14 Jan If We Listen, They Will Speak
In this modern world, so many images and so much information bombard us, especially though not exclusively, through the media. Regardless of content, the very quantity and the speed at which they come at us almost force us to take them in superficially. Thus they tend to scatter and distract us and make us restless.
How different it is to take something in slowly and deeply—something simple and real. Such simple, ordinary things have a surprising power and depth. If we take the time to really look at them, listen to them, and prayerfully enter into them, they will gently lead us into their depths. And God is in the depths.
We stand in a double and contrary relationship to objects outside ourselves. We stand to the world and all its contents as when God brought the animals to the first man for him to name.
Among them all, Adam could find no companion. Between man and the rest of creation there is a barrier of difference, which neither scientific knowledge nor moral depravity can remove or efface. Man is of another make from every other earthly creature. To him they are foreign. His kinship is with God.
On the other hand, he is related to everything that exists in the world. Everywhere we feel somehow at home. The shapes, attitudes, movements of objects all speak to us. All are a means of communication.
It is the incessant occupation of the human soul to express through them its own interior life, and to make them serve as its signs and symbols.
Every notable form we come across strikes us as expressing something in our own nature, and reminds us of ourselves.
This feeling of our connection with things is the source of metaphor and simile. We are profoundly estranged from, yet mysteriously connected with, outside objects. They are not us, and yet all that is or happens is an image of ourselves.
One of these image-objects strikes me, and I think most people, as having more than ordinary force and beauty. It is that of a lighted candle.
There it rises, firmly fixed in the metal cup of the broad-based, long-shafted candlestick, spare and white, yet not wan, distinct against whatever background, consuming in the little flame that flickers above it, the pure substance of the wax in the softly-shining light.
It seems a symbol of selfless generosity. It stands so unwavering in its place, so erect, so clear and disinterested, in perfect readiness to be of service.
It stands where it is well to stand, before God. It stands in its appointed place, self-consumed in light and warmth.
Yes, of course, the candle is unconscious of what it does. It has no soul. But we can give it a soul by making it an expression of our own attitude.
Stir up in yourself the same generous readiness to be used. “Lord, here I am.”
Let the clean, spare, serviceable candle bespeak your own attitude. Let your readiness grow into steadfast loyalty. Even as this candle, O Lord, would I stand in your presence.
Do not weaken or try to evade your vocation. Persevere. Do not keep asking why and to what purpose. To be consumed in truth and love, in light and warmth, for God, is the profoundest purpose of human life.
The more we think about these long-familiar things, the clearer does their meaning grow. Things we have done thousands of times, if we will only look into them more deeply, will disclose to us their beauty. If we will listen, they will speak.
After their meaning has been revealed to us, the next step is to enter upon our inheritance and make what we have long possessed really our own. We must learn how to see, how to hear, how to do things the right way.
Such a learning-by-looking, growing-by-learning, is what matters. Regarded any other way, these things keep their secret. They remain dark and mute. Regarded thus, they yield to us their essential nature, that nature which formed them to their outward shapes.
Make trial for yourself. The most commonplace everyday objects and actions hide matters of deepest import. Under the simplest exteriors lie the greatest mysteries.
Steps are an example. Every one of the innumerable times we go upstairs a change, though too slight and subtle to be perceptible, takes place in us.
There is something mysterious in the act of ascending. Our intelligence would be puzzled to explain it, but instinctively we feel that it is so. We are made that way.
When the feet mount the steps, the whole person, including his or her spiritual substance, goes up with them.
All ascension, all going up, if we will but give it a thought, is motion in the direction of that high place where everything is great, everything made perfect.
For this sense we have that heaven is “up” rather than “down,” we depend on something in us deeper than our reasoning powers.
How can God be up or down? The only approach to God is by becoming better morally, and what has spiritual improvement to do with a material action like going up a flight of stairs? What has pure being to do with a rise in the position of our bodies?
There is no explanation, yet the natural figure of speech for what is morally bad is baseness, and a good and noble action we call a high action. In our minds, we made a connection, unintelligible but real, between rising up and the spiritual approach to God; to him we call “the All-Highest.”
So the steps that lead from the street to the church remind us that in going up into the house of prayer we are coming nearer to God; the steps from the nave to the choir, that we are entering in before the All-Holy. The steps up to the altar say to whoever ascends them the same words that God spoke to Moses on Mount Horeb:
Take off your shoes, for the place where you stand is holy (Exodus 3:5). The altar is the threshold of eternity.
It is a great idea that if we go up even a common stairway with our minds on what we are doing, we really do leave below the base and trivial and are in actual fact ascending up on high.
Words are not very adequate, but the Christian knows that when he ascends, it is the Lord who ascends. In him, the Lord repeats his own ascension.
This is what steps mean.
Space enclosed within the walls of a church reminds us of God. It has been made over to him as his own possession and is filled with his presence. Walled round, vaulted over, shut off from the world, it is turned inward toward the God who hides himself in mystery.
But what of space unenclosed, that vast expanse that stretches over the level earth on all sides, boundless, high above the highest hills, filling the deepest valleys which those hills encircle? Has it no connection with things holy?
It has indeed, and the symbol of this connection is the steeple with its bells.
The steeple is an integral part of God’s house and rises out of it into the free air and takes possession of all wide space in God’s name.
And the heavy bronze bells in the belfry tower, so beautifully moulded, swing about their shaft and send out peal upon peal in waves of good loud sound.
High and quick or full-toned and measured or roaring deep and slow, they pour out a flood of sound that fills the air with news of the Kingdom.
News from afar, news of the infinitely limitless God, news of man’s bottomless desire and of its inexhaustible fulfilment.
The bells are a summons to those “men of desire” whose hearts are open to far-off things.
The sound of the bells stirs in us the feeling of distance.
When they clang out from a steeple rising above a wide plain and their sound is carried to every point of the compass, and on and on to the hazy blue horizon, our wishes follow them as long as they are audible, until it comes home to us that there is no satisfaction of desire in far distant hopes or indeed in anything outside ourselves.
Or when the pealing of mountain church bells flood the valley with their clamour or send the sound straight up to the zenith, the listener, straining to follow, feels his heart expand beyond its usual narrow limits.
Or again, the bell tones in some green glimmering forest may reach us faintly, as from a great distance, too far off to tell from where, and old memories stir, and we strive to catch the sounds and to remember what it is they remind us of.
At such moments we have a perception of the meaning of space. We feel the pull of height and stretch our wings and try to respond to infinitude.
The bells remind us of the world’s immensity and man’s still more immeasurable desires, and that only in the infinite God can we find our peace.
O Lord, this my soul is wider than the world, its longing from depths deeper than any valley, the pain of desire is more troubling that the faint lost bell notes. Only You can fill so vast an emptiness.
Fr. Romano Guardini (1885-1968), an author, philosopher, and liturgist, was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the twentieth century.
From Sacred Signs (1956), Pio Decimo Press, pp. 33-35, 41-43, 89-91, out-of-print
It is now back in print. To order, google: Kwasniewski – sacred signs