Years ago while living in Rome I made my first Jesuit retreat, a memorably intense affair, presided over by a priest so long in the tooth that I naturally assumed he knew St. Ignatius himself. It was there that I learned the practice of Composition of Place, an exercise central to Ignatian spirituality, in which one enters imaginatively into an event in the life of Christ in order not simply to think about it but actually to see and to savor the details that surround and suffuse the scene. The event I chose was a bit unusual but, encouraged by the Retreat Master to go ahead anyway, I tried to picture the very instant of Christ’s birth, the moment when, as the poet Hopkins unforgettably puts it, “God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy,” suddenly appears outside the blessed body of his Mother Mary.
What would it have been like had I actually been present there in Bethlehem that holy night, to see the Adorable Child no longer hidden away in the womb but emerging all at once into the world around us? Surely I’d have been as stunned as the poet Richard Crashaw, who, imagining the same scene, exclaims his wonderment in lines of the purest sublimity ever set down in verse:
Welcome, all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span;
Summer in winter; day in night;
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little one, whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heav’n to earth.
An amazing sight, no doubt; but forget about my having seen it for the moment. What of Jesus himself? How might he have experienced it? I mean, as a human being, as one of us? For that matter, go ahead and picture yourself being born. There you are, having just left the birth canal, about to be launched into life, poised to begin the human adventure. What would be the obvious sensation, the salient discovery to be made? The answer very simply is that it wasn’t you who loaded or launched the ship that thereupon left the harbor. It is not the creature’s prerogative to create.
Let’s face it, the defining feature of any creature, from angels to amoebas, is that one is always the recipient of a gift one could never oneself give. How does one go about conferring being upon oneself? Would one not first have to be in order then to bestow it? Now there’s an exercise in self-giving that even non-metaphysicians may find a bit daunting.
So there you are on the cusp of creation, the very beginning of your being in the world. What are you thinking? What impression would the sudden impact of that shattering event leave you with? It cannot be too difficult to imagine one’s reaction to the sudden splash of that moment. An entire life, it seems, could scarcely contain the astonishment inscribed in the memory of that moment.
If to live is so startling, as Emily Dickinson tells us, that it leaves but little room for any other occupation, then here is an event absolutely more startling than any that one could possibly imagine. Even if one were to climb the mountains of Tibet in a pair of sneakers, or cross Pike’s Peak on a pogo stick, nothing on earth could begin to compare with that first intoxicating instant when, outside the womb, life suddenly bursts into being.
How should one react to the experience of being born? By taking polite notice of the fact? After all, a blooming earthquake has just taken place, blindsiding you into a world you couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Nor have given permission to enter. Is there a slip one needs to sign in order to authorize existence? So there you are positively blown away by the event, struck dumb with a sense of surprise and amazement that are simply unrequitable. Like winning the lottery, only much better since you never had to buy a ticket to get in the game. And so properly stunned and surprised to find that you exist, wouldn’t a touch of thankfulness be in order? A dollop of gratitude anyone?
And why is that? Because here is something you’d never done a blessed thing to deserve. If God decides to breathe being into that emptiness you’ve just come out of, it is hardly an entitlement to which you can stake a claim. As if God needed your being in order to shore up his own. Existence is not among the many rights and privileges that define citizenship in a free society.
Sure, you have a right to be born once you’ve begun to be. Isn’t that the whole point of the movement to extend constitutional protection to unborn children? And if the state can sanction the killing of the most helpless of humans, then who among us is safe? But to move from nothingness to existence is a maneuver only God can manage. And it is that which ought to account for the sheer explosion of joy and gratitude, the wonderment felt in the face of the discovery you’ve just made. The realization that, good heavens, I exist, when you hadn’t done a thing, hadn’t lifted a finger to bring it about.
In his book on Heretics, Chesterton writes:
“Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall be gloriously surprised.” The man who expects nothing sees redder roses than common men can see, and greener grass, and a more startling sun. Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall possess the cities and the mountains; blessed is the meek, for he shall inherit the earth. Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are. Until we see the background of darkness we cannot admire the light as a single and created thing. As soon as we have seen that darkness, all light is lightening, sudden, blinding, and divine.
Here, it seems, is the acid test of all human happiness—the gratitude shown when given a gift that one simply hasn’t the capacity to give. To whom do we turn to thank for this birthday gift of being born if not to God? “Statistically speaking,” writes etymologist and poet Lewis Thomas, “the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.”
I remember being pretty dazzled myself when I first came across an assertion from St. Augustine, in which he insists that the birth of a child is an event even more miraculous than the raising of Lazarus from the dead. How can that be? I wondered. Because for Jesus to restore a dead man to a life once lived is a feat far less impressive than the sheer beginning of a life that had never been. Or put it this way, which is how the poet Sandburg once put it, that with the birth of a baby God is giving his opinion that life should go on.
It is good, therefore, to be. Indeed, it is always better to be than not to be. There can be no percentage in nothingness. (Unless, of course, you’re the late Dr. Kevorkian, for whom extinction is something to be prized, legislated even, so that killing people may be given constitutional protection.) To be, or not to be may be a famous line in Shakespeare, but unless you’re an actor reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy on stage, it really isn’t a speech that should end in a question. To be is an answer. A blinding affirmation, no less, that is a judgment of the mind and will concerning the fundamental and indestructible goodness of being, of finding oneself alive in the body of this most beautiful world. And until the time of the Renaissance when, as Chesterton tells us, “a few men, for the first time, began to disbelieve in Life,” it was almost universally understood that the only sane and civilized stance to take was on the side of being. “Never until modern thought began,” says Chesterton, did it become necessary “to fight with men who desired to die.”
What a profound and powerful thinker he was! One of the deepest thinkers who ever lived. “At the back of his brain,” someone once said, “there was a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at his own existence.” Only in his case it hadn’t been forgotten. Because, for Chesterton, the whole “object of his artistic and spiritual life was to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Such a lovely line that is! And isn’t that sunrise of wonder precisely the image we need to awaken nowadays in order to see ourselves for the blazing sacramental beings we are? By allowing ourselves that imaginative glimpse at the very dawn of our lives when, for the first time, we enter the theater of human existence and there we learn to speak the lines of a script given to us by God.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “The Adoration of the Shepherds” was painted by Matthias Stomer c. 1640-50.