WOOD OF THE CRADLE, WOOD OF THE CROSS
The little way of the infant Jesus
Caryll Houselander
The Infant

It is of absolute necessity for our peace that we surrender ourselves wholly to God. Most people want to do this, but they do not because they are afraid.

If, in their rasher moments of fervor, they have made heroic self-offerings, they go about their business afterwards distinctly uneasy, fearful that some catastrophe will overtake them in order to detach them from the earthly affections which they suppose to be hindering their perfection.

If, to seek reassurance, they turn to those saints who are said to have sanctified themselves through leading "ordinary" lives, they are even more perturbed by the extraordinary way in which they did so.

To give one example, the very thought of the hourly, even momentary, little sacrifices made by St. Theresa of Lisieux, opens up a terrifying prospect, all the more so because such lives are secret and without even the encouragement of friends. To think of oneself going on and on, denying self, giving up all the tidbits, refusing oneself the relief of a little complaining or a little flattery, spending one's life in small coin down to the last penny: this is beyond the power of human nature - or at least of our human nature.

Both these anxieties can be put to rest by a little thought about God's approach to us, His way with human beings.

It is not a way of detachment but of attachment; not a way of indifference but of love. He approaches not by catastrophes, but by gentleness; not demanding our surrender but winning it, if we put no obstacle, almost before we realize who it is that sues for our love.

An obstacle would be a refusal of any love, a shutting of the door on those who want to come into our life. To put no obstacle is to have the door always open to everyone who has any need of us. "Behold!" our Lord says, "I stand at the door and knock.45 An obstacle to surrendering to Him would simply be not to open the door. If we opened it and saw who it is that knocks, we should not find it a difficult or a frightening thing to give Him what He asks of us.

The Old Testament, which many imagine to be the revelation of a terrifying God, is full of the gentleness of His approach. He comes as a "still, small voice";46 He covers His face, lest it should wither away the light of a man's eyes by its majesty. He is compared to the coming of morning light and to rain falling upon the thirsty earth: "We shall know and we shall follow on, that we may know the Lord. His going forth is prepared as the morning light, and He will come to Us as the early and the latter rain to the earth.47

Sometimes, indeed very often, His approach to us coincides with a catastrophe and is in the midst of it, and for that reason is hardly noticed. We are too intent on the din of the disaster to hear the "still, small voice," or we drown it with noisy tears. Disasters are not God's will; they are the result of sin and opposed to God's will; but in His mercy He does allow the suffering resulting from them, although never the sin that caused them, to be caught up into His love and do good. Thus Christ's first coming on earth was in the midst of the disaster of the world's suffering caused by sin, and it was precisely to take hold of this suffering and transform it by love that He came.

How small and gentle His coming was! He came as an infant. The night in which He came was noisy and crowded; it is unlikely that, in the traffic of the travelers to Bethlehem, the tiny wail of the newly born could be heard.

God approaches gently, often secretly, always in love, never through violence and fear. He comes to us, as He Himself has told us, in those whom we know in our own lives. Very often we do not recognize Him. He comes in many people we do not like, in all who need what we can give, in all who have something to give us, and for our great Comfort. He comes in those we love, in our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, our friends and our children. Because this is so, we must not be content ever to love with only natural love. We must also love everyone with a supernatural, sacramental love. We must love Christ in them with Christ's love in us. It would be well if those seeking perfection ceased trying so painstakingly to learn how not to love and learned instead how to love well.

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That other hindrance to surrender to God, the fearful prospect of abandoning ourselves to the pursuit of perfection even if we dared, can only be overcome by experiment; for those who live heroically through small things have already surrendered to God. Their perseverance is not, as it seems to us, a continual strain; on the contrary, it is the repeated relief of giving spontaneous expression to a love that is too great to be endured without it.

Knowing that God supplies all our necessities, and that one of our necessities is that we surrender to Him, we should not be, surprised that He comes to us as an infant; for surrender to an infant, any infant, is easy. Surely never did God receive more fully what is due to Him from man than when He was an infant. Every infant demands and receives the most complete self-giving that we are capable of. The perfection of surrender to God is Mary with the infant Christ.

There is nothing more mysterious than infancy, nothing so small and yet so imperious. The infancy of Christ has opened a way to us by which we can surrender self to Him absolutely, without putting too much pressure on our weak human nature.

