By Mac Stewart

I recently came across a rather marvelous gem from the 19th-century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is a poem entitled “The Blessed Virgin compared to the Air we Breathe.” While Marian devotion has often played a big role in my daily life of faith, some forms of honoring and adhering to the great Mother of God occasionally strike me as a bit overly sentimental, and perhaps even claiming a bit higher proportion of Christians’ attention than is really appropriate. Presumably our whole reason for attending to Mary is because of that Son of hers. But this poem, appropriately, blew a breath of fresh air into my spiritual lungs, and made me want to drink deeply again from the wells of Marian piety.

We are living right now through the strangest Eastertide in living memory, one in which spiritual consolations might seem hard to come by, and so with May (Mary’s month) upon us, and nearly the entire globe groaning under the scourge of plague and the fear of impending depression, it seems fitting that we fly to her patronage. Never was it known, after all, that those who do so were left unaided.

On to the poem. Hopkins begins, characteristically, with a vivid and bracing description of that most mundane and ubiquitous of all ordinary things: air.


Wild air, world-mothering air,
Nestling me everywhere,
That each eyelash or hair
Girdles; goes home betwixt
The fleeciest, frailest-flixed
Snowflake; that’s fairly mixed
With, riddles, and is rife
In every least thing’s life;
This needful, never spent,
And nursing element;
My more than meat and drink,
My meal at every wink

One could spend days reflecting on nearly every word. This wildly nurturing or nurturingly wild atmosphere robes me round everywhere I turn with her gentle care, girdles each of the innumerable hairs on my body, finds her home even in the infinitesimally small spaces in a snowflake, is “rife in every least thing’s life.” Food and drink can’t compare to the level of her necessity: “My meal at every wink.”

But this air, Hopkins continues, reminds him of someone:

This air, which, by life’s law,
My lung must draw and draw
Now but to breathe its praise,
Minds me in many ways
Of her who not only
Gave God’s infinity
Dwindled to infancy
Welcome in womb and breast,
Birth, milk, and all the rest
But mothers each new grace
That does now reach our race –
Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do –
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so

“God’s infinity” was “dwindled to infancy” such that womb and breast, birth, milk, and the rest were not strange to it. This is wonder enough. But the greater wonder still is that this same motherly host of divinity has now been raised far above the ranks of cherubim and seraphim as the one through whom each new grace would be bestowed. Such exalted power and presence is given to her for one work and one work only: that God’s glory, and the grace that makes us partakers of that glory, would flow through her and from her and off her like refreshing drops of rain condensed through the air.

I realize this may be a stretch to Anglican sensibilities – Christ is our “only Mediator and Advocate,” after all. But if we grant that the life of the Church is replete with instances of a kind of general principle of mediation which all draw their logic and efficacy from the one Mediator – sacraments, intercessory prayer, etc. – then at the very least it need not be seen as contrary to an Anglican understanding of the faith that the Mother of God be given a special role among the triumphant members of the Church, summoning the faithful here below “to do whatever he tells” them, and entreating her Son above to fill their empty jars with wine.

Hopkins continues:

I say that we are wound
With mercy round and round
As if with air: the same
Is Mary, more by name.
She, wild web, wondrous robe,
Mantles the guilty globe,
Since God has let dispense
Her prayers his providence:
Nay, more than almoner,
The sweet alms’ self is her
And men are meant to share
Her life as life does air.

It is Mary now who is wild, a “wild web,” and like the air she girdles us about as a “wondrous robe,” the robe of tender mercy that nestles us everywhere in a blanket of innocence. The God whose Wisdom “reaches from end to end with might, and orders all things sweetly” (Wis 8:1) has arranged a motive for his providence in the prayers of this merciful mother. She doesn’t just throw down alms at us, as I might to a beggar in the street; she comes to sit with us – “The sweet alms’ self is her” – so that we can share her life, share her heart, wounded with love for her Son.

If I have understood,
She holds high motherhood
Towards all our ghostly good
And plays in grace her part
About man’s beating heart,
Laying, like air’s fine flood,
The deathdance in his blood;
Yet no part but what will
Be Christ our Saviour still.
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;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn –
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death;
Who, born so, comes to be
New self and nobler me
In each one and each one
More makes, when all is done,
Both God’s and Mary’s Son.

