Lately I have been pondering that mysterious quality our Lord called “poverty of spirit.” Perhaps it has been coming to mind more and more because I live in a community where the typical Catholic family has many children and survives on a single income. Ours is an economically depressed region of the woodlands of northern Ontario, where work is hard to find and not always steady when it is found.
Among our people are genuine heroes who live the Gospels daily at great cost. Because they have chosen to build a culture of life in the midst of a society that is earnestly spreading the culture of death, the beatitudes are not abstractions for them.
Day by day they struggle to do good, avoid evil, grow in virtue, overcome their personal faults and sins, and to fulfill the duty of the moment, which is to raise their families in a humble and happy manner. Though family life is generally considered “ordinary,” in fact it has never been more extraordinary than it is now; it is challenging and complex, considering the times we live in and the variety of human personalities that one finds in any given family. Add to this the confusion in the particular churches, government hostility to traditional families, the scattering of the extended family, and we have a recipe for suffering.
The other day after Mass in our parish church, I glanced around at those who had remained to pray. In front of us knelt friends of ours, a mother and father with their six young children, who live in a small rented mobile home down the road from our place. Though they both have degrees in philosophy from a Catholic college, they have chosen to live as laborers. The husband is a carpenter, the mother is . . . well, she is a devoted wife and mother, which says it all. The husband’s income is minimal, the mother has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Their faith and their hope is edifying, though the pain in their faces is not hard to see (however much they try to hide it). They are now carrying a heavy cross that has been added to their already heavy crosses. Beside them knelt an elderly couple whose son committed suicide years ago. Across the aisle sat a devout widow, whose children have all left the faith and are living in irregular marital situations. She has been praying for their conversions for untold years. Beyond her was an unemployed man whose wife suffers from frequent epileptic seizures.
Behind them was a couple unable to conceive children and longing for a child of their own. A few rows back was a couple with seven living children, grieving over the loss of their eight year old son who died last summer. Looking farther, I saw broken marriages, broken hearts, abandonment, mental illness. There were several widows, and many, many fatherless—fatherlessness spanning three generations. Most of the young fathers do not have the support of their own fathers, nor uncles and grandfathers (because they have died or are absent in other ways), a gap which adds to the burdens of a difficult vocation. I could go on and on about what I saw that day. I’m just scraping the surface. Glancing from pew to pew I realized, with some astonishment, that without exception every individual or family was bearing hard sufferings in one form or other. Yet there we all were, thanking God for what he has given us and asking him for what we need.
Maybe all parishes are like this. Maybe not. But I would wager that in every parish there are many people quietly doing their duties and trying to love as best they can, carrying crushing burdens and facing insurmountable difficulties. Unlike myself, they do not complain. Unlike myself, they are always grateful for small mercies, gifts, help in any form that comes to them. They love Christ and they love Our Lady and they love the Sacraments with deep devotion. They pray. They draw their life and their interior strength from sources that most of the world has either rejected or forgotten.
Many of our young families have moved here to find inexpensive housing, to raise their children closer to nature and at some distance from the corrupt peer pressure that tends to dominate city life. Above all, they have moved here because the area has a reputation for faithful Catholic parishes and the possibility of informal community with other like-minded families. Very few of them have support from their extended families. This lack of support is not merely geographical, for often the older generation considers the younger generation’s complete fidelity to the teachings of the Church to be “unreasonable,” and especially their openness to life, which is thought to be outright foolishness. So here we are, a rag-tag remnant of a once-Christian civilization, trying as much as we can to be a family for each other. It’s not the same as blood ties, blood being thicker than water, as the saying goes. But as one mother pointed out, “the Precious Blood is thicker than blood!” I don’t for a minute want to idealize our community, and I think there must be many like it scattered throughout the world. Are any of us perfect people? Absolutely not. Do we raise perfect children? Sorry, we don’t. Are we trying to love as Christ would have us love?
