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sunset charles river willow branches

This summer, I read Mary Oliver’s Winter Hours, which includes an essay on the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: his work and life, and the ways they intertwined.

It was (in typical Oliver fashion) a thoughtful, lyrical piece, but one line in particular has stayed in my mind:

But Hopkins was also a man in turmoil. […] No doubt his daily faith was a deeply layered light.

As the light around here has shifted from summer to fall, I have kept thinking about that image.

I think about it as I watch the sunset from my front balcony, the sky ablaze with vivid colors that change from minute to minute, darkened by smoky clouds or lit from behind by the sinking sun’s fire.

I think about it when I walk through Harvard Yard, watching the play of dappled light on the buildings and sidewalks, the autumn sun sifting down through the leaves.

And I think about it every time I walk down by the Charles River, whose undulating waves reflect – and refract – the sunshine, making it, indeed, a deeply layered light.

In the context of faith, “a deeply layered light” is an ambiguous image. It lacks the clear-cut simplicity that defined many of the conversations I grew up hearing, about God and belief and what a virtuous life looks like. Those conversations included images of light and dark, but they didn’t always leave room for layers, for complexity.

I am not sure, honestly, whether Oliver meant that Hopkins’ faith was enriched or diminished by its complications. (The undeniable fact, which she acknowledges, is that Hopkins wrestled mightily with faith for much of his life.)

These days, my faith is also “a deeply layered light.” It still illuminates my life, but there’s much more room for shadow and questions, complexity and doubt, than there used to be. It is no longer the simple, cheerful sunbeam of an untested childhood faith.

I have wrestled with some dark things in the last ten or so years, and I’ve watched many people I love – and the world around me – engage in similar struggles. We often come out bruised and battered. Our faith does not exempt us from asking hard questions, or having to face the darkness.

I don’t know where Hopkins ultimately landed on the question of faith, and I don’t always know what I believe, or why, on any given day. But I also know this: for me, it’s worth it to keep asking those questions, keep participating in a community of fellow believers, keep searching for the light. I believe the layers – the shadows and questions, the complexity and doubts – make my faith richer, deeper, more beautiful.

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