The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Twelve

Professor Esolen makes clear today that we have far too much faith in numbers and have consequently lost much of the sense of what lies beyond numbers. But on the practical side, numbers can matter. And we have to make income and expenditures add up if we are to continue on, arguing for the things that count so much they can’t be counted. Our friend Debby DiLollo of New Jersey, a frequent commenter on this page, read that we were $7091 short at the end of the year and generously wrote a check for $91 to try to get us to another benchmark. If you too are moved to creative use of numbers in a good cause, please make your contribution to the work of The Catholic Thing. Checks and electronic offerings, for odd and even numbered amounts, in double, triple, and quadruple figures, and more complex combinations, all gratefully accepted – Robert Royal

“I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 22:17-18)

In The Wide World, My Parish, Yves Congar observes that the Bible is deeply ambivalent about man’s measuring his success in terms of numbers. Consider King David, who took it into his head to number his people. His captain Joab – loyal, clearheaded, ruthless, and frank – did not like the idea: “Why doth my lord the king delight in this thing?” (2 Sam. 24:3). But Joab obeyed nonetheless. Then the king’s heart “smote him after he had numbered the people,” and he begged God to take away his iniquity, “for I have done very foolishly.” (24:10)

The prophet Gad approached David and gave him a choice of numbers: seven years of famine, three months of flight before his enemies, or three days of pestilence. David, notably, does not choose any of them. He understands his error. So God sends the shortest of the punishments, and yet “there died of the people from Dan even to Beersheba seventy thousand men.” (24:15)

The Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to go seek the one lost. Everywhere outside the ambit of the covenants old and new, the one is not only left to die. The one is often sacrificed deliberately to secure, as by a bargain, the well being of the ninety-nine. That is the kernel of Shirley Jackson’s horrible pagan story, “The Lottery,” wherein the ordinary people of an American farming village each year choose, by lot, someone to stone to death, so that the corn will grow high.

What is evil is not just the ineffectual and superstitious means the villagers choose, but the whole utilitarian tyranny of numbers itself. A person, Congar says, “is a whole in himself, one cannot be substituted for another, he is the contrary of [Arthur] Koestler’s definition of the individual in a communist society: ‘A mass of one million people divided by a million.’” Each human being comprehends infinities. To value them according to their number is to reduce them to material: a cord of wood, a bushel of potatoes.

Thus when Jesus speaks of the good soil that yields thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold, or when in the Apocalypse the apostle sees 12,000 saints from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, they are speaking of things beyond number. They are both too many
to count, but also too great, too glorious to count.

            The Appearance of Christ to the Apostles by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1311

God’s blessings are the “good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over.” (Lk. 6:38) They are the “precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments.” (Ps. 133:2) They are the “river of the water of life” coming forth “out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.” (Rev. 22:1)

Saints are not elements in a collective. What happened when, according to legend, Saint Francis met Saint Dominic, and they embraced?  One saint plus another saint does not equal two saints. It is glory, and a shadow of the paradise to come.

So what does it mean when God says to Abraham, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven”?  Notice the crucial word, multiply. “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it,” said God to Adam and Eve, in blessing. (Gen. 1:28)  The multiplication of Abraham represents a creation within and beyond creation, a special fruitfulness within and beyond the ordinary fruitfulness of the earth.

The faithful Abraham stands as father of many. It isn’t just that the Hebrews will become numerous. An entirely new principle of life has been introduced into the world. “For God,” says Congar, “Abraham, alone in a world that was already populous, was already the people that would make up the company of believers. . . .a seed that was able to fertilize the field of the world.”

We are too used to the Scriptures, to there being sons of Abraham in the world. The prophecy has come true in abundance. Indeed, the descendants of Abraham have proved to be, in the flesh and in the spirit (for all Christians are spiritually Semites, as Pius XI said), as numerous as the stars in the heavens. And yet to say that is to say not nearly enough. For despite the sins that addle our brains and weigh down our flesh, as if there were no Good Shepherd but only wolves, it is an historical fact that, in Abraham, “shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3)

Abraham was a sinner, and he died as all men must. But “Abraham rejoiced to see my day,” says Jesus, “and he saw it, and was glad.” (Jn. 8:56)  We strive to have the faith of Abraham, but not faith in Abraham. We have faith in Christ, the first fruits of the resurrection, the Messiah, who unites all nations in the glory of the Lord.

Hence we should understand Jesus’ parting words to His apostles as a consummation of the blessing given to Abraham: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” (Mt. 28:20).

If the world would understand itself, it must turn to Him “who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) For He comprehends all in Himself, all the infinitudes of personal being, to which the stars in the heavens are less than a grain of sand on the shore, or a twinkle of the eye to eternity.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.