On the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

immaculate conception blessed virgin mary

Thou hast prevented him with blessings of sweetness
(Psalm 20:4)

If, using only the tools of twenty-first century English, we attempted to understand the meaning that the psalmist intends to convey with this line then we would probably come up with some strange interpretations. In sixteenth century English, however, ‘prevent‘ does not so much mean ‘stop‘ as it does ‘forestall‘ or ‘get in ahead of.’  So what David (to whom the psalms are traditionally attributed) is saying is that the Lord provided blessings before the person for whom they were provided had shown up. The Church has always regarded psalm 20 (or 21 in Protestant bibles) as a Messianic song so the ‘him‘ in question is Jesus.

Upon His incarnation the first, and certainly the sweetest, of the blessings prepared in advance for Him which Our Lord encountered was Mary His mother. She was, as it were, the Father’s gift to the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Since God does not use humans as automatons but respects their freedom before Our Lady could become the Father’s gift she had to first make of herself a gift to the Son, which, with the aid of the Spirit, she did not only at the Annunciation but through the whole course of her life beginning in the womb of St Anne, her mother.

It is fitting that as it was with the Son so it also was with the Mother, that is, the Father prevented her with blessings of sweetness. One of the traditional prayers for the Mass of the Immaculate Conception talks of the Lord’s grátia præveniénte or anticipating grace. By this grace Mary was, from the moment she was conceived in St Anne’s womb, preserved from the stain of original sin. This was not only a singular blessing for Our Lady but a watershed moment in human history. From the beginning God held in His mind the archetype of a human child coming perfect from His hands but until the time of Mary no such child had ever existed. All children before her had inherited the Original Sin of their parents and so the perfection in Creation which God desired was marred by our human imperfection. In Mary though the first perfect child of God appeared in the flesh at the moment in which all human life begins, that is, at the moment of conception.

It is also fitting that the first child to be fully made in the image and likeness of the Creator should be a girl child. It was to woman that the promise had been made anent humanity’s incessant war against the serpent- “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head” (Genesis 3:15) Mary was the first light to breach the darkness that had overlain humanity since the Fall, she was the herald of the defeat of Satan and she was to be the mother of the Saviour who would redeem mankind from servitude to sin and fear of death.

The Church rightly celebrates the Immaculate Conception in order to give honour and praise to the glorious Mother of the still more Glorious Son and to give thanks for the salvation and liberation which the economy of God worked through them. More than that, though, like all the dogmas of Christianity it is not merely an abstract truth to be noted it is a personal truth for each of the baptised which we are called upon to make present in our own lives, to incarnate through our practice of the faith.

How can we do this? God does not change His ways, if He has prevented both the Mother and the Son with blessings of sweetness then He has done so also with us. Through the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation (confession) He has granted us the gift of being cleansed from the stain (if not fully from the effects) of Original Sin. We can be restored to some degree to the immaculate state which the Creator intended for us. Whenever we are newly baptised or shriven we are filled with grace, that is the time for us to turn our eyes to Immaculate Mary and to follow her example. That too is the time to turn our hearts and our lips to the Theotokos in prayer that she, the mediatrix of all graces and our most loving mother, may send us the gifts of the Spirit which we need to keep us in the path of purity.

Immaculate Mary is our exemplar and protectress. Most of all she is the mother of God, the mother of our Saviour. It is because of Him that she was made Immaculate, it is through Him that she was Assumed into heaven, it was in Him that she placed her hopes and it was upon Him that she poured out the purest and strongest love that ever a human creature has felt or expressed. Being Immaculate meant that Our Lady was a mirror of the perfections of her Divine Son. We honour her the most when we imitate Him to whom she gave birth.

 

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The picture is from a Book of Hours, fol. 97r, early 16th century. School of the Île-de-France, Paris. Language: Latin. Script: Littera batarda 

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What is the Point of Virtue?

napa vineyard

If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.
(Matthew, 19:17)

My mother’s sons turned their anger on me,
They made me look after the vineyards.
My own vineyard I had not looked after!
(Song of Solomon, 1:6)

The purpose of Our Lord’s mission is that we may have life more abundantly. One of the instruments which He offers to us in pursuit of this goal is the practice of virtue, that is, the keeping of His commandments. The promise is that if we do so not only shall we enter into His presence forever at the end of this mortal existence (which, to be sure, is a great assurance itself) but that even now, in this present time, we will experience an overflowing abundance of life.

