“At home, the kitchen was warm with the smell of fresh-baked bread. The room sparkled with cleanliness. The table now had on a snowy tablecloth. Mama set two braided loaves at Papa’s place. The children stood around the table watching her. A lovely feeling of peace and contentment seemed to flow from Mama to them.”1
Why is this little excerpt so pleasant for us to read? We can almost smell the bread from the oven; the crisp cleanliness of the tablecloth, the warmth of the family setting, build a harmony which seems to welcome us into the room alongside the children, waiting for Papa to receive the bread. The author speaks of a “feeling of peace and contentment,” but the scene offers more than that: we are watching also, silently, even solemnly, because there is an atmosphere of ritual to the scene, as though Papa were most certainly going to fulfill his role now—of blessing the bread? of breaking the loaf open with his hands so the steam rolls up from the soft, airy center? of handing a piece to each member of the family in order? Certainly he would hand them in order; how could it be otherwise? With the word order we are closer to the secret beauty of the passage. Peace is “the tranquility of order,” and contentment is the awareness that nothing is lacking, all is as it should be, in perfect order and measure.
There is another element penetrating the scene: the element of respect… dare we say, for the “sacred”? Each member of the family is stepping into a role laid out by a tradition; were any one of them to speak out of turn, take the role of another, act with precipitation, set something untidy or unworthy on the table, it would be a jarring violation of how things should be; it would be suddenly breaking the atmosphere and chasing away the peace and contentment at the same time.
How can we apply the word “sacred” to a passage which nowhere mentions God or religion? There is an echo of religious solemnity in the family scene, and perhaps the family is waiting for the father to say a blessing; yet it represents a family gathering, not a religious ceremony.
In the following passage the same element of respect is present, with no religious aspect:
“Ebenezer, the clock-maker, reached in the great pocket of his apron and took from it a small, beautifully formed hammer, the wooden handle as smooth as satin from usage, and the steel hand gleaming like silver. He held it for a moment as if he loved it. ‘This was given me by my master, Bogardus, the clock-maker of New York,’ he told the boys. ‘True hammering is a great qualification in our trade and it happens that, after a long time, the skill of our hands is transferred to the tools with which we work. A good man makes a good tool, and this hammer is one of the best of its kind.’ He held it out to Macock Ward. ‘Take this hammer, lad, and work beside Abel at the anvil.’ ”2
We can imagine the care with which the young apprentice received his master’s hammer—and with which a young Ebenezer surely received it from Bogardus of New York. This passage represents to us quite literally a tradition; the handing down of a tool made an object of respect and even love by its long participation in the artistry of the clock-maker. The hammer has become “sacred” to Ebenezer, and now to Macock, not only because of the giver, but because of the skill of human hands which it has absorbed over the generations. The very material of which it is made has slowly come to reflect the artistry in the hands and in the mind of the artist. Its acquired aptness to participate in the artist’s designs has given it some participation in the respect due to the art itself—an art which is first and primarily in the mind and will, before it passes to the hands. So the little hammer is raised above others in the eyes of Ebenezer and his apprentice, for having taken on so much of the soul of the masters before them.
Something analogous gives sacredness to the family scene. Alone, the bread, the clean tablecloth, the relative positions of the family members around the table, are not enough to explain the respect; it is something of the soul, the love of something non-material, which orders the material elements and is respected through them: the honor of the forefathers; the care of the mother; her deference in placing the loaves before the father; the docility of the children… These qualities of the soul hover over the scene and fill the air like the church bells in the following passage:
“All around them rang the soft chorus of cowbells as the herds made their way down from the various pastures. The river roared louder as they came close to it. From the valleys below echoed the Angelus bells of distant churches.”3
Our soul is natural, as the pastures and the valleys and the river are natural; meals are natural, as the working of the land, the herding of the cows, the fashioning of clocks are natural. The human soul gives life to the human body and allows us to think and choose—it makes us “spiritual beings.”
