There lives the dearest freshness deep down things – Gerard Manley Hopkins, God’s Grandeur
We are always “in the middle” of our lives, even at the beginning and ending of our days. See this little baby girl, where is she at? Why, right in the middle of her life! See this old man, now in his waning years? Nowhere else is he but the middle of his life! We are invariably always in the middle of something, beginning, middle, or end. Here we are and ever will be, it seems, in media res.
But precisely because we are always square in the middle of something, it is hard for precisely this reason to ever truly begin to do something, especially if that something is new. Last time I spoke with you, I held forth about finding yourself in the middle of a culture that is dead. What should we do? Start brewing! But how does one start right in the middle, how does one take the sage (but lesser known) advice of Aristotle which he repeats so often in the Nicomachean Ethics, “let us begin again?”
The answer is frighteningly simple, and for this reason immeasurably frustrating: we must begin with the smallest thing. If only every beginning was momentous! If only every start began with the herald of trumpets and the adulation of friends! But the beginnings that stick are never so, which is why true change always sneaks up on mankind. In the middle of the noise and distraction of the tumult of things, here a new something appears, seemingly out of nowhere! But upon inspection, we see how very long and broad the roots grew unknown and long established. People can step over the tributary headwaters of a great river and will never notice. Often something strikes us as “new” only when it is deep enough for us to fall in.
Indeed, many people are absorbed with the bigness of their ideas, wrapped in the grand logic of their plan. I know this feeling all too well—forever afloat in the imagined goal, never one to dirty my feet with the soil of the necessary road needing trod. The end, how lacking it is in the rocks-in-shoes reality of the pilgrim path! The destination, how bereft of chaffed thighs and sunburned back-ear lobes the weary traveler must endure! If life were but great leaps we could all take, striding about mountain peaks as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra advises us to do—how enjoyable the petty (and callous) advice, “life is about the journey,” would actually be.
But you and I know St. Paul is no fool, and we do, as he says, “the very thing we do not wish to do.” In the middle of my life, I do not find myself walking down the mountain like Zarathustra, but parking my weary legs next to the likes of Dante, lost in a dark wood. I walk among the trees of multiple starts and stops, of failed New Year’s resolutions, lost Lenten plans and inconsistent interventions, and I find that I have seen this tree and that oh so many times. I am lost, right in the middle of my life. How do we once more begin again?
But lest we lose hope, I point you to the beginning of this essay, to the humble poem of Fr. Hopkins. Precisely in the worn-down world that we cannot even feel anymore, there is always a fresh beginning. There is always a seed deep down waiting to bloom. Are we satisfied with doing that one small thing?
Are we willing to let it grow in its underground tomb, unseen by the world, only to spring forth at some much later date? Will we allow the water to nourish it unannounced, let the worms dig around it, let the storm winds blow over it, growing in its humble womb?
In other words, are we willing to get serious about this change? Seriousness is too often relegated to the unmeasurable and unobservable intent of an agent, a status of the heart that no one save God would have any capacity to see. But I would contend we all know, intuitively at least, who does and does not take something seriously. The serious person attends precisely to the small parts of the matter at hand.
Though the matter be huge (a game, a movement, a soul), no detail is too small for them. They will run the play in practice for months on end. They will set up chairs for the meeting. They will have a tissue for the lost soul to blow his or her nose. They are serious.
When people point out how lost everything seems to be, when it seems like we are all in the middle of something large and inescapable, they ask: why does this little thing matter? An example from my line of work: if great hordes of Catholics do not love, let alone live, let alone know the simplest aspects of their Faith, why worry about the small things”? Say, something as small as communion on the tongue? Why care about the furniture when the house is on fire?
My only advice: we must begin again. Right where we are. Right in the middle of wherever it is you stand. If the problem is the loss of God in our lives, what better way to show that we are serious about our Faith, and that it is worthwhile to be serious about our Faith, than to show this one small thing: I am fed grace?
What the world needs is serious Christians, but you do not show your seriousness by a furrowed eyebrow, or a lack of humor, or the inability to take yourself lightly. Indeed, you do the exact opposite of these, and attend to the smallest of things, and begin right in the middle.