Yes, but we’re imperfect in this too, as all human love is imperfect. We are the powerless of the earth, insignificant, very small.
The Mystery of Nazareth
I wonder if a village called Nazareth was once like our village. I wonder if long ago “small” people dwelt there whom no one would have considered to be of any importance whatsoever. Perhaps Joachim and Anna’s daughter, Mary, would have gone to the synagogue as a girl and listened to the Scriptures, quiet and unnoticed, pondering many things in her heart, praying, seeking the will of God in the midst of a hostile “culture of death. Not an upwardly mobile young woman, socially speaking.
Not into “empowerment.” Perhaps Joseph the carpenter sat at the back, listening deeply to the celestial language of God’s word speaking to his heart. An insignificant fellow, somewhat short on higher education, doing a job that could easily have been done by others, village carpenters being a drachma a dozen.
What is this mystery of hiddenness, obscurity, smallness? What is it saying to us? Why is it so precious in the eyes of God? Before attempting to answer, I should point out that poverty is not holy in itself, for one can be as greedy with a small coin as with a king’s ransom, and among the wealthy there can be found great sanctity and wisdom. No, it is not the station of our lives that makes for holiness or its opposite; it is, rather, what we do with what we have been given.
I do not mean by smallness a morbid denial of personal gifts or ignoring a legitimate call to educate oneself or to seek ways of sanctifying the world on professional, social, or political levels. I mean the smallness that comes of understanding the shape of reality itself. A sense of proper proportion. To see that God is great and that all of us, none excluded, are very small, very beloved children.
Saint Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool so as to become wise. For the wisdom of the world is foolishness in the eyes of God . . . .”
What keeps us from recognizing true wisdom? It can be found anywhere, of course, within the grandest corridors of power and in the smallest huts of the destitute. But what is it really? Is it common sense, a measure of survival skills, an ability to advance oneself, reasonableness? Or is it something quite different, something more elusive, something so much a gift from heaven than no man can acquire it for himself unless God bestows it.
And what keeps us from understanding true greatness? Do we think of it only in terms of superior human qualities or powers or knowledge? Or is it something quite different, like wisdom, something more elusive, something so much a gift from heaven that no one can obtain it by himself? The beatitudes teach us that ordinary human notions about “great” and “small,” “strong” and “weak,” “wise” and “foolish,” are usually so distorted that they can even reverse in our minds the true proportion of reality. When we turn our eyes upon ourselves and others, do we see with the eyes of the beatitudes? Do we understand where we are situated on the vast scale of being that rises all the way up from sub-atomic particles through the ranks of creatures to the throne of the Father? And if we do not yet understand, how do we come to know ourselves as we truly are? Moreover, how can we come to know our Father, the One who created us and knows who we truly are?
Seeking the Hidden Face of the Father
Throughout my life I have prayed to the Father and worshiped him, yet he has always been somewhat abstract to me. How can we know the One whose face is hidden from us, whom we cannot hear with our ears or touch with our hands? We can know him, of course, through what he has told us about himself in revelation, and especially through the incarnation of Jesus Christ who is “the visible image of the unseen God,” as St. Paul tells us. Jesus comes to us in many ways: the historical moment when the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us, in his continuous presence in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Blessed Sacrament and the other Sacraments, in the Scriptures, and in his presence dwelling in the hearts of his faithful. This member of the Trinity speaks, teaches, weeps, bleeds and dies for us; he is present to our senses. Similarly, we can feel the interior movements and consolations of the Holy Spirit.
But who is the Father? Reflecting on this question from the position of a layman, a husband and father, I will not attempt the theologian’s task, but instead would like to ponder, a little, the other ways we can catch glimpses of his hidden face. One of the most significant ways of growing in understanding of our Father-Creator is to look at the face of physical reality, to reflect upon Natural Law as it is written in creation. Yet how often do we stop and truly see things? How often does the veil part, the blinders fall from our eyes, and we are given a moment of grace to recognize in quite ordinary things the mystery and majesty of our Father’s nature? How often do we stand still before the works of his hand and see Him simultaneously hidden and revealed in the uncountable “words” which compose the world? That they are words, or messages, should be something we at least consider from time to time, because each detail has been made by him, has come from him, and thus must tell us something about him.
