in my life, and to imitate that same action for my own children—to be for them a “happier world, wherein / To wend and meet no sin” and to speak in their ears “Of God’s love, […] / Of patience, penance, prayer.” 

It’s a lofty ideal, yes, but one worth striving for all the same. You can start by reading the poem; or, if you don’t have five minutes, pray the final line to Mary: “Fold home, fast fold thy child.”

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