Yet, like the Angelus bells, the soul is an echo of God’s presence. The soul is natural, but it is naturally infinite in its object and desire. The natural longing of the soul is for the absolute, the immeasurable, the never-ending. For this reason the soul may be raised to the level of God’s life and make us live supernaturally. This infinity makes the soul a “capacity for God,” capax Dei. Nothing purely material can ever satisfy our mind or our will, and by its openness onto the infinite, its natural desire for God—like that of the angels—the soul may be itself called “sacred,” of a sacredness derived from God. The spiritual element in the passages above—the element “touched by the soul”—family meal, fatherhood, motherhood, skill of the artist—bestows an atmosphere of sacredness, and so inspires a respect which is indeed an echo of the respect we owe to God. As the Angelus bells echo over the pastoral scene above and remind us of the Christian civilization which gives order and meaning to the life of the peasants, so the qualities of the soul are meant to harmonize and elevate and give a touch of sacredness to all of our activities.
As the echo of the Angelus bell reaches unequally through the valleys and over the rush of the river, so the sacredness of the human soul, the echo of God, touches unequally our daily lives. The human activities described above are unequally “sacred” in this natural sense, depending on how close they are to the source of sacredness, God Himself. In the passage below, we see the natural sacredness of fidelity to duty and homeland coincide with the supernatural sacredness of fidelity to God:
“And then it came to him, young as he was, that he was part of the glorious company of Polish men that was fighting for all Christendom against brutal and savage invaders. He had not seen much of death before that minute. And now, he himself was perhaps going to meet it, because of his oath, because of his love for the Church, because of his love for Poland.
“I shall keep my word, he mused. If I die it shall be for that. My word is as good as my life.
“Had a painter caught his expression then, he would have caught only the expression of a very great peace—an expression that signified somehow that God was very close.”4
The peace of the young trumpeter brings us back to the peace of the family scene, sacred by its fidelity to tradition and by the beautiful harmony and warmth of the family affections, shining through the solemnity. Somehow, God is very close—close also to the young apprentice, receiving the precious hammer from the hands of his new master and preparing to make his own mind and hands docile to the laws of his art, for the creation of perfect and beautiful time-keepers. God is very close also, blessing the details of the lives of the peasants by the sound of the bells, reaching to the ends of the valleys.
He is very close, but in different ways, penetrating every level of human activity as far as the soul penetrates. No aspect of creation is entirely foreign to this sacred touch of God, as no part of the human body escapes the penetration of the soul.
These passages reflect the reality of our incarnate soul, and the respect and sense of the sacred which they evoke are not the stuff of fiction. But how often in our daily existence do we allow ourselves to see the penetration of the sacred—from meals to duty to friendship? Yet, without that echoing of the Angelus bells, louder or lower, throughout our life, how many of our material activities are we leaving inanimate? How much of our life is relegated to the vulgarity and selfishness of the purely physical? It is quite normal that there be a vast terrain of human life untouched by any notion of the sacred soul in a society which refuses God our Father, the Source of the sacred. And for us, Catholics, how much of our activity do we respect as penetrated by the soul, between our animal emotions and our daily rosary?
The education of the whole man is a gradual and constant strengthening of every human power, to render all human activity docile to the command of the mind and will, in the light of eternal Truth. As St. Thomas says, the educator participates to a certain degree in the sacred Fatherhood of God, bringing the child to the perfection of his activity as a human being.5 The fatherhood of the educator will consist in fostering the echo of the sacred in every aspect of the child’s life, opening his mind and heart to the infinite beauty scattered throughout creation and calling to the infinite of his own young soul. As he helps the child perform those actions of body, mind and will which form lasting qualities of self-possession, he is slowly reducing that vast terrain of fallen human existence and cultivating it with the sacredness of the soul—so that, one day, when the Absolute Source of all sacredness calls to the child in the depths of his infinite soul, he will recognize the voice and know the respect and the affection to offer to his Father.
1 Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family.
2 Carolyn S. Bailey, Children of the Handcrafts.
3 Eva-Lis Wuorio, The Land of Right Up and Down.
4 Eric Kelly, The Trumpeter of Krakow.
5 “Just as a father according to the flesh participates, in a particular manner, in the character of a principle possessed by God in a universal manner; so also a person who in any way takes care of us [exercises providence], in a certain way participates in fatherhood, since the father is the principle of generation, of education, of learning and of all that pertains to the perfection of human life,” Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 102, Art. 1.