He has, in a sense, left his fingerprints on everything.
I think of the lowly pine cone in this regard. The other day I caught myself kicking one of them off my front step, feeling a moment’s irritation at the way Nature just keeps on scattering its litter about my home. Then I stopped myself and stooped down and picked it up. For some reason that I cannot explain, perhaps because I had been asking for the grace to be more grateful generally, I experienced a moment of inner stillness, a kind of time-out from the usual hustle and bustle of our life. I looked at the pine cone for the first time. Why do I say for the first time? Haven’t we looked at pine cones all our lives? Surely they are very common, very ordinary? Yet, at that moment I began to wonder if I had ever really seen a pine cone before, ever pondered its astounding complexity and beauty, which is always pointing beyond itself to the One who is Beauty itself?
Twirling it in my fingers, I noticed the symmetry of its marvelous design, the sheer intelligence behind not only its visual form but also its stages of development from conception to fruitfulness. Pine cones fall from the tops of pine trees, hit the ground and are cast aside, yet they are works of surpassing genius. We think of them as “useless” objects. They get overlooked by the trillions; unseen and unlamented they decay back into the soil, forests rising and falling on them throughout the millennia. Deceptively simple in appearance, each pine cone is packed with millions of codes. God has so designed certain species of cone in such a way that they do not open and allow their seeds to germinate in the soil unless they are super-heated. Suppose the whole planet were to burn tomorrow, the most innocuous pine cone might repopulate the world with forests.
So I took the irritating pine cone that had messed up my front step, brought it inside the house and put it on the family altar beneath the crucifix. It now sits beside a seed pod of the eucalyptus tree (which has a natural cross inscribed in it) and the seed pod of the lotus flower (which looks like a clever toy rattle made by a father for a little son) and a sprig of wild berries that look like droplets of blood. These are a few of the items which remind me that nature is no machine but rather an astounding work of art. Even as I write I notice for the first time that there are five berries on this particular twig. Five fruits, five apparently “dead” seeds, and five new trees if I plant them next spring? Like the five major wounds of Christ? A coincidence? Pretty but meaningless? Of course it raises the question: Are we projecting our own subjective meanings on material creation, or is God speaking to us through creation? I believe it is the latter, especially when the spirit within us is active and sensitive, “reading” what the Holy Spirit is “writing” to us.
The Extraordinary Ordinary
I am not a sentimentalist and have no attraction to the new “eco-spirituality” that would glorify creation at the expense of the human person or the absolute “otherness” of God. But I am coming to realize that there is something unhealthy about the way we in the modern age tend to take so much for granted about nature. Our world is hyper-charged with noise and speed, and the pace is killing us, making us—yes, even we children of God—function as if we were machines (and not God’s work of art). We gallop faster and faster and faster until we can no longer take in any more imagery, any more words. We so rarely look at even the simplest things, and thus we fail to see how miraculous they really are.
If God has lavished such care upon the lowly pine cone, think of what He has done in the creation of human beings! Each human life, no matter how “small,” is miraculous, infinitely more valuable than an inanimate object. Each and every person is a word never before seen, never to be repeated, inexpressibly beautiful in the eyes of God. Each is full of mysteries, each has its hidden greatness. One of my daughters taught me something about this a few years ago. She was seven years old at the time.
My wife and I have six children and Angela is our youngest. Our Lord was very generous in giving us this sweet child. She has the most beautiful temperament, is unusually kind, has a very motherly little heart, and her own gift of wisdom which startles us at times. Every night I go into my children’s bedrooms to say night prayers with them, and to bless them with holy water. Some evenings I am very tired. You may have noticed that life in the twenty-first century is rather stressful. It can be exhausting trying to raise a large family in a society, especially a Western society, which works against the health and integrity of the family at practically every level.