I do not know what to make of the “deathdance in his blood” that Mary lays, “like air’s fine flood.” Is it that air is what makes my heart keep beating, and that life is a kind of dance towards death that moves to the rhythm of those beats? And so is Mary’s “part” in grace to lead us in that dance insofar as it pertains to our “ghostly good”? Whatever we make of this, the next move is clear. It is the standard (and correct) explanation of all Marian piety: this is ultimately about Christ, who took his flesh from hers. And he did so precisely that he might take fresh spirit in us, and make of us who breathe the air of his mother renewed settings for his conception and birth.

If Mary is our air, Christ is our breath, who makes us new and nobler versions of ourselves, adopted by his birth in us into filial intimacy with the one he called “Father” and the other he told John to call “Mother.”

Again, look overhead
How air is azurèd;
O how! nay do but stand
Where you can lift your hand
Skywards: rich, rich it laps
Round the four fingergaps.
Yet such a sapphire-shot,
Charged, steepèd sky will not
Stain light. Yea, mark you this:
It does no prejudice.
The glass-blue days are those
When every colour glows,
Each shape and shadow shows.
Blue be it: this blue heaven
The seven or seven times seven
Hued sunbeam will transmit
Perfect, not alter it.
Or if there does some soft,
On things aloof, aloft,
Bloom breathe, that one breath more
Earth is the fairer for.
Whereas did air not make
This bath of blue and slake
His fire, the sun would shake,
A blear and blinding ball
With blackness bound, and all
The thick stars round him roll
Flashing like flecks of coal,
Quartz-fret, or sparks of salt,
In grimy vasty vault.

So God was god of old:
A mother came to mould
Those limbs like ours which are
What must make our daystar
Much dearer to mankind;
Whose glory bare would blind
Or less would win man’s mind.
Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

This is the part that really caught hold of me. First, he draws the “all-Marian-devotion-is-about-Christ” theme to its culmination by inflecting it through the governing image of the poem. Walk outside on a clear day, stretch out your arms and hands and head high to the clear blue sky (“rich it laps round the four fingergaps” is so lovely). The light you see, you see only as it is refracted through the molecules in the air that give it its “sapphire-shot” hue. And yet you would never say that the air “stains” the light; it rather perfectly transmits it by bringing out underneath that clear blue sky, in every shadow and shape, the radiant color of each particular thing. “Blue be it: this blue heaven” (Mary’s color, mind) hues the sunbeam seven times – “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined from ore and purified seven times in the fire” (Ps. 12:6) – or seven times seven – forgive “not seven times, but seven times seven” (Matt. 18:22). Through the refining fire of her purity, of her mercy, the Word comes to us complete, with no alteration (or is it that she “perfects,” but does not alter the Word?).

But we must say more. If it were not for this air, this “bath of blue,” to slake the fire of divinity, in what would God’s coming to earth result – the God who is a “consuming fire” – but a “blear and blinding ball” that scorched everything in its proximity? If it did not blind us, such unmediated, untempered glory would at least fail to win our hearts, so overwhelming would be the sight. But “through her we may see him made sweeter, not made dim.” Because he comes to us in the flesh, through her flesh, his light is “sifted to suit our sight.”

Be thou then, O thou dear
Mother, my atmosphere;
My happier world, wherein
To wend and meet no sin;
Above me, round me lie
Fronting my froward eye
With sweet and scarless sky;
Stir in my ears, speak there
Of God’s love, O live air,
Of patience, penance, prayer:
World-mothering air, air wild,
Wound with thee, in thee isled,
Fold home, fast fold thy child.

Such poetry can’t but leave you in prayer: “Be thou, O dear Mother, my atmosphere.” Let me live and move in the air where I may feel his rays. Fold me fast in the mothering grace where I may pray. Wound round with thy “sweet and scarless sky,” I will “wend and meet no sin.” Whisper then in my ear of the Father who made me his son, and you my mother.

Fr. Mac Stewart is studying for a doctorate in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

About The Author

Dr. Mac Stewart recently completed a doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America.

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