The Catholic Thing
The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Thirteen Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 17 January 2013

Before I leave Father Abraham, I’d like to dwell upon what anyone familiar with heroic literature would consider the oddest feature of his story. Who is Abraham?

Who is Abraham not?

  • He’s not Romulus, legendary founder of a city, murderer of his twin brother, and abductor of the Sabine women. 
  • He’s not Odysseus the man of many wiles, sacking the first available port city on his way home from Troy, slaying the men and taking the women as prizes.
  • He’s not Achilles, nursing his wounded pride in his tent, and spitefully praying that the enemy would mow down his fellow Greeks. 
  • He is not Daedalus the inventor, or Archimedes, boasting that with the right point and a lever long enough, he could move the earth. 
  • He is not the sage Solon, traveling as a renowned tourist from Persia to Egypt.
  • He is not Socrates. 
  • He is not the Norse king Olav Tryggveson, around whose exploits the sagas paint a corona of half-pagan glory.  His only battle is to rescue his nephew. Otherwise, his typical behavior towards kings and their retinue is to avoid them.

Aside from his great faith, Abraham is exceptional for being unexceptional. There are hundreds of men in Greek and Roman history, massive egotists with a flair for getting big things done, who cut a more “interesting” figure: Pisistratus the benevolent tyrant, Themistocles the naval hero and traitor of Athens, Camillus the ruthless savior of republican Rome, Cicero who wrote truly awful poetry in praise of his favorite topic, himself. 

Abraham is like none of them. In this regard, too, he stands as “the Father of Many.”

Consider the men in early Hebrew history who most resemble the war-heroes of other cultures: the Judges. They are, by comparison with a legendary Theseus or an all-too-real Julius Caesar, a ragtag lot. 

Gideon is at first a Baal-worshipper, who dares to put God to the test, and who wins his most important battle only after God made him send almost all his army home. Samson has a keen taste for bad women. Jephthah seems never to have understood that the Lord is not a pagan god. Barak didn’t want to fight unless Deborah went with him, and though he won the battle, the enemy king Sisera was slain when a Hebrew woman, knocked a nail into his head while he slept.

          Mustard seeds

The theme runs through all of Scripture: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” (Ps. 146:3)  “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.” (Is. 40:15) “Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans.” (Is. 47:1) “God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Cor. 1:27) 

The Temple itself, when the people have turned their hearts from God, is not spared the fate of human works admired for their (and our) greatness. So Jeremiah warns of its destruction: “Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” (Jer. 7:4)  And Jesus, when his disciples want to enjoy the sights of Jerusalem, says, “Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” (Mk. 13:2)

But the weak things of the world, the unregarded – those are the ones the Lord most uses. For when we know we are weak and sinful, then we may be most open to the might of God. The Pharisee who enjoyed his moral greatness did not leave the synagogue justified; but the publican who said, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” did. (Lk. 18:13) “When I am weak, then am I strong,” says Saint Paul, glorying in his infirmities, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). “Be clothed with humility,” says the saint who denied Christ three times, “for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (2 Pt. 5:6)

Yet we shouldn’t consider this choice of the weak to be a divine caprice. It manifests a law of being that power-worshippers miss. Call it the Law of the Great Infinitesimal. So Gustave Thibon observes: “Any order that transcends another can insert itself into that other only under a form that is infinitely small.” (emphasis mine) 

Consider the first rational thought in the history of the universe. It is something, it is nothing; it is known but not seen; it passes in the twinkle of an eye, and yet it is a more momentous thing, infinitely greater, than all the galaxies. 

So also the action of grace. One genuine movement of the heart toward God – that is a new thing in the world, invisibly small, and of greater import than all of the tedious greatness of history. 

True divinity, Chesterton said, lies not so much in comprehending the biggest things, but rather in being comprehended by the smallest things. Recall the still small voice that Elijah heard. Recall the mustard seed. Think of the babe in the manger, or the womb of Mary, when she said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

Now I do not intend to set limits to God’s actions. He works mighty deeds. Jesus told the disciples of John to report to their master that “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up.” (Mt. 11:5) Mighty deeds, no doubt! But Jesus saves the “smallest” for last: “The poor have the gospel preached to them.”

Abraham was, we may say, small enough to be filled with infinity. The world does not understand that lesson, and never will.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Augustine, January 17, 2013
Sublime! Thank you!
written by Stanley Anderson, January 17, 2013
You wrote, "Jesus saves the 'smallest' for last: 'The poor have the gospel preached to them.'"

It reminds me of something I have written elsewhere:

The parable of the sower and the seeds uses the phrase “good ground” to describe the place where the seed grows plentifully. But from a worldly point of view, this “good ground” would almost certainly be classified as “poor.” All the other types of ground in the parable have “things” in and around them, from pathways creating convenient access for the world to come stealing, to root-drying stones and choking thorns. These worldly “riches” and “concerns” inhibit the growth of the seed, but it is precisely the “good soil” that has none of these “worldly” things around to be distracted by or choked out – it is “poor” by worldly standards.

You also wrote, "Abraham was, we may say, small enough to be filled with infinity." It suddenly strikes me, in connection with your title for this series, that a key that fits a lock is also generally a very small thing in comparison to the treasure that the lock is presumably protecting.
written by beriggs, January 17, 2013
What connections there are in all of this to our Sacramental system, where water, oil, bread and wine can bring us grace, forgiveness and the very presence of Jesus. The pattern of God acting in the "smallest" prefigures his inhabiting the most common of material things. As the weak and poor may carry out God's plan, so does the "finite carry the infinite" in the Sacraments.
written by debby, January 17, 2013
i know i have posted this before: this is MY FAVORITE SERIES ever posted at TCT.
i printed all the articles and mailed them to an 88 year old aunt. (protestant.) after she read them we had a lovely conversation circling around TOB and this series. her comment:
"debby, i am so humbled that you would take the time to be interested in me as a woman, giving me food for hours of thought, things i have never considered but make such perfect sense. it is as if i understand what i had thought to be unknowable.and i have never felt so loved and loveable before....."
thank you, Professor. you have used well the talents deposited into your nature, and in doing so, have given much to the Body of Christ. an old woman will die with the knowledge of being truly loved by Love and a middle-aged woman will keep going, encouraged!
my favorite line is the same as Mr. Anderson has quoted:
"Abraham was, we may say, small enough to be filled with infinity." small enough to be FILLED WITH INFINITY.
(Mr. Anderson's comments are most worthy of pondering as well.- thank you kind sir.)
Many continued blessings upon your humble efforts.
written by Stanley Anderson, January 17, 2013
I had meant in my post above to also comment on this line from Mr. Esolen's column: "Jesus told the disciples of John to report to their master that “the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up.”

This is perhaps a bit off topic, but I was always fascinated by the "physical enactment," if you will, of the verse, "Then Jesus answering said unto them, Go your way, and tell John what things ye have seen and heard; how that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, to the poor the gospel is preached."

What I mean is that the things Jesus tells them to say to John are the very things he, in effect, has them "do." So for instance, "Go your way" means they need to physically walk to John -- as the lame in Jesus' message do, "tell John" means that that they are preaching the Gospel as the poor receive, and that upon hearing the news John's spirit will be "raised" as the dead are, "what things ye have seen and heard" means that they see and hear as the deaf and blind do in Jesus' message.

Admittedly, "the lepers are cleansed" doesn't have a clear "counterpart" in their actions, though the whole "Go your way and tell John..." is very reminiscent of what the 10 lepers were supposed to do after being healed.

I like to think of Jesus' instructions to them as being very "sacramental" in that he had them "do" in physical act the very things that he wanted conveyed to John in words.

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