So when I come to Angela, who is the last of the line of prayers and blessings, I am usually exhausted. She sleeps on the top bunk-bed, so sometimes as we pray I remain standing but lay my head down on her pillow beside her head. On one occasion after I had done this, she said “Papa, can I say a prayer for you and can I bless you?”
I said, “Oh, yes, Angela, I would love that very much.” And so with all the spiritual might of a baptized Christian soul, but without melodramatics, she closed her eyes, put her hand on my forehead, and began to whisper prayers to God the Father. It was a very delicate moment. I did not want to probe, though I was curious to know what she was saying to God about her father. But I did not ask. During the following months we developed this little custom between us: I would bless her and pray over her, and she in turn would bless me and say a silent prayer over me. It was sometimes frustrating not to know what she was saying, but I respected the privacy of her budding spiritual life.
Then one day she asked, “Papa, if I pray to God for you, do you need to know what I’m saying for him to answer my prayers?”
“No, Angela,” I replied, “I don’t need to know. If my heart is open and God gives those graces that you’re asking, I’ll receive them even if I don’t know what they are.”
“Oh, that’s good,” she said.
“You know, Angela, I’m very grateful for your prayers for me.”
She looked me deeply in the eyes, put her hand on my shoulder, and with all the compassion in her motherly heart said, “Yes, Papa, I have noticed a great improvement.”
It was difficult to keep a straight face. But it was true, I really had felt the effects of her prayers, had experienced new growth, new life, new strength, and often it had come after she placed her small hand on my old forehead.
A Small, Hidden Woman
We must never underestimate the power of prayer, never underestimate the power of a childlike heart praying in faith. If this little girl, an inheritor of original sin, has such a claim on the generosity of our Father in heaven, think of the awesome power of the Mother of God when she intercedes for us, when she pleads before the throne of grace on our behalf. It is practically inexpressible, and thus we tend to reduce it to theological abstractions or nuanced spiritual insights. Yet it is an awesome component of the reality God has created. He has chosen to do this, he has chosen to give a small, hidden woman this role, this authority. Why has he done it this way?
All my life as a Catholic I have believed in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. I have no theological problems with it. If the Church teaches it, I believe it; it is simply reality. However, that does not mean to say that I understand things intellectually. I have given assent with my heart, and it is a completely peaceful assent. But I often ponder why God did things a certain way, in the sense that Saint Augustine writes about—faith seeking understanding. Why, for example, did he create Our Lady free of original sin in order to become the Mother of the Son. I think our first natural response would be to say, if God is going to be born into creation, surely he would want to be born from a really good mother, the best. But it is so much more than that, so far beyond our normal categories of thought, even our normal categories of theological thought, that we fall silent in awe before the immense drama which the Father is working out in history.
A few years ago, when I was discussing this question with my wife, I told her that I believe in the Immaculate Conception, but I just do not understand what ultimately is God’s purpose in it. She replied that she had a sense about it, but did not have words for it. So she went to our parish church, knelt in front of the Blessed Sacrament, prayed a Rosary, and asked the Holy Spirit to give her light on the matter. She returned with an insight.
She put it this way: When Adam and Eve fell, they chose to believe a lie, they chose not to trust what the Father had told them. When Adam and Eve opened themselves to falsehood they lost their ability to love with perfect freedom. And because God not only created mankind, not only is he the Father of mankind, but above all because he is in love with mankind, he could not leave us forever in that condition. He could have reached down like a master mechanic tinkering in a machine, and fixed the broken part. The machine might not even know it had been repaired. What he has done is something far more profound and far more beautiful than that. In the restoration of a fallen world, God is revealing that salvation history is really about the courtship of the Creator and his creatures; indeed, in many scripture passages this love is described in terms of passionate spousal love. Through it all he is revealing his heart.