How does that work? What is the connection between virtue and a life lived in primary colours? Catholics can offer an answer to these questions on two levels, that of Natural Law and that of Revealed Truth. On the first, where we use Reason unaided by Revelation, we can argue that virtue is intrinsically good and the source of good for each individual human person. Superadded to that we can argue from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition that a person in a state of grace receives, and gives to others, a degree of good from the practice of virtue which eye has not seen and ear has not heard.

In classical Greek philosophy it was argued that the practice of the virtues was necessary in order to achieve Eudaimonia. This is a concept often translated as ‘happiness’ but it has a richer depth of meaning than that. It carries an idea of ‘human flourishing’ and ‘fulfilment’ as well. We might think of it as having life abundantly. Aristotle in particular saw virtue as the perfect mean between excess on the one hand and defect on the other. Or, to put it in Goldilockian terms, virtue is that porridge which is neither too hot nor too cold but ‘just right‘ (I’m Scottish and writing this on St Andrew’s day, hence the porridge reference.)

Since the mean is in itself a form of perfection it follows that it must be nearer to a state of eudaimonia than any form of imperfection. More profoundly than that in order to consistently pursue such a path we must previously have secured a permanent victory in our internal civil war. Aristotle saw, with good reason, each person as being a house divided against itself. Within us we have three principle aspects of our human nature which can be understood hierarchically. At the least uniquely human is the desiring aspect which we share with the animals, from this proceeds lust, gluttony and the like. Above this is the irascible aspect which combines thought with desire, from this proceeds anger, envy, malice and the like. Top of the tree is the intellective aspect which is governed by Reason and is what makes us most distinctively human in relation to visible creation (though Reason is also a characteristic of angels.)

To be virtuous, then, and thus to enter into life, it is necessary for the intellective aspect of ourselves to battle with, and gain the mastery over, our appetitive and irascible aspects. Which brings us to the vineyards of Solomon. If our mother is the earth then the sons of the mother are of the earth earthy. That is, the passions which spring up from the lower part of our nature draw us away from the cultivation of our intellect which is of its Father, spirit not matter. In tending to the passions, nourishing them and lending our intellect to justify and rationalise their excesses and defects increasingly our own vineyard becomes, as Hamlet might put it-
…an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely
(Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2)

Yet, to experience life fully we should use that which is most characteristically human in us, the intellect, to its maximum extent. We can thus control and direct our lower aspects, desire and irascibility, so that they function to their full potential as part of a creature which is rational. Neglecting the vineyard of the mind does not mean that it cannot function at all. If we cut through the weeds and brambles we can still harvest a crop from it but they will be, to coin a phrase, sour grapes. Enough to intoxicate us perhaps, or bring us to oblivion but not of a nature to gives us the pleasure of their taste or the delight of a wine which gladdens the heart. Therefore, we should direct our energies towards the vineyard of the mind so that a rich vintage can be harvested from it. One whose taste we can enjoy while drinking it and whose effect will not be frenzy and distraction but mellow pleasure shared with friends.

What does Revelation add to this picture? The Orthodox Saint Maximos the Confessor wrote-
The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments… Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it.
(Philokalia)
Which means that one who obeys the commandments for the sake of the Kingdom receives within themselves the Ruler of that Kingdom. Christ Himself dwells within those who fulfill His Will because He is His Will as He is Love and Truth and Justice and Mercy. And where the Son is so to is the Father and the Holy Spirit whose Temple we become if we do the will of the Son, as we do the will of the Son because we have become the Temple of the Holy Spirit. From Revelation we can deduce that the difference between the eudaimonia of the rationally virtuous and the abundancy of the Christianly virtuous is that the one is energised from within, by ourselves, and the other is energised from without, by the Blessed Trinity, which becomes a within by the power of the descending Holy Spirit and the indwelling Logos of God. Or, to put it another way, if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.

