Reed of God
Fanny Price, the heroine in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, makes a striking comment one evening while waiting for a carriage. She says the time between dinner and the carriage passed in a “quick succession of busy nothings.” Even though Fanny was only remarking on the passing of a few short hours, I think the line illustrates perfectly how easily life can become dull and boring. We wake up, go to work, eat, watch TV, surf the net, and go back to sleep—only to do the same thing the very next day. We become bored and complacent and stuck in ruts. Then we have mid-life crises and buy bigger houses or sports cars just to feel alive because we’re terrified that life really is nothing more than an endless succession of busy nothings.
Then you pick up the small, unassuming book by Caryll Houselander called The Reed of God. This outstanding spiritual-yet-sensible writer and mystic sets the record straight for those of us in the doldrums. In her 120-page work, she quickly establishes the fact that God is present in inanity and there is nothing that can bring you to Him faster than changing a dirty diaper or mowing the lawn. Whatever your state in life, doing the best you possibly can in the present moment is the surest way to holiness and sanctity.
She proposes the Blessed Mother as an exemplar for us: she who understood perfectly what it meant to be a reed in the hand of God, to maintain a purposeful emptiness that “receives the piper’s breath [and utters] the song that is in his heart.” Each of our lives is a song conceived by the Divine Piper, unique and full of beauty, and Houselander draws us to preserve that purposeful emptiness within us for the Master’s breath and life. In Reed of God, we see clearly that, in the Blessed Mother, we have the perfect example of what it means to create space in one’s soul for the Lord.
All the canonized saints had special vocations, and special gifts for their fulfillment: presumption for me to think of imitating St. Catherine or St. Paul … if I have not their unique character and intellect—which indeed I have not. Each saint has his special work: one person’s work. But Our Lady had to include in her vocation, in her life’s work, the essential thing that was to be hidden in every other vocation, in every life. She is not only human; she is humanity. The one thing she did and does is the one thing that we all have to do, namely, to bear Christ into the world.
Not much is said in scripture about Mary’s inner thoughts, feelings, character, and personality. In fact, not much is said about her period. But we do know that she bore Christ into the world, both literally and figuratively, and did so while living a small, unknown, and quiet existence in Nazareth. Yet it is the silence and smallness of Mary’s life that speaks volumes.
It certainly seemed that God wanted to give the world the impression that it is ordinary for Him to be born of a human creature. Well, that is a fact. God did mean it to be the ordinary thing, for it is His will that Christ shall be born in every human being’s life and not, as a rule, through extraordinary things, but through the ordinary daily life and the human love that people give to one another. Our Lady said yes. She said yes for us all.
This is one of the gentle yet hard-hitting realities of Houselander’s book. The ordinary is extraordinary because of God’s Will for humanity, but also in some small but not insignificant way because of Our Lady and her Fiat. Because of Mary’s yes, we can say yes to Christ as well.
I could go on and on. I would love to quote the entire book because it is just that beautiful. But perhaps you should read it for yourself. The ordinariness of your days will be transformed. No longer will the daily drudge be drudge: the contemplation of humanity inextricably entwined with divinity will transform every dish and every diaper into purposeful mission. I can’t say you will have heavenly visions or inner locutions every time you change a diaper, but reading this book will help you understand a little bit more that the business of life—your hands that are kneading bread or your mind that is solving problems here and now—is bringing Christ to the world in a special and unique way. Your way. And not only that, but in experiencing the world around us fully, Christ is drawing us to himself and his glory more and more each day. I hear echoes of St. Irenaeus: the glory of God, really and truly, is man fully alive.
St. Thomas says that the Being of God is the cause of the beauty of all that is. The Being of God, then, presses upon man. It is his environment. It sings to him in the winds. When he touches grass or water, he touches it with his fingers; he smells it in fields of hay and clover and in newly cut wood; he listens to it in the falling of the rain and the murmur of the sea. He tastes it in the food that the eats; he sees it in the flowers beneath his feet; he is clothed in it in silk and wool. Its measured beat in his own blood rocks him to sleep with the coming of darkness and wakens him with the light. He receives it in the sunlight like a sacrament that gives life. … Even in ignorance, man tends to fall in love with God. He responds to life as he sees it round him with gratitude that becomes love and love that takes shape. For being made in God’s image and likeness, man too must look upon the secret of his heart, made visible by the work of his hands.