Freedom to Love
In her relationship with the Father, Our Lady reveals that he is true love. He has created a universe in which there is a sensitive balance between the principles of order and harmony (to which man as a limited creature must submit), and the principle of freedom. Does this not tell us a great deal about God’s nature? In the restoration of man to the original unity which he had before the fall, God willed that man must have perfect freedom of choice when saying “yes” to his invitation. No true courtship, no true love, is possible without freedom. Love never forces. Love invites. Love always respects freedom. Of course, in this general principle I am not so much referring to the love of parents for their children, for such love must (if it is to be love) restrict the full exercise of a child’s freedom and gradually train him to use it responsibly. I am referring, rather, to the love of spouses—the love which is a free and mutual gift of the self, one to the other.
Since the fall of man all human beings (with the exception of Jesus and Mary) have been damaged in our ability to choose with perfect freedom. None of us is capable of perfect love, a perfect giving of the self. It was God’s will that one woman be created without original sin so that she, speaking for all of us, might say yes with perfect freedom. She was completely free to say no. But she said yes. The Immaculate Conception is God’s gift to man, and her response is man’s gift to God. But it all begins in the heart of the Father, it all flows from his mercy. She was conceived without sin by the merits of the Sacrifice of the Son. God is outside of time. Time is like the little pine cone in his hands. He can step all around it, forward and backward. It is his creation, and he can do with it whatever he wishes.
When God was incarnated as a man, he was born into a poor and humble family. He led a hidden life for thirty years. He was a laborer, son of a laborer, resident of a small “useless” village in a subjugated land. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” his disciple Nathaniel asked before getting to know him. In a word, Jesus was “ordinary.” So ordinary in fact that when the time came for him to begin his public ministry, the people of his home town were scandalized, were convinced that the son of Joseph the carpenter could not possibly be the Messiah.
Why did God choose to do it this way? For one thing, I think he was showing us that the ordinary is never ordinary, and that the humblest roles in existence have eternal significance if we only have eyes to see. More important, poverty in its many forms, when lived in union with our crucified savior, participates in the redemption of the world. Poverty enables us to come very close to our fundamental human condition, which is—poverty. When we chose to love in whatever form of poverty we are given, we are cooperating with Christ’s transforming power, reversing the sin of Adam and Eve.
We cannot reverse that sin by our own resources, not by will, nor by personal qualities, nor by virtues of character, nor by amassing sufficient knowledge or power. To put it simply, we cannot save ourselves. We are not God. Satan lied to us, and the effects of that original lie continue to damage us for as long as we refuse God’s grace. The secularization of the modern world, the massive tidal wave of false culture which has invaded the West and now is spreading its disease throughout the globe, is the deadly fruit of this refusal. Satan has made it so appealing, so “reasonable.” And as a result, modern man is very busy about enshrining himself as a god—the sovereign self, the autonomous self accountable to no one but himself. Of course a society composed of sovereign selves will inevitably degenerate into more and more violence.
Unless there is repentance, an increasingly violent society will demand an increasingly controlling government to maintain order, which in turn will bring us to a totalitarian state. And in such a state there would be little freedom for anything that truly ennobles us.
Our Lady calls us to the better way, the path that leads to full and eternal fruitfulness. To be a humble servant, she shows us, is to discover who we really are, which is sons and daughters of the King, the Lord of all Creation. If the King and his own mother the Queen lived among us as servants, why should we not do the same? Be he pauper or president, the humble servant says “yes” to the original purpose God has written into his being. To be that small is greatness.
Michael O’Brien, father of six, is a painter and writer. He is the author of several books, notably the best-selling novel Father Elijah and his examination of the paganization of contemporary children’s culture, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for Your Child’s Mind. You may visit him at his website www.studiobrien.com.