and Daily Life
Taken from THE MARY BOOK
SHEED and WARD, 1950
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur
THAT VIRGINAL QUALITY which, for
want of a better word, I call emptiness, is the beginning of this
It is not a formless emptiness, a void without meaning; on the contrary
it has a shape, a form given to it by the purpose for which it was
It is emptiness like the hollow in the reed, the narrow riftless
emptiness which can have only one destiny: to receive the piper's
breath and to utter the song that is in his heart.
It is emptiness like the hollow in the cup, shaped to receive water or
It is emptiness like that of the bird's nest, built in a round warm
ring to receive the little bird.
The pre-Advent emptiness of Our Lady's purposeful virginity was indeed
like those three things.
She was a reed through which the Eternal Love was to be piped as a
She was the flowerlike chalice into which the purest water of humanity
was to be poured, mingled with wine, changed to the crimson blood of
love, and lifted up in sacrifice.
She was the warm nest rounded to the shape of humanity to receive the
Divine Little Bird.
Emptiness is a very common complaint in our days, not the purposeful
emptiness of the virginal heart and mind but a void, meaningless,
Strangely enough, those who complain the loudest of the emptiness of
their lives are usually people whose lives are overcrowded, filled with
trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for
passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears; and these sometimes
further overlaid with exhausting pleasures which are an attempt, and
always a futile attempt, to forget how pointless such people's lives
are. Those who complain in these circumstances of the emptiness of
their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in
their lives. They dread space, for they want material things crowded
together, so that there will always be something to lean on for
support. They dread silence, because they do not want to hear their own
pulses beating out the seconds of their life, and to know that each
beat is another knock on the door of death. Death seems to them to be
only the final void, the darkest, loneliest emptiness.
They have no sense of being related to any abiding beauty, to any
indestructible life: they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated
Such emptiness is very different from that still, shadowless ring of
light round which our being is circled, making a shape which in itself
is an absolute promise of fulfillment.
The question which most people will ask is: "Can someone whose life is
already cluttered up with trivial things get back to this virginal
Of course he can; if a bird's nest has been filled with broken glass
and rubbish, it can be emptied.
It is not only trivialities which destroy this virgin-mindedness; very
often, serious people with a conscious purpose in life destroy it by
being too set on this purpose. The core of emptiness is not filled by
trifles but by a hard block, tightly wedged in. They have a plan, for
example, for reconstructing Europe, for reforming education, for
converting the world; and this plan, this enthusiasm, has become so
important in their minds that there is neither room to receive God nor
silence to hear His voice, even though He comes as light and little as
a Communion wafer and speaks as soft as a zephyr of wind tapping on the
window with a flower.
Zealots and triflers and all besides who have crowded the emptiness out
of their minds and the silence out of their souls can restore it. At
least, they can allow God to restore it and ask Him to do so.
The whole process of contemplation through imitation of Our Lady can be
gone through, in the first place, with just that simple purpose of
regaining the virgin-mind, and as we go on in the attempt we shall find
that over and over again there is a new emptying process; it is a thing
which has to be done in contemplation as often as the earth has to be
sifted and the field ploughed for seed.
At the beginning it will be necessary for each individual to discard
deliberately all the trifling unnecessary things in his life, all the
hard blocks and congestions; not necessarily to discard all his
interests for ever, but at least once to stop still, and having prayed
for courage, to visualize himself without all the extras, escapes, and
interests other than Love in his life: to see ourselves as if we had
just come from God's hand and had gathered nothing to ourselves yet, to
discover just what shape is the virginal emptiness of our own being,
and of what material we are made.
We need to be reminded that every second of our survival does really
mean that we are new from God's fingers, so that it requires no more
than the miracle which we never notice to restore to us our
virgin-heart at any moment we like to choose.
Our own effort will consist in sifting and sorting out everything that
is not essential and that fills up space and silence in us and in
discovering what sort of shape this emptiness in us is. From this we
shall learn what sort of purpose God has for us. In what way are we to
fulfill the work of giving Christ life in us?
