Before I leave Father Abraham, I'd like to dwell upon what anyone familiar with heroic literature would consider the oddest feature of his story.
Who is Abraham?
Who is Abraham not?
- He's not Romulus, legendary founder of a city, murderer of his twin brother, and abductor of the Sabine women.
- He's not Odysseus the man of many wiles, sacking the first available port city on his way home from Troy, slaying the men and taking the women as prizes.
- He's not Achilles, nursing his wounded pride in his tent, and spitefully praying that the enemy would mow down his fellow Greeks.
- He is not Daedalus the inventor, or Archimedes, boasting that with the right point and a lever long enough, he could move the earth.
- He is not the sage Solon, traveling as a renowned tourist from Persia to Egypt.
- He is not Socrates.
- He is not the Norse king Olav Tryggveson, around whose exploits the sagas paint a corona of half-pagan glory. His only battle is to rescue his nephew. Otherwise, his typical behavior towards kings and their retinue is to avoid them.
Aside from his great faith, Abraham is exceptional for being unexceptional. There are hundreds of men in Greek and Roman history, massive egotists with a flair for getting big things done, who cut a more "interesting" figure: Pisistratus the benevolent tyrant, Themistocles the naval hero and traitor of Athens, Camillus the ruthless savior of republican Rome, Cicero who wrote truly awful poetry in praise of his favorite topic, himself.
Abraham is like none of them. In this regard, too, he stands as "the Father of Many."
Consider the men in early Hebrew history who most resemble the war-heroes of other cultures: the Judges. They are, by comparison with a legendary Theseus or an all-too-real Julius Caesar, a ragtag lot.
Gideon is at first a Baal-worshipper, who dares to put God to the test, and who wins his most important battle only after God made him send almost all his army home. Samson has a keen taste for bad women. Jephthah seems never to have understood that the Lord is not a pagan god. Barak didn't want to fight unless Deborah went with him, and though he won the battle, the enemy king Sisera was slain when a Hebrew woman, knocked a nail into his head while he slept.
The theme runs through all of Scripture: "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help." (Ps. 146:3) "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance." (Is. 40:15) "Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans." (Is. 47:1) "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty." (1 Cor. 1:27)
The Temple itself, when the people have turned their hearts from God, is not spared the fate of human works admired for their (and our) greatness. So Jeremiah warns of its destruction: "Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord." (Jer. 7:4) And Jesus, when his disciples want to enjoy the sights of Jerusalem, says, "Seest thou these great buildings? There shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down." (Mk. 13:2)
True divinity, Chesterton said, lies not so much in comprehending the biggest things, but rather in being comprehended by the smallest things.
But the weak things of the world, the unregarded — those are the ones the Lord most uses. For when we know we are weak and sinful, then we may be most open to the might of God. The Pharisee who enjoyed his moral greatness did not leave the synagogue justified; but the publican who said, "God be merciful to me a sinner," did. (Lk. 18:13) "When I am weak, then am I strong," says Saint Paul, glorying in his infirmities, "that the power of Christ may rest upon me." (2 Cor.; 12:9-10). "Be clothed with humility," says the saint who denied Christ three times, "for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble." (2 Pt. 5:6)
Yet we shouldn't consider this choice of the weak to be a divine caprice. It manifests a law of being that power-worshippers miss. Call it the Law of the Great Infinitesimal. So Gustave Thibon observes: "Any order that transcends another can insert itself into that other only under a form that is infinitely small." (emphasis mine)
Consider the first rational thought in the history of the universe. It is something, it is nothing; it is known but not seen; it passes in the twinkle of an eye, and yet it is a more momentous thing, infinitely greater, than all the galaxies.
So also the action of grace. One genuine movement of the heart toward God — that is a new thing in the world, invisibly small, and of greater import than all of the tedious greatness of history.
True divinity, Chesterton said, lies not so much in comprehending the biggest things, but rather in being comprehended by the smallest things. Recall the still small voice that Elijah heard. Recall the mustard seed. Think of the babe in the manger, or the womb of Mary, when she said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord."
Now I do not intend to set limits to God's actions. He works mighty deeds. Jesus told the disciples of John to report to their master that "the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up." (Mt. 11:5) Mighty deeds, no doubt! But Jesus saves the "smallest" for last: "The poor have the gospel preached to them."
Abraham was, we may say, small enough to be filled with infinity. The world does not understand that lesson, and never will.
Anthony Esolen. "The Key that Fits the Lock, Part Thirteen." The Catholic Thing (January 17, 2013).
Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: email@example.com.
The Catholic thing — the concrete historical reality of Catholicism — is the richest cultural tradition in the world. That is the deep background to The Catholic Thing which daily brings you an original column that provides fresh and penetrating insight into the current events affecting the Church, along with other commentary, news, analysis, and — yes — even humor. Our writers include some of the most seasoned and insightful Catholic minds in America: Robert Royal, Brad Miner, James V. Schall, S.J., Hadley Arkes, Francis J. Beckwith, Mary Eberstadt, Austin Ruse, George Marlin, William Saunders, and many others.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College. He is the author of The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2013 The Catholic Thing
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