Before a child is born the question which everyone asks is "What can I give him?" When he is born, he rejects every gift that is not the gift of self, everything that is not disinterested love. He rejects everything but that because that is the only thing he can receive: disinterested love - not one-sided love. One-sided love is never a consummated love, never a communion. It is a disintegrating, destructive thing; but disinterested love, objective love without conscious self-interest, is as near to perfection as anything human can be.

The first giving of this love to a newly born child is the reshaping of our whole life, in its large essentials and in its every detail, in our environment, our habits, ourselves. The infant demands everything and, trivial though everything may seem when set out and tabulated, the demand is all the more searching because it seizes upon our daily lives and every detail of which they are built up.

The sound of our voice must be modulated - the words that we use considered, our movements restrained, slowed down, and trained to be both decisive and gentle.

Our rooms must be rearranged; everything that is superfluous and of no use to the infant must be thrown out; only what is simple and necessary to him must remain, and what remains must be placed in the best position, not for us, but for him. The temperature of the room, the warmth, and the air must be adjusted to his fragile body, the light shaded for the eyes that have always been in darkness.

There must be a new timing of our lives, a more holy ordering of our time, which is no longer to be ruled by our impulses and caprice, but by the rhythm of the little child. We must learn to sleep lightly, aware of the moonlight and the stars, conscious even in our deepest sleep of a whimper from the infant and ready to respond to it. We must learn the saving habit of rising with, or a little before, dawn.

The rhythm of our own bodies must be brought into harmony with his. They must become part of the ordered procession of his day and night, his waking and feeding and sleeping. Our lives, because of his and like his, must include periods of silence and rest. We must return with him and through him to the lost rhythm of the stars and the seed.

All our senses must be given to him, and we must give him our hands. We must give him our hands, tending his needs and washing his clothes. In his service we must overcome all delicacy and fastidiousness.

For years I have been haunted by a single line in an unpublished poem which seems to me to be very close to a definition of sanctity: "Hands that will dip in any water."48 I have seen the hands of a foster-mother chapped and bleeding from continually being dipped in hard water in frosty weather, and have thought to myself that the stigmata are not, after all, reserved for a few rare mystics.

Our hands are one medium of the communion that must come about between us and the infant. They are fumbling and clumsy, yet they become acutely sensitive to every quiver of his body, to his dumb necessities. He teaches them by being himself. In continual contact with his defenseless sensitivity, our hands grow sensitive; they carry messages from the depths of his wordless consciousness through our fingertips to our brain. Yet we remain aware of our clumsiness and the fallibility of our touch. Our hands only become really sensitive to his needs when we have so mingled our life in his that his pulses beat in ours, his blood flows in ours, and his little bones are in the marrow of our bones.

Our clumsy hands remind us that we ourselves are in the hands of God. Our hands seek like a blind man's to learn an unknown world of consciousness through their fingertips. In spite of our loving will, our touch can hurt; but God's hands touch and hold with infallible love. He turns us this way and that, disposes us thus and thus, lifts us up and puts us down in infinite power and infinite pity and infinite knowledge. Every fiber of our being is known to Him, because His being is our being.

In this reordering of our life, this resetting of it to the pace of the infant's life and the new simplicity imposed on it, we ourselves are made new; we are restored to the lost wonder of childhood. We begin to respond again to morning and evening: to wake with the coming of light, to receive the stillness of the night in a draught of peace when darkness comes. We wake and sleep with birds and flowers and animals. We no longer contradict the sun; we no longer violate the stars. In and through a little child we become as little children, and while still on earth we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the service of the infant we are made whole. Every detail of our life is set by it into a single pattern and ordered by a single purpose. We are integrated by the singleness of one compelling love.

It is this wholeness which alone makes possible the complete surrender to God in which is the secret of our peace.

It demands of us voluntary poverty, the giving up of self, which is holy poverty. As long as we have something else to give, we always cling to self; but the infant lays his minute hand on that and rejects everything else.

This love, austere, childlike, and poor, is life-giving love. I do not use the constantly abused and hackneyed word creative because nothing of ours is creative, neither our love, nor our genius. God only can create; He only is Creator. But this love sustains life; that is its meaning and its purpose.

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This is the point at which contemplation through our love of an infant begins.