Are we reed pipes? Is He waiting to live lyrically through us?
Are we chalices? Does He ask to be sacrificed in us?
Are we nests? Does He desire of us a warm, sweet abiding in domestic
life at home?
These are only some of the possible forms of virginity; each person may
find some quite different form, his own secret.
I mention those three because they are all fulfilled in Our Lady, so
visibly that we may be sure that we can look at them in her and learn
what she reveals through them.
It is the purpose for which something is made that decides the material
which is used.
The chalice is made of pure gold because it must contain the Blood of
The bird's nest is made of scraps of soft down, leaves and feathers and
twigs, because it must be a strong warm home for the young birds.
When human creatures make things, their instinct is to use not only the
material that is most suitable from the point of view of utility but
also the material most fitting to express the conception of the object
they have in mind.
It is possible to make a candle with very little wax and a lot of fat,
but a candle made from pure wax is more useful and more fitting; the
Church insists that the candles on the Altar be made of pure wax, the
wax of the soft, dark bees. It is a beautiful, natural material; it
reminds us of the days of warm sun, the droning of the bees, the summer
in flower. The tender ivory color has its own unique beauty and a kind
of affinity with the whiteness of linen and of unleavened bread. In
every way it is fitting material to bear a light, and by light it is
made yet more lovely.
The purpose for which human beings are made is told to us briefly in
the catechism. It is to know, love, and serve God in this world and to
be happy with Him for ever in the next.
This knowing, loving, and serving is far more intimate than that rather
cold little sentence reveals to us.
The material which God has found apt for it is human nature: blood,
flesh, bone, salt, water, will, intellect.
It is impossible to say too often or too strongly that human nature,
body and soul together, is the material for God's will in us.
There are many people in the world who cultivate a curious state which
they call "the spiritual life." They often complain that they have very
little time to devote to the "spiritual life." The only time that they
do not regard as wasted is the time they can devote to pious exercises:
praying, reading meditations, and visiting the church.
All the time spent in earning a living, cleaning the home, caring for
the children, making and mending clothes, cooking, and all the other
manifold duties and responsibilities, is regarded as wasted.
Yet it is really through ordinary
human life and the things of every hour of every day that union with
God comes about. [Emphasis in bold added by the Web Master.]
Although human nature is the material
which God has made for the fulfilling of His will in us, and although
human nature is something we all share, and although we each have the
same purpose of knowing and loving God, we do not all achieve that
purpose in the same way or through the same experiences; in fact no two
people have exactly the same personal experience of God; there seem to
be rules of love like the rules of music, but within them each soul has
her secret --- with God.
Every person living is --- besides being one of the human race --- himself; and in order to make the
raw material of himself what
it is, innumerable different experiences and different influences have
Here are some of the things which go towards making each human being
what he is:
Heredity, environment, infant and child experience, opportunity,
education or lack of education, friends or lack of friends, and the
countless unpredictable things that we misname accidents or chance.
We are often reminded that we have been chosen by God out of
innumerable potential people whom He did not create. But very seldom do
we think about the mystery of all the years and all the people and all
the gathered memories, both of individuals and races, which have made
us individually what we are.
Our life has been given to us from generation to generation, existing
in each age in the keeping of other human beings, tended in the
Creators hands, a little flame carried through darkness and storm,
burning palely in brilliant sunlight, shining out like a star in
darkness, life in the brave keeping of love given from age to age in a
To some these ages of experience and memory have handed down gifts of
health and sound nerves and a buoyant attitude to life; to others gifts
of mind, talents, sensitivity. Some are endowed with a natural
Christianity; others inherit dark and terrible impulses and crumbling
weakness, fears and neuroses.
It is a great mistake to suppose that
those who have inherited the material for their life from suffering
generations, and who have poor health and a timid approach or some vice
or weakness, have not been designed and planned by God as much as
others who seem luckier in the world's eyes.
