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.