Christ's immemorial plan is that His life shall survive until the end of time, as it began in Bethlehem, not in the great and powerful but in the lowliest and least: "He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble."49

For two thousand years Christ has seized upon, inhabited, and survived in the littlest and frailest.

The fostering of an infant's life is a thing of terror as well as of beauty. We are face-to-face with life at its most precious, housed in its frailest. That life depends for its survival upon us, upon the intelligence, the skill, the perseverance, the unceasing, untiring vigilance of our love.

It requires of us a love that is as strong as the worn and hollowed rock, and as delicate as the dew that trembles within it.

We stand on one side of the cradle, death stands on the other. The new life is still a spark, a spark that we kneel to fan with the warm breath of our own life, a spark that death could blow out so easily.

So is it with the Christ-life in each of us and in the world. It is lodged in little ones, in the weakest and puniest, and love and death stand over it face-to-face. In the mysterious period of natural life between birth and babyhood, there is a parable of the Christ-life in the soul.

Infancy is something complete in itself. It is a mysterious growth from darkness to light. Once again, we are reminded of the seed, of the thrust of the frail sapling life through the darkness and through the hard crust of the earth into the light.

In time, when the infant has become an established baby, the world will approach him from outside himself. Every new sound and sight and touch will be a new experience, not of himself alone, but of the world and himself.

But while he is an infant, the human creature works his own way from inside his own darkness and aloneness outward. He comes out of a world of darkness and silence and warmth into a world of painful light and noise and cold, of sensation and of pain.

He is alone for a long time even in his mother's hands; the communion between them is not yet realized. He cannot yet respond, and no skill of hers can reach his deepest being in its primal darkness. He is here, in the room, in his little cot, yet he is away and aloof, just as the dying, whose cold hands we chafe with ours, are with us and yet are aeons and aeons away.

Both for the infant and the mother this time has an element of sorrow; for he is fighting his way through to the consciousness which is the beginning equally of joy and grief, of pleasure and pain, of life and death, and the way is a journey alone through darkness.

In the infant's first struggle to lay hold of his life, we can see in embryo the passion of man, the passion that recurs all through his life. Later it will be disguised, hidden by the grown man's reserve, but now it is naked, defenseless. The beginning of every life is a lonely fight with death, a dim shadow and showing of the Man who is in all men coming back from the tomb.

Our life in Christ is the risen life. We live in the life of One who has overcome death, who has come back from the dead and laid hold of the world again with wounded hands, who has taken hold of its soil with wounded feet and loved it with the heart which it has already betrayed and broken and pierced.

Volumes of sentimentality are written about a baby's first smile. If we share the neurotic world's fear of sentiment, we shall miss its significance. It is the "Consummatum est"50 of the naked showing of the Passion of Christ in man, which is at the heart of the mystery of infancy. The fight between life and death is consummated. The infant gives place to the baby, and he lays hold of the life of the risen Christ.

Gradually the uncertain hands that served the infant have brought him security; gradually the face that has so often leaned over him in the night has become known by him. On that face there has been a smile, a smile which no anxiety, no awareness of the fierce, suffering quality of life could prevent, because it is the smile of joy that a man has been born into this world.

The child's first smile is a reflection. It is his and yet not his; it is the reflection of the mother's joy in his life, given back to her.

Birth and resurrection in their countless manifestations in the Body of Christ on earth bear a striking resemblance to His historical birth and Resurrection.

The life of the baby following the life of the infant has a quality of reassuring ordinariness.

This quality of ordinariness in the risen life is an age-long reassurance: this risen Jesus is no ghost, no apparition of terror and judgment bringing the frozen air of the grave with Him. This is a man of flesh and blood, and this is God, endowing all that He touches with life, but touching what is ordinary, the substance of our life; making life supernatural, but living our natural daily life; eating and drinking with us, bidding us touch His wounds, not to reproach us with them, but to convince us that He is still the same Christ, who overcame death by dying. He is still the Word made flesh, who has lived all our lives, who has been wounded with all our wounds, and who has died all our deaths, and who has risen from the dead, a living man of flesh and blood still, to live in us and to live our ordinary lives.

Now the baby, too, has become ordinary; the Christ-life that was almost visible in him has become hidden; his own personality is already a disguise. The elemental miracle is not seen any more.