Christ has said: "I am the Way," and He has been there in every
generation, blowing with the Divine Breath of the Spirit on that little
flame of life. He is the Way, but He
is not limited as we are: He can manifest Himself in countless ways we
do not dream of. He can will to live in lives of suffering and
darkness we cannot conceive of; He can
choose what seems to us the most unlikely material in the world to use
for a positive miracle of His love.
The tendency of our generation is to worship physical and material
happiness, to set up types for the multitudes to emulate --- hearty,
healthy, insensitive types they are, as a rule, too, always young,
These types are symbolic of the materialism of our age. They suggest a
carefully camouflaged inferiority among the older people; for it is old
people, frightened old people, who have set up this rather aggressive
type. It is they who, in shelving their own responsibilities, their
great obligation to be born again, are hoodwinking youth.
Christ is not restricted to any type: the glory of God is not more
manifest in a strapping young man or woman marching behind the banner
of Christianity than in one of the slaughtered innocents of Jerusalem
or in the repentant thief dying on the cross.
The most striking example of the material God can and does use to
manifest His glory is Lazarus.
Lazarus was not even alive; he was dead, and according to his chief
mourners, stinking; but Christ used him as the material for showing
forth the glory of God in a way surpassed only by His Own Resurrection.
The moment of His Own Resurrection was secret, a secret between His
Heavenly Father and Himself. But the raising of Lazarus dazzled the
Each one of us --- as we are at the moment when we first ask ourselves:
"For what purpose do I exist?" --- is the material which Christ
Himself, through all the generations that have gone to our making, has
fashioned for His purpose.
That which seems to us to be a crumbling point, a lack, a thorn in the
flesh, is destined for God's glory as surely as the rotting bones of
Lazarus, as surely as the radiance of Mary of Nazareth.
Our own experience, the experience of our ancestors and of all our
race, has made us the material that we are. This material gives us the
form of our life, the shape of our destiny.
Think again of the three symbols I have used for the virginal emptiness
of Mary. These are each made from material which must undergo some
experience to be made ready for its purpose. The reed grows by the
streams. It is the simplest of things, but it must be cut by the sharp
knife, hollowed out, and the stops must be cut in it; it must be shaped
and pierced before it can utter the shepherd's song. It is the
narrowest emptiness in the world, but the little reed utters infinite
The chalice does not grow like the flower it resembles. It is made of
gold; gold must be gathered from the water and the mud and hewn from
the rock, it must be beaten by countless little blows that give the
chalice of sacrifice its fitting beauty.
The twigs and fluff and leaves of the bird's nest are brought from all
sorts of places, from wherever the brave careful mother alights, with
fluttering but daring heart, to fetch them, from the distances and
explorations that only the spread wings of love know. It is the shape
of her breast that moulds the nest to its inviting roundness.
Thus it is with us --- we may be formed by the knife, pared down, cut
to the least, to the minimum of our own being; we may be marked
indelibly by a succession of strokes, blows from the goldbeater's
hammer; or we may be shaped for our destiny by the love and tender
devotion of a devoted family.
These are but three examples. Each
one can, when he has cleared out the rubble even for a day, look
honestly at the material from which he is made, and ask the Holy Spirit
to let It show him the way Christ wills to show Himself in his life.
Does He ask to be sung, to be uttered as the Word? Does He ask
to be sacrificed, to be lifted up and to draw all men to Him?
Does He ask to be fostered, swaddled, cherished, the little unfledged
bird in the human heart?
How much can we do ourselves at this
stage of contemplation? Not very much, for now as always, most of it is
done by God.
There is, however, one big thing we can do with God's help, that
is, we can trust God's plan, we can put aside any quibbling or
bitterness about ourselves and what we are.
We can accept and seize upon the fact that what we are at this moment,
young or old, strong or weak, mild or passionate, beautiful or ugly,
clever or stupid, is planned to be like that. Whatever we are gives
form to the emptiness in us which can only be filled by God and which
God is even now waiting to fill.
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