 

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The stock picture is of a vineyard in Napa

The Time is Now Past

 

queen esther the persians

His disciples came to Him,

Saying,

This is a desert place,

And the time is now past

(Matthew 14:15)

 

Turn our sorrow into joy,

That we may live,

O Lord,

And praise thy name

(Esther 13:17)

 

To be in a desert place is to be without resources to draw upon. Neither within, in our heart and mind, nor without, in the people and things surrounding us, can we find that which we need to sustain us. We have arrived at bleakness, we live and move and have our being in bleakness. Our outward state may appear to be pleasant enough, career, family, the things of life might be going along exactly as the world tells us that they should but we do not find in them the happiness promised. Or we may have suffered loss, trauma or illness and we find that there is nothing which comes to hand that can give us the strength to escape from the legacy of despair which they have left behind in our souls.

 

Compounding this we look around and sense that for us the time is past. The wrongs which we have done cannot now be undone. The wrongs which have been done to us have left scars and wounds that are beyond any power that we are aware of to heal. More than that our vision is darkened by an incoming tide of blackness to which there seems no end. Night is coming upon us and we doubt that we can survive it.

 

Although Christians might argue that objectively this state, being in a desert place with time running out, is an accurate enough description of most people in the world most of the time such people rarely experience it within themselves as a subjective reality. Sometimes, though, they do, when events, like bereavement or war, or states of being, like adolescence or sickness, lead them to contemplate the deeper realities of being which underlie all the busy doing which makes up their normal mode of living in the world.

 

Such a situation faced the Jews during the time of the Queen Consort Esther. An edict providing for their destruction and the despoiling of their property was issued. Humanly speaking there was none to save them, their neighbours, after all, stood to benefit from their possessions after the act of what we now call genocide had been committed. More than that a Law of the Medes and Persians could not be revoked having once been passed. Facing this catastrophe they found that they had no resources within themselves or in their surroundings to deal with it by any normal means.

 

Since their was nothing possible to do they turned to two impossible things, which was really one impossible thing. That is, they prayed to God for a miracle to save them and they urged Esther who was a daughter of Zion and spouse of the Great King to intercede with him on their behalf. And the two were one because it was God, heeding the prayers of suffering Israel, who granted Esther the strength to ask for remission of the sentence, at the peril of her own life, and who moved the King to respond positively to her petition.

 

The disciples too recognised that they had nothing, that they were nothing, that they could do nothing and that they were soon to be overwhelmed by night. All that remained for them was Jesus, so it was to Him that they turned. He took the few elements which they did have, sorry little things that seemed too inadequate to meet the needs which they faced. And Jesus infused His power into them. He, as it were, gave them life, He multiplied them, they became pure gift not only for the disciples but for all who surrounded them. Their sorrow was turned to joy and they praised the name of the Lord.

 

This is the work which the Christ was sent to do. To redeem the time, to bring life into the midst of death, hope where there is despair, the gift of sharing where there is selfish hoarding, to turn base metals into pure gold. But for Him to accomplish His work in us we must first look around and see that we are in a desert place indeed and that the light around us is fading fast. Only when we both know and acknowledge fully to ourselves that we are burdened and that the burden wearies us can we accept the invitation which the Son of Mary issues to us-

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,

And I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me;

For I am meek and lowly in heart:

And ye shall find rest unto your souls.

(Matthew 11:28-29)

 

 

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The picture is: Queen Esther begs King Ahasver for clemency towards the Persian Jews. Page from a Megillat Esther

Wine to Gladden the Heart.

Les Trois Dames de Paris wine drinking

Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth,

 
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
(Psalm 104:15-16 RSV)

At a literal level this is clearly a song which blesses God for the fertility of the harvest and all the gifts which we as Man (male and female) derive from it. Because the psalms are divinely inspired works, though, the Church has always encouraged her children to look at the spiritual pearls which are buried in the field of Scripture. We might, for example, consider the three sacramental elements mentioned by the psalmist, wine, oil and bread, as representing the actions of the Father, Holy Spirit and Son respectively.

