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By Claire Colombo

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil ….

                                                            —Gerard Manley Hopkins

What might it mean for “the world” to be “charged with the grandeur of God?” One obvious meaning — which you may have learned if you read Hopkins’ poem in school — is that creation is electrified by God’s glory. It’s lit up with it, like a lightbulb. Or like Rudolph’s nose.

But the poet-priest Hopkins understood “world” to include humans, and he often used the terms synonymously. “The world, man,“he wrote elsewhere, “should give God being in return for the being [God] has given it.”[1]

And so the poem’s first line might also mean: “We are charged with the grandeur of God.” This in turn implies not only that we shine with God’s grandeur like a Chisos Mountain sunset, but also that we are given responsibility for its very being, as an adult might be “charged” with the care of a child.

What are the implications of being charged with God’s grandeur in this way?

One obvious implication is that God’s grandeur is a resource of some sort, and that we are stewards of it. Sadly, we’ve not always practiced this stewardship in good faith. Encouraged by the biblical language of dominion, humans have long understood “nature” as a reserve of raw materials available for conversion into wealth. (Remember those “natural resources” maps in elementary school?) Perversely, those areas especially vulnerable to exploitation tend to be those that are the most awesome to behold. Think, for example, of the recent rush to drill for oil in the melting Arctic or the government’s reduction of Bear’s Ear National Monument in Utah under pressure from uranium-industry lobbyists.

This twisted state of affairs gives us — those charged with God’s grandeur — an even more urgent obligation to guard it as a resource of one sort (let’s call it a spiritual one) against its exploitation asa resource of another sort (let’s say a material one).

But what sort of spiritual resource is God’s grandeur? Is it valuable because it is beautiful — because, as classical philosophers argued, its parts are arranged in a way that gives pleasure to the viewer? As we all know, pleasure is not always spiritually edifying. But even when it does serve our spiritual wellbeing — when, say, we are moved to praise while watching that Big Bend sunset — is such a moment worthy of our stewardship? Is God really asking us to guard our sunset views so that we might enjoy being so moved?

Perhaps. It turns out that those views have more of an effect on us than we might think.

Consider this: A group of researchers took some people into a grove of towering Eucalyptus trees. They asked some of the subjects to look up into the trees. They asked others to stare at a nearby building. After one minute, when a pedestrian “accidentally” stumbled and spilled some pens, the tree-gazers provided more help retrieving the pens than did the wall-gazers.

Based on this study and others, the researchers concluded that people who experienced awe were more likely to behave generously toward strangers. Why? Because “awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble, a part of something larger.” In other words: When we experience beauty, we experience a heightened sense of relationality. We become aware of ourselves not as discrete units, but as members of a totality. We become implicated in a larger web of being — and we are more likely to act accordingly.

Even physiologically, beauty heightens us. When perceived with the eyes, beauty stimulates areas of our retinas that release serotonin into the bloodstream, which produces a sense of wellbeing; simultaneously, our eyebrows rise, our heartrate increases, and our breathing deepens. Beauty causes our systems to wake up — to experience a kind of resurrection.

All of this makes me wonder whether beauty encountered doesn’t constitute some kind of conduit through which we who perceive, and know we do, pull God’s very being into this dimension, transforming both us and the perceived into something more than we were before. Hopkins gets at this idea in another poem when he writes, “I walk, I lift up, I lift up heart, eyes, / Down all that glory in the heavens to glean our Savior… ” By looking up, in other words, we bring God’s grandeur down. We participate in the incarnation by being open to it. By being open to it, we bring more God-being into the world. And then, perhaps, we act on it.

And if that isn’t something to steward — something holy with which to be charged — I don’t know what is.

How do you experience beauty as a resource in your own life?

What is one way in which you might steward beauty today?

[1] Christopher Devlin, S.J., ed. The Sermons and Devotional Writings of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 123

This fall, Sowing Holy Question will explore questions of stewardship, reflecting theologically on practical decisions about money, possessions, ecology and our connection to God’s creation.

Dr. Claire Miller Colombo is Director of the Center for Writing and Creative Expression and Lecturer in Theology and Arts. As director of the seminary’s writing center, she facilitates the delivery of writing support services for all students and develops writing- and arts-related programming for the entire community. She oversees the publication of Soul by Southwest, the seminary’s literary and arts journal, and hosts Soul in the City, an event series featuring musicians and other artists from the wider Austin community. Colombo has served on the seminary’s faculty since 2012, teaching in the areas of writing, theology, and aesthetics, and she is co-author with Cynthia Briggs Kittredge of Colossians in the Wisdom Commentary series (Liturgical Press, 2017). Colombo develops religion curricula for Loyola Press of Chicago and writes literature, language arts, and humanities curricula for several other major publishers. She serves on the editorial team of Theopoetics: A Journal of Theological Imagination, Literature, Embodiment, and Aesthetics.


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