In Praise of Obscurity

pen and paperIn his well-known poem Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley observes something of the transience of all human effort.  Writing about a massive statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II, which appears in a stretch of desolate desert, he wonders what, in this vale of tears, really lasts.

And on the pedestal these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The existentialists among us might despair, along with the 1977 song by Kansas, that “all we are is dust in the wind.”  For if empires may fall to dust, what is my own small life worth?

Gerard Manley Hopkins, ever the Jesuit realist poet, offers a different perspective. His poem “St. Alphonsus Rodriguez” is about the early Majorcan Jesuit who, without much education, served as a porter for 46 years.  (In that, he is like more recent saints like Brother Andre Bessette and Solanus Casey.)

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,

Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,

Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)

Could crowd career with conquest while there went

Those years and years by of world without event

That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

This God, present in all creation, from the towering mountains to the small veins of plants, was also manifest in the man who watched the door.  Let us pray for the vision to see others—and ourselves!—with such clarity of vision.

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Tim Muldoon
Tim Muldoon is the author of a number of books, including The Ignatian Workout and Living Against the Grain, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.

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