I shall leave you to meditate over that in your own way. Here I propose to look at the two heart relationships that are described. The divine gift which gladdens and the divine gift which strengthens. It is not fanciful to see in the wine divinity transcendent and in the bread divinity incarnate. Since these are not two divinities but the One God then responding to the one will lead us to the other. That is, loving and desiring the Transcendent One will lead us to love and desire His manifestation in the world which we physically inhabit, and not only does He have a name and a face here, Jesus Christ, but He is also present within all of us, so love of God in His illuminated transcendence leads us ineluctably to love of our neighbours. Conversely, when we have a disinterested, selfless love for our fellow creatures we will be led to love also the source of life that animates and then flows through them into the world, which is of course the Transcendent One.

Although it is the same God who is both transcendent and incarnate He is perceived by us to be operating in two different modes and so He has these two different effects upon our hearts, gladdening and strengthening. As the Transcendent One we see Him as being rather than as doing. So in gazing upon Him we are entranced by His beauty, His stillness, His silence, His infinite depth, His light, His pure love and so on. We, in a sense, drink Him in and He is a source for us of unending joy for so long as, being in a state of grace, we can contemplate Him or reminisce about our time in His presence.

As Emmanuel, God With Us, the Incarnate One has come down, so Jesus Himself tells us, as bread from heaven. In consuming Him we are strengthened, He Himself enters into us and we enter into Him. Because He is everything that we are, apart from sin, our weariness is His weariness, our sorrows are His sorrows, our weakness is His weakness. The strength that comes to us from Him lies in the truth that all of these frailties of ours proceed from our journey towards death but He is the Resurrected One, He has defeated death and lives forever and so long as we are in Him we too can share in His eternal victory starting here and now in this Today.

Insofar as love is real it is empty of Self and consists of a perpetual act of giving. Insofar as it is false it consists only of Self and aims at a perpetual state of receiving. The love of God for us, then, is an eternal giving of gifts, the wine that gladdens, the bread that strengthens. Our loving response cannot consist simply of a passive receiving but must be of the nature of a constant giving in return. St Catherine of Siena reports the Lord as saying “The service you cannot render me you must do for your neighbours.” That is, while we can directly give Him praise, thanks and worship the only way we can give Him consolation for His pain, water for His thirst and food for His hunger is through the good that we do to those whom we share the world with. So the gladness and the strength which we receive is not simply for our own benefit, so that we feel good, but for the benefit also of those around us to whom the divine gifts flow and overflow out of the abundance which we have received.

Now, you may think that all of the foregoing is mere inconsequential rambling. If so you quite possibly show good judgement. The point, however, is not how well I have carried out the exercise but the fact that I have carried it out at all. If this blog (and its predecessor Catholic Scot) has any purpose at all it is to rescue from disuse the practice of seeing Scripture as a multi-layered text which contains deep meanings that are not obvious at first glance.

Since the, ahem, changes inflicted on Christianity by Luther and his successors there has been a tendency to see literal readings of the Bible as the only legitimate form of interpretation. This has been compounded by the academic historical text criticism approach which seeks to limit Scriptural meanings to the historical context in which they were written, a context which archeology and other disciplines have increasingly recovered to a degree of fullness not previously known. All of this work is valuable and useful so far as it goes but it is too one-dimensional. The Spirit and spirituality flowed through the minds and fingers of the original authors of our sacred text. It contains depths and heights which go beyond the immediate context of their time, place and level of conscious awareness. They recorded on the pages of the books which they wrote not simply the things of which they were aware intellectually but also many things which they apprehended in ways beyond time, place and sequential thought. They left us, in the Bible, a great spiritual treasury and Christians, with the mind of the Church, should use all the tools at our disposal to unlock it.

