Greatness


[For my mother.]

In the past year or so the word “great” has gained a peculiar currency. That currency may be starting to wane, at present, but I have continued to wonder what the term means for myself and others. For at least nine months I have been asking myself what greatness really looks like.

And what have I found? Well, that greatness may be so huge and all-encompassing that it remains invisible to our smaller sight. This is the primary, literal sense of “great.” By its sheer extensiveness, greatness can surround us like the very air we breathe. We don’t see the mountain for all of the sky it fills. Sometimes, our very closeness to it blinds us from its givenness. Indeed, any slender givenness can imply some greatness—it represents the force that gave it.[1] Often, I have found, we only see a thing of greatness after it has gone, or we have left it far behind.

Being the kind of person that I am—a private person who makes everything personal, who favors crowds over groups, who prefers to meet his strangers in book-form, and who pulls through a relatively calm life clinging to his memories as if they were a string of buoys; being this kind of person, greatness means the seemingly small, the surprisingly meaningful, the profoundly personal.

And so something as domestic as an envelope can be great, if it bears a narrow hand that gathers paradise.

(From the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College.)

A floorboard in a woodshed can be great, if you turn it over to find the face of Christ the Redeemer on its underside.

The story of the retrieval of Rublev’s icon is truly a stranger-than-fiction finding.[2] It is a great story in that it is unfathomable compared to ordinary way of things. It is one of those buried pearls of history you sometimes hear about, almost always told in a kind of gasp, because the hand of fate (or Grace) managed to catch the treasured thing just in time before it fell into oblivion.

An almond is great, if you call it a “mandorla.” This simple shape can form the overlap between two spheres (or vesica piscis), and it was traditionally used to envision the cohabitation of finite and the infinite.


It can even mean the permanent reunion of the two.

A hand is great, if you look at it from the exploding range of time. It is miraculous given the barren, coruscating nature outside of this planet. And it is a mystery beyond the derivation of our brains: “the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery.”[3]

A painting of a hand can be great, too, if you see what it is really reaching for.

Duccio’s icon-portrait is revolutionary for having “inaugurate[d] the grand [aka great] tradition in Italian art of envisioning the sacred figures of the Madonna and Child in terms appropriated from real life.”[4] I have had the great privilege of seeing it in real life. But, in all honesty, when I first saw the painting, I passed by it as just another depiction of a classic subject matter. Its sacred content had become as common as a landscape. But when I read the placard, and looked more carefully at the detail—the fact—of that hand in comparison to the other little hands of Christ that had come before it, I realized I was seeing something great.

Through “the [landmark] emphasis Duccio places on touch,”[5] he manages to give Christ a greater body-language than his Byzantine successors: not only does the Savior become more like the fully human baby Jesus that the Bible says he becomes, but the very quality of this infancy is one shockingly familiar to us.[6] For any sacramental theology, at least, this is nothing less than a visual iteration of “God-with-us.” It is, if you really think about it, a greater illustration of the oldest and dearest (indeed the greatest) creed of Christendom, that God became fully human. In order for God to become fully human, God would have to have a hand that looked like this, grabbed like this, wanted to touch like this.[7]

Now that I mention it, a touch can be a great thing, say, if you’re longing for it. Childhood is a great thing, even if you no longer see why. Motherhood is great absolutely, because where would we all be without it?

Where would I be without having that first, largest hand given to me to hold—or that first, greatest giver behind it? That steadfast finger that first helped to give my fist its shape. That hair that patiently dangled down to afford me a new sense of fineness.

I remember vividly certain long, silent times lying in my mother’s lap and reaching up to feel her earlobes between my fingers. Her face was there, absolutely, but like a cloud compared to the touch. I can still sense the knowledge I gained of its softness, its smoothness, its affection. I remember the memory as being so early in time for me, the rest of the world had no sight or sound to it; no speech clothed the body or things that supported me, and yet I knew in some great, shaping sense that the person behind this afforded feeling was affectionate toward me. In that empty, formless world she gave my little fingers a sense of presence for-me. This for-me-ness is what developmental science gestures toward with the words like “connection,” and it is absolutely crucial for the safety and security of a child’s growing world.

There are no words to describe the primordial importance of this great givenness. Research has confirmed it, in some exoskeletal way; it has given us some language to help understand, academically, materialistically, its utter necessity for growth—what psychologists call a “touch hunger” in all infant human beings.[8] Even memory can have trouble retrieving its presence. But I, anyway, have found that this is due not to its distance, but to its greatness—it cannot be retrieved, because it is always with me. It is something that has cared for me so deeply it has shaped and cradled my very brain.

