Prayer: O Jesu, vivens in Maria, veni et vive in famulis tuis, in Spiritus sanctitatis tuae, in plenitudine virtutis tuae, in veritate virtutum tuarum, in perfectione viarum tuarum, in communione mysteriorum tuorum, dominare omni adversae potestate in Spiritu tuo ad gloriam Patris. Amen. (Abbé Charles de Condren, Cong Orat. 1588-1641)O Jesus, living in Mary, come and live in Thy servants, in the spirit of Thine own holiness, in the fullness of Thy power, in the reality of Thy virtues, in the perfection of Thy ways, in the communion of Thy mysteries, - have Thou dominion over every adverse power, in Thine own Spirit, to the glory of Thy Father. Amen.
Text of the First Part of a Meditation given by Father Stephen Morrison, o Praem, of the Premonstratensian Canons of Chelmsford, at the Recollection held at the Little Oratory on Saturday 25th March 2017. The second part will be published tomorrow.
Welcome to this Lady Day retreat day, and thank you for inviting me! What a great feast this is, especially for us as Englishmen – since we have at Walsingham a shrine known as “England’s Nazareth,” and we are celebrating the feast of the Annunciation of Gabriel to Our Blessed Lady in that holy house which across the centuries has inspired so much devotion. If you go to Nazareth to see the Basilica of the Annunciation, you will see the famous Latin inscription: “Hic Verbum Caro Factum Est” – Here the Word became Flesh. And in just a few words, words at which we genuflect each time they are read at Mass, is summarized the greatest ever event of human history: the Incarnation. God became a man, and dwelt among us.
I want to talk about something slightly different today… an exercise for the brain, before we feed the soul, as it were. I want to tell you about something which happened to me recently: while I was at school, I hated studying Mathematics. I thought I was useless at it. But I always knew that, somehow, I thought sometimes in a mathematical way; I was aware of shape and proportion, of measuring, calculating and estimating. So it was a great surprise to meet a young lady parishioner of ours who is a maths teacher, who succeeded where my two mathematician uncles had failed, since she told me I absolutely could understand and enjoy mathematics, if I wanted to. True to her word, a short while later a book arrived in the post, entitled “Alex’s Adventures in Numberland,” by Alex Bellos. I devoured it. The second volume swiftly followed: predictably, entitled “Alex through the Looking Glass.” As an aside, I recommend these books as an interesting introduction to the world of numbers for those of you who, like me, thought it was beyond you. Incidentally, I noticed that the Lewis Carol references were clearly lost on the American audience, where these two books were published under different titles, respectively: “Here’s Looking at Euclid” and “The Grapes of Math.” Which I thought was pretty hilarious.
What I particularly liked was the fact that numbers, when you think about them, can boggle the mind. And just as in theology and philosophy, maths has its mysteries. No surprise then, that the ancient philosophers were also mathematicians: one only has to think of Pythagoras, Plato, even Saint Augustine… who all contemplated, according to their gifts, the harmony of the spheres and the order of Creation in numerical as well as conceptual terms.
Children love numbers. Perhaps some of you have helped children learning to count; they start with their fingers, and count to ten, then they learn more numbers, up to 20… and so on up to 100. When they are starting to learn, numbers like 90 seem huge, until they grow a little more and a number like 1000 seems pretty big. Once I was counting with my little cousin Daniel, and he got to about 25, before looking confused. Thereafter I said a number and he said the next one: 36, 37, 38… and then, things got a little odd. He blurted out “Sixty!” – so I followed with 61. What would he do now? He had heard of some bigger numbers, and these now came out, in no particular order: “70! 84! A hundred and twelve!” I was just about to say “113” when he blasted out “INFINITY! I win.” And the game ended.
Infinity… that mathematical mystery which has tortured and enthused mathematicians in equal measure, even in our own times when computers have overtaken mental and mechanical arithmetic, and given us prime numbers so large that we cannot imagine them, and the digits of the infamous “irrational number” Pi (3.14159…) have been calculated to many trillions of decimal places.
Even before examining the nature of infinity, large numbers already make the mind boggle, and how quickly one can get to them. No wonder people count sheep in order to get to sleep – the mind can only cope with so much! In the book of Genesis, we read: “And God brought Abram outside, and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” (Gen 15:5) Even with the most sophisticated telescopes and galaxy-gazing technology known to us today, new stars are always being counted and named. The sheer size of the universe – constantly expanding, we are told – is baffling to us. The Psalmist sings to us in Ps 147: “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; … He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” (Ps. 147:1,4-5)
If God’s understanding is infinite, man’s is certainly not… There is a charming myth, which some of you may know, concerning the invention of the game of Chess. It illustrates well how sometimes human beings can underestimate number and quantity entirely. The scene is either Persia or India – there are several variations on this story – and the venerable Sage who invented the game of chess inspires a King with enthusiasm for the game also. The King becomes so enamoured of the new game that he sets the Sage a chess-challenge, with the promise of a prize to the victor. The Sage agrees, and then proceeds to beat the King at chess. The King, faithful to his promise, says to the Sage, “Ask what you will as a reward, and I will grant it.” The wise old Sage says, “I am fond of rice. All I ask of is this; there are 64 squares on this chessboard. Place a grain of rice on the first square, then two grains on the second square, and carry on until the 64th square, doubling the previous square’s quantity each time.” The King laughed and said, “Is that all you want as a prize?! Some rice?! Of course, you should have it.” The courtiers then proceed to lay the grains of rice on the squares of the Chessboard as instructed.
On the first square, there is one grain of rice. On the second, 2. On the third, 4. On the fourth, 8. On the fifth, 16. On the sixth, 32. On the seventh, 64, and so on. At the last square on the first row, there are 128 grains of rice. So far, so manageable. On the second row, things escalate a bit. Half-way along, the total is up to 2,048. By the end of the row, the total number of rice grains would need to be 32,868. The courtiers begin to look worried. They calculate quickly the amounts for the remaining squares. Even with just half the chess board covered, they are already at 2 billion grains of rice. In order to fulfil the Sage’s “innocent” request, the number of grains of rice on the sixty-fourth and last square of the chessboard was astronomically huge. Adding up all the rice grains now on the chessboard, the total number of grains of rice would be: 18 quintillion 446 quadrillion 744 trillion 73 billion 709 million 551 thousand, six hundred and fifteen. The prize would weigh over 460 billion metric tons, which would be a heap of rice much, much larger than Mount Everest. This is around 1,645 times the global production of rice in 2014. Allegedly such