The mystery of the night is over; the procession through the darkness is accomplished; the peculiar beauty of infancy has gone forever, and with it the minute face of sorrow, and the helplessness of the beautiful hands that were like sea anemones floating gently upward in shallow water.

The spark of life that we fanned with our breath burns the single tiny flame that can enkindle the whole earth: the flame of resurrection, the Lumen Christi - the "Light of Christ."

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The service of the infant is a thing of love, therefore of joy. There is joy even in the saddest love, and the love of an infant, even when it has a quality of tragedy as in our days it too often has, is fundamentally joyful. It must be so, for it is the purest love of the purest life.

Think back for a minute to the fear that the ordinary sinful human creature experiences in considering the saint's life of daily and momentary self-surrender to God. We have already reflected that for them such a life is not one of hardship and repression but of joy and relief.

So is it with ordinary people who foster the Christ-life in their souls, just as they would foster the life of an infant, housed in its human frailty, were such a thing asked of them.

No one, having received a little child, could count the cost. They could not list what must be done and given and given up for an infant. Every twenty-four hours could not be a period of trial made up from ceaseless small tortures.

But if anyone in such circumstances did count the cost in that way, turning the focus on self, their life would become insufferable; there would be that in it of which they must either rid themselves or else they would be broken by it. But if the focus is on the infant, there is no hardship the life of the mother, like the life of the saint, is not a life of repression but of the spontaneous, necessary expression of love.

If, in fostering the little seed of light which is Christ's life in us, the concentration is on self, on what we are giving and what we are suffering, then, indeed, we put ourselves into the place of the mother who is not a mother, the woman who counts the cost of loving her own child, and we force ourselves to face the choice of giving up the life in us, or of destroying ourselves in conflict between self and the life that has been given to us.

Christ came, and comes now, that we should have life and have it in its fullness, that we should be wholly human, wholly natural, wholly supernatural, that in all our loves He should be our life. If our mind and heart and eye are fixed not on self, but on the Christ-life in us, we shall realize the wonder of truth in His words "My yoke is sweet and my burden is light."51

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Yet we know that of ourselves we can do nothing; how then can we hope to save this life that is housed in our own weakness?

Many times every day we make the Sign of the Cross. Possibly we make it without considering what it means, beginning with the words "In the name of the Father" but without reflecting on their meaning.

"In the name of the Father": in the name - that is, in the power - of the Father, we cherish the Christ-life in us.

More truly, it is the Father Himself who cherishes it. We must put the infant Christ in our souls into the Father's arms. We must trust Him to hold us in His hands, to put us wherever we should be, to arrange the environment that is best for us, to rock us to sleep when we should sleep, to wake us when we should wake, to ease our pain when our pain should be eased, to feed us when we should be fed, to lift us up and to put us down according to the wisdom of everlasting love.

Everything felt for an infant by everyone in whom human nature is not dead is a dim reflection of God's love for the world. All that grace and miracle of sustaining love in us is His shadow in our soul. We are made in His image and likeness, but we have almost obliterated, almost effaced, His image in us by the grotesque travesties with which we have overlaid it. In the presence of infancy man is restored to the image of God.

Now, most wonderfully, we can learn God's care for us, by searching our own hearts.

The father and mother within us is only the faint image of the Father and Mother in God. He is the Father and Mother whose heart never sleeps, whose hands never lift from their works that they have made. He is the One who has numbered the hairs on our heads.52 In His humanity we are clothed as in a warm woolen garment. In Him we live as in our home. He is our food and our drink, our shade in the heat, our comfort in sorrow, our healing when we are wounded, our light in darkness.

The Christ-life in us, the infant Christ of our soul, is the only-begotten Son in the hands of God.

It is His creative love that has given us life, that sustains life, that is our life. He it is who says,

"Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? And if she should forget, yet will I not forget thee."53

 

NOTES:

45. Rev. 3:20.
46. 3 Kings 19:12 (RSV = 1 Kings 19:12.
47. The Liturgy for Good Friday (Cf. Hos. 6:3).
48. An unpublished poem by John Bartlett.
49. Luke 1:52.
50. John 19:30: "It is finished."
51. Matt. 11:30.
52. Matt. 10:30; Luke 12:7
53. Isa. 49:15.


The above excerpt of Chapter 4, pages 53-67 is taken with permission from:

Caryll Houselander. Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross.
(Sophia Institute Press, 1995, hardcover, 162 pgs)

 

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