Perhaps this great, imponderably great givenness is what the early fathers meant to portray with the mandorla. Its shape shows that Grace can become a person, and a person can become greater than a place or time. “The mandorla or nimbus is one of the clearest and most majestic attributes . . . It is an iconographic symbol in the shape of a circle or an oval signifying heaven, Divine Glory, Light. . . . [I]t emphasizes the thought of the pre-eternal Child. The mandorla is used too for the Mother of God and also in those cases when it has to represent Her glory beyond the earthly plane.”[9]

We all have heard of Grace as love. But Grace is also care. Grace is the care that is freely given. Being free, it is unnecessary. I did nothing to earn my mother’s love, and there was no preexisting reason I should deserve a healthy life. My mother gave her love to me by the very acts of having me and holding me.

Just imagine what could happen if we forgot this fact, this first greatness we can so easily take for granted in the commonest sense. The New World of Moby-Dick is a world almost virtually empty of motherhood. It makes its one great appearance in “The Grand Armada,” when Ishmael, amidst the tumultuous hunt, peers down to find a seemingly eternal circling of mothers and calves nursing underwater.

“And thus, surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”[10]

This image becomes a fleeting reminder of what life can be: a mandorla.

But the Pequod is a democracy of orphans, unwitting or self-made, led by one resentful father (and so no democracy at all). It is the world of wounded limbs and injured merit, of fending for oneself and seizing the ephemeral–for as long as one can. It is the world of the Doubloon. In this coin the faithful Starbuck attempts to read God’s grace: “So in this vale of Death, God girds us round.”[11] But in that cold and narrow circumference he and the rest of the crew will be swallowed up, for money, much like vengeance, is a symbol of an anti-Grace: it thinks in terms of earnings, power, pride. It thinks its greatness comes from its own arms. It is a world of desperate anger, and it is held by an abyss.

I have so often thought of Moby-Dick as a “great” book. Certainly many have named it one of the “Greatest Books Ever Written.” Certainly it is great in size. But until now I did not realize why it is truly great. Aside from a few glimpses of great life, it is great in its emptiness. It is great in its caution. It doesn’t gird me around with any comfort. It holds its hands up in a great sign of warning.

But the greatest of these is . . . We all know how to fill in that blank. But maybe we need to picture it more. Maybe we need to stop and remember. I know I did, in order to see what greatness absolutely looks like: human arms holding safe the vulnerable body of another. In her own essay on Grace, Marilynne Robinson writes, “Human love in the purest forms we can know it, wife and husband, parent and child, has the aura and the immutability of the sacred.”[12]

God save us, then, if we forget the greatness of our mothers.

Notes

[1] To theologians—in greater or lesser degree; analogia entis or no—this has always been the case: whoever sees creation sees somewhat of the One who created it. Marilynne Robinson, throughout her career, has striven to make givenness great again to American culture. Most recently, she has attempted to invest the scientific term “emergent” with a greater (and more proper) sense of mystery (The Givenness of Things, p. 90).

[2] Very little is known about this great and mysterious icon (at least in the Western World Wide Web). You can read a tantalizingly brief account of its finding and suspected origin here; see also Alfredo Tradigo, Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, trans. Stephen Sartarelli (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004), p. 246.

[3] Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

[4] From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s catalogue entry: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438754

[5] Ibid.

[6] This is not to say that I think Duccio’s painting is categorically “greater” than any other Madonna and Child icon—just that his work, from this particular angle, has succeeded greatly.

[7] And of course in order for the Incarnation to be true, God would have to have a mother. This really is a shocking fact of the Christian tradition: that God should be cared for by God’s own creation. God, “without hands,” puts Godself in a woman’s hands. To me, one of the greatest statements from any human in the Bible belongs to a mother—or, the mother: “I have gotten a man with the Lord!” (Gen. 4:1). The Hebrew here literally says “with-YHWH,” expressing, as Robert Alter notes, Eve’s sense of partnership with God. What would Mary have said, rightfully, in the stable of all places? “I have gotten the Lord with the Lord!” No wonder all generations shall call her blessed.

[8] Also known as “skin hunger.” Tiffany Fields has a whole book on this subject, aptly called Touch, in which she discusses the profound impact of early touch in children and the continuing need for it in adulthood. Indeed, some psychologists even feel we have been facing a widespread “crisis of skin hunger” in both children and adults.

[9] Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons, p.81n.

[10] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 399.

[11] Ibid., p. 442.

[12] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, p. 48.

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