Inscape: The Distinctive Design of Every Creature

The word “inscape” was coined by the priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The universe was spoken into being by the divine Word, according to Christian theology. Hopkins developed this logocentric understanding of creation – every individual thing in the universe has an inscape, an inner essence that is the stamp of the divine creator on it. It is the distinctive design of each and every thing that characterizes its individuality.

Since all creation is by the Word (divine fiat) human identity in God’s image is grounded in God’s speech and no two creation words are ever spoken alike

Now, human persons, as the highest beings in all of creation, have the unique ability to grasp this inscape of things, but especially of other people, through a process that he called instress. Instress, according to Hopkins, is a thrust of energy (and empathy, we believe) that allows us to see the essence and distinctiveness of another thing or person. This logocentric theology of Hopkins is grounded in the Imago Deithe image of God in every person.

If this is true, then Hopkins himself was a master and exemplar of it.

In his poetry, he is known for capturing the distinctiveness of things, especially in nature, using beautiful language. He had a poet’s apprehension of reality, or the “dappled distinctiveness of everything kept in creation,”, according to biographer Paul Mariani. It was part of Hopkin’s dedication to understanding the thisness of reality.

For Hopkins, his understanding of inscape found its highest expression in the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, in which God himself dwells. The “inscape” of the Eucharist, in other words, is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. By logical extension, Hopkins could deeply grasp the indwelling of God in the souls of the faithful. But it was his abiding devotion to the Eucharist that was the source and summit of his spiritual life, and even his philosophy. Because the fullness of divine life could dwell under the appearance of bread and wine, how shot through with the grandeur or God must all of creation be!

Inscape: Our Inner Landscape

We could think of inscape as one’s inner landscape.

In the 1987 Steven Spielperg movie “Inner Space”, a down-on-his-luck naval aviator is involved in a scientific experiment that leaves him miniaturized and inside the body of a hypochrondriac grocery store clerk, exploring his “inner space”.

Now, none of us (barring a novel breakthrough!) will be able to explore the inner space of another person, but we can certain explore their inscape. Although we can never know it fully (only God can), it is part of the deepest desire of every person to know and be known at more than a superficial level.

The act of instress involves grasping the whole person, which includes his interiority and personal distinctiveness. Most importantly, we must explore our own.


Our inscape is not a static thing, but a dynamic thing. It includes the entire history of our lives, and it is constantly changing as we “enact our selves”. In other words, it’s not enough to see our inner landscape and our basic, unique design – we must also live it out!

A fundamental way to explore our inscape is through our story. When we share our story with another who is open to receiving it – one who listens, empathically, to what our story reveals about who we really are – it allows us to grasp certain truths about ourselves as we make our history present in our memory and in language through our speech. The other person we are sharing our story with can help us to grasp those truths. And he very act of delving into our story is itself a revelatory experience.

Inscape and Holiness

For Hopkins, the uniqueness of a person is directly related to his holiness. A person becomes holy to the extent that he becomes himself – the pathway of holiness is radically unique for each person who is united to Christ in a personal union (of course, it includes the Body of Christ, the Church, but it does not do violence to his personhood).

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton, writing about inscape, explains:

On the contrary, the perfection of each created thing is not merely its conformity to an abstract type but in its own individual identity with itself.

Thus the call to holiness is grounded in God’s creation – the unique, individual person – and not in a Platonic ideal.

Finally, holiness is related to “vocation” in two ways:

  1. God creates each person through the word.
  2. When a person responds to God’s speech by expressing his unique word, he becomes Holy.

We look forward to developing our understanding of inscape, along with you, as we continue to explore our own inscapes and helping other members of the Body of Christ explore theirs.

Luke is co-creator of ActivPrayer and Executive Director of Inscape, an organization that he co-founded with Dr. Joshua Miller. Visit his Speaker page here.

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