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The picture is Les Trois Dames de Paris

The First One Now Will Later Be Last

 

samuel anointing david 13thC manuscript

It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God

(Romans 9:8 NRSV)

 

There is a motif which runs through the Old Testament. Very often the first born son, who by custom and law was designated to inherit the role of family head and possessor of his father’s wealth, is surpassed or supplanted by a younger sibling. Abel is preferred before Cain, Jacob before Esau, Joseph and David get to headline their respective gigs way before their many older brothers. Christians have seen in this a type or figure of the election by God of a new People of God, the Church, in place of the old People of God, Israel. This is not merely a matter of historical interest. God does not change His way of operating over time so the same principle at work then is still at work in the world today.

 

What is this principle? It is often cast as a Divine preferential option for the poor but it might equally accurately be stated as a disdain for those who have a sense of entitlement. That is, if you think that you belong to a prosperous family or a favoured nation or that you are ‘on the right side of history’ because you personally deserve it then you are rubbing the Lord up the wrong way. Grace is seldom drawn down from heaven upon those who think that they are God’s gift to the world, it is more frequently given to those who see the world as God’s gift to them (and to all of their neighbours.)

 

The Lord is not unjust, it is not that He disfavours those who are born into privilege, a child of the bourgeoisie or of the West or of liberal minded media professionals has done nothing wrong. Possessing title deeds to a life of advantage is not a crime. Believing yourself to be a special and superior kind of person just because these things have descended to you is, however, a gravely sinful attitude. If, for example, you think that your country is Number One even if you are right it is no doing of yours, not something which you can congratulate yourself upon. Instead it imposes upon you a series of obligations. Firstly gratitude to the Divine Providence which has placed you in that nation at the (no doubt brief) time of its ascendency. Then you must earnestly consider why  it is number one, what qualities have put it there? If it is the result of frugality, honesty, cooperation across partisan and community lines, integrity and faithfulness to basic moral principles then you are obliged to practice the same things yourself if you are to become truly worthy of your inheritance.  Alternatively if your nation owes its place to arrogance, violence, a casual disregard for the children of a lesser god who inhabit other parts of the globe then your duty is to work against these things and reform your country, it is better to be good and Number Ten than bad and Number One. More probably you are coming into a mixed inheritance and you must consciously strengthen the good and weaken the bad.

 

The point is that if you accept the privileges, still more if you assert and insist upon them then you will be storing up damnation for yourself if you do not with equal or greater vigour insist upon fulfilling the obligations which come with that. The same principle is at work among those who, convinced of their absolute righteousness, despise the family members who share the table of friendship with them at Thanksgiving of Christmas feasts. The ideas which millennial liberals hold are not a warrant to scorn their kinsfolk as backward hicks in need of a long spell in reeducation camps. Even supposing the ideas of feminism or intersectionality or whatever to be true these are not something young people made for themselves, they are an inheritance passed on to them by the establishment which dominated their formative years. If their first fruits are arrogance and snobbery then they might themselves be flawed, at any rate those who hold them and behave in such ways are abandoning the path of humility.

 

The pattern of God’s work in the world is of a preference for the poor in spirit. Those who see themselves as small people in a big universe have a true grasp of the way things are whether they are the children of American millionaires or farmers tilling the fields of Albania. Those who puff themselves up to ten or twenty times their real size on the basis of their family, nation, culture, political tribe, ethnicity, sex, sexuality or anything material profoundly misunderstand themselves, the world they inhabit and the salvation offered through Jesus Christ who comes to us as the Son of humble Mary and the apprentice of the carpenter Joseph. To be great, Christianly speaking, you must be small. To succeed, Christianly speaking, you must fail. To truly live, Christianly speaking, you must first truly die.

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The picture shows the Prophet Samuel anointing the shepherd David as King. From a 13th Century manuscript.

The Prosaic God

I recently came across this line by the Australian poet Les Murray-

‘God is the poetry caught in any religion,

caught, not imprisoned’

This, I think, speaks to the image of God fostered by the nineteenth century Romantics. He is that which is nearly but not quite seen, almost grasped but never touched. The elusive, transcendent light that somehow inspires us to grow and to seek despite the dreariness of all else.

