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The fugitive beauty of the lilies of the field by Fr. George W. Rutler




March 29, 2015
by Fr. George W. Rutler
It seems to me that greatness exists on two levels. One is that of those who do important things for the general society. Historians may debate whether this encompasses bad as well as good things. After all, there have been figures in history who were called great because they affected the world importantly, if dolorously. Napoleon changed the world in many ways, but he did so cruelly at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and the exaction of unimaginable suffering. Then there have been those who saved civilization from near calamity.

If greatness as moral good is not part of the calculus, then bad men as well as good can be called great, if their influence was vast, whether for the good or for the bad. Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, for instance, killed more people and imposed more horrors than anyone else in history, but through the lens of moral indifference, they were great figures, if only because their crimes were on such a scale.

From a moral perspective, greatness is the peculiar laurel of those who have not done things on a great scale, but who did things that were good in defiance of things bad. As a teenager, I had already decided that Winston Churchill was a great man for the good, so in 1961 I persuaded my father—the greatest of men in my life—to accompany me into Manhattan to see Churchill when he visited Bernard Baruch. There was no conversation, only a nod and pleasing comment. It was all I needed for contact with greatness.

Later I read that Churchill thought the three most regrettable sadnesses were those of lives worn down by toil, worry and boredom. For all his hard work and worries and boring years as a man scorned, he was never worn down by them. That is a matter of natural virtue and a key to moral greatness. Yet Jesus was more than a great man that way. When he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, some—guileless children and wizened elders—cheered him as a great man, but he was more than that, and anyone who defines him as only that misses the point. His divine nature, perfectly united with his human nature, exulted in common carpentry, just as much as he did in summoning all the galaxies into existence from the first light. His human worries were a descant on his insight into how heavy human hearts missed the fugitive beauty of the lilies of the field. Nothing bored him: not a single sparrow, nor a hair on a head.

The Palm Sunday crowds soon disappeared. Those who remained were transformed: work would be a votive offering and not a burden; worry would gentle into prudence; and boredom would be banished. For proof, there is the fact that Jesus the toiler would not worry about what the Father had prepared. And he who never was bored was the only man who never bored anyone.
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