From The School of Charity
Not long ago, I was standing in an artist’s studio before an altarpiece which she had just made. It represented the Nativity: or rather, the eternal incarnation of the Holy, self-given for the world. In the foreground one saw the Blessed Virgin, its ordained instrument, and Saint Joseph, watching by her bed. There was a patient grave simplicity about them both; reflected in the serious young angels, whose majestic scale suggested the greatness of that world of spirit from which they had been drawn. Below, the sheep were feeding very quietly too: innocent nature entirely at home among the mysteries of the supernatural order, one lamb turning from its mother to press more closely to the mother of the Lamb of God. And behind the Blessed Virgin, the focus of the mystery, the link as it were between two worlds, the child lay peacefully and helplessly on a small stone altar, as on a bed. The stillness of an eternal event brooded over the whole. I spoke to the artist of the beauty of this ancient conception; and she answered, Yes, laid on the altar straight away. I like that. There’s something so sturdy about it.
Our modern religion hardly makes enough of these element in the mystery of the divine revelation; in his pattern declared to humanity, or in the life of prayer. Yet sturdiness, shouldering the burden and accepting the tension inevitable to all great undertakings – getting to grips with the dread problems of life, and the cost of all redemptive action – comes nearer than any fervor to the mind of Christ, and the demands of charity. It is comparatively easy for devout minds to feel moved, contrite, exalted, adoring; much more difficult to discount all feeling, and be sturdy about it. Christ was trained in a carpenter’s shop; and we persist in preferring a confectioner’s shop. But the energy of rescue, the outpouring of sacrificial love, which the supernatural life demands, is not to be got from a diet of devotional meringues and eclairs. The whole life made an oblation from the first – placed on the altar, and lived right through as a reasonable sacrifice from beginning to end – this is the pattern put before us. Only thus can humanity use to the full its strange power of embodying eternal realities; and uniting the extremes of mystery and homeliness.