 

He is those things certainly but He is more than that. God also ensures by His laws that toothpaste comes out of the tube (most of the time,) by His grace He enables mothers to cope kindly, even humorously, with fretful two year olds. He sends rain on to the new-mown grass and causes its scent to rise towards heaven. That is, He is the God of small things, the prose God as well as the poetry which we can catch at.

 

And for Christians He is in particular the Incarnate One, fully present in the world as the Son of Mary, Jesus Christ. He is the God who takes naps on boats, who feels hunger and thirst, who gets out of breath climbing steep hills, who feels love for His mother, who experiences the loneliness of abandonment, the pain of death. More than this of course He thinks sublime thoughts and gives us teachings of great beauty, healing is in His hands and on His tongue. He is poetry and prose and He walks among us.

 

So, if religion is that which catches the poetry that is God it is the religion of Christ which is uniquely able to catch and hold both the transcendent and the immanent One, the poetical God and the prosaic God who is one Divinity in three persons. This is, perhaps, especially clearly seen in the Catholic communion of Saints. If we honour the mystical saints like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen who soared on the wings of love to the highest heights we honour no less the Vincent de Paul’s, Jeanne de Chantal’s, the Damien’s of Molokai and the Dorothy Day’s who immersed themselves in the dreary daily round of seemingly mundane tasks and through love transmuted their base metal into the pure gold of divine grace and divine gift.

 

We honour too those like Thérèse of Lisieux who though she lived a little life in a small world focussed on tiny details nonetheless by her death aged twenty-four had become a spiritual giant and a teacher of the universal Church. This was not despite her concentrated attention on the prosaic but because of it. She saw that poetry and prose are two things in Man (male and female) but one thing in God and through God. It is love which dissolves the barriers between the two. With her Little Way Thérèse saw that the tiniest of actions done with love becomes the greatest of symphonies. She synthesised what many knew in part so that now, through her by the grace of God, we can know it in full.

 

At the head of the communion of saints and our great exemplar in all this, as in so much else, is Mary the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven. She is the one who sang for us the great canticle of the Church the Magnificat and she is the one who fled into the night as a refugee with our Saviour, her Son, in her arms. She it was who pondered the deep things of God in her heart and she it was who saw the nails driven into the hands and feet of that same God, her Beloved One, her Jesus. If the religion of the Old Testament and the religion of Rome between them did really and truly imprison the One God it was the religion of Mary that shows us how to set Him free again, with faith, hope, love and the grace-filled promise that each Christian must offer up through every prose or poetry filled moment of their lives- Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.

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The Day of Small Things

I recently came across a couple of texts. In the ancient Orthodox collection known as the Philokalia I found-

‘Wisdom dwells in the hearts of the gentle’ (St Theodoros)

And in the prophecy of Zechariah-

‘Who hath despised the day of small things?’ (Chap 4:10)

It struck me that there was a connection of ideas between the two but I was puzzled as to what it might be. After some reflection (and prayer) it suddenly came to me. It goes something like this..

 

Although each of us experiences times of heightened awareness- personal things like weddings, births, bereavements, new jobs, moving house and so on, or more universal events like wars, earthquakes, unexpected election results and the like- these do not form the essential fabric of our existence. Life generally is made up of thousands and thousands of days of small things. We get out of bed then sixteen hours or so later we return to it and we may struggle to recall what we have actually done during those hours. Certainly if we try to recall one of the days of small things from last month or last year or last decade our memory is likely to come up blank or at best just provide us with a generic template of the things we must have done.

 

By contrast Wisdom is a very big thing indeed. It is eternal and infinite, a quality of divinity, a gift of the Holy Spirit and a notoriously difficult idea to pin down. Wisdom is more than knowledge, more than understanding and more than the sum of the parts of these two things combined. Theodoros, though, is surely right to identify gentleness as being a characteristic closely aligned to Wisdom.

 

Which brings us back to days of small things. Possessing a gentle heart is a way of making a bridge between Wisdom, as an abstraction, and everyday mundane existence, as the place where we most usually experience life as such. How so? If we infuse the quality of gentleness into all of our interactions with the things, people and, indeed, animals who surround us then we make a day of small things into the ground upon which Wisdom does its work.

 

Forgiveness is an expression of gentleness and Jesus, in Matthew 18:35, urges us to forgive our neighbours “from your hearts.” Now, big ticket reasons for forgiveness probably only spring up during the times of heightened awareness of which I have spoken, the occasions when friends stab us in the back or spouses betray us or our house gets burgled. On the days of small things we will likely face nothing but minor annoyances and no rational reasons for resentment. Nonetheless lots of irrational reasons will likely spring up. The person who stands in front of the supermarket shelf you want to look at, the people who dither so long over buying a ticket that you miss your train, the couple gossiping noisily when you are trying to concentrate on an important problem (or a game on your smartphone.) Strictly speaking none of these require to be forgiven since they have, actually, done nothing wrong, it’s not as if they have deliberately set about trying to obstruct you in the fulfilment of your daily functions. Nonetheless, we do get angry at them and sometimes seek to get back at them somehow. As soon as we notice that we are feeling this way we can allow the gentleness inhabiting our heart to kick in and assuage our anger, replacing it with forgiveness. If an opportunity for revenge then pops up we can eschew it and opt for a pleasant smile and an act of helpfulness instead. In this way Wisdom will have invaded and occupied a significant part of our day of small things.

 

We can multiply such examples indefinitely. Almost everything we do during the course of a day can be accompanied by an internal or external act of gentleness and therefore also of Wisdom. The problem, however, is that few, if any, of us are gentle by nature. We simply will not remember to act gently until after the event when it is already too late. To deal with this difficulty the Catholic Church has traditionally (by which I mean prior to the Second Vatican Council) proposed a spiritual day of small things to be enfolded within the material day of small things which we will have to live through in any event. That is, a series of more or less tiny reminders dotted throughout our waking day which will serve to recall to our minds (and hearts) that we are, by virtue of our baptism, inhabited by the Holy Spirit; which is the Spirit of Wisdom.

 

If our first thought in the morning and the last at night is a prayer then they can bracket a day of small prayers. We can say grace before meals and thanksgiving after them. We can pray the rosary, and while travelling we can add a few more decades to it instead of idly looking out the window or listening to our privatised music. Three times a day we can pause and say the Angelus. At any point in the day when our mind is otherwise idle or liable to be filled by nonsense we can quietly say to ourselves a short aspiration or ejaculatory prayer such as, for example, Oh that today you would listen to His voice, harden not your hearts, we can set aside five minutes to read from the Gospel. Ideally too we can find (or make) time to visit a church possibly for daily Mass or just to sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament or at least to light a candle and offer a few words of thanks and praise.

 

The net effect of these small things within a small day could and should be to continuously remind us of our vocation to gentleness and to bringing the fruits of Wisdom from out of the realm of abstraction and concretely into the lives of each of the persons whom we meet this day. Certainly such a regime of little devotions can become a mere formalism, automatically repeated in a way external to our heart and intellect. But the way to avert that danger surely is to find ways to re-dedicate and rejuvenate them. It seems to me that the post-Conciliar Church has done foolishly in allowing such practices to die away for lack of encouragement. It is almost as if, to pick a purely random hypothetical example, highly educated Jesuit priests who mingle with the secularised intelligentsia are too embarrassed to practice or even defend such little pieties and so let them go by the wayside rather than face the ridicule of the bourgeois elites.

 

If I were being curmudgeonly I might suggest that part of the answer to the question “Who hath despised the day of small things?” would be ‘the spirit of Vatican II.’ More profoundly though, and a more enduring feature of human history, the answer lies in those who see the days of small things as a competitive field to secure victory over those whom they encounter and those who see them as a weariness without end and without redeeming features. That is, all those for whom a day is simply a material reality with nothing beyond it but another series of days all more or less the same. If we are Christians, if we have received the gifts of the Spirit and are strengthened by the sacraments then we owe these, our neighbours, the fruits of gentleness so that the light of Wisdom becomes the feature of every small day bringing with it at least the hope that maybe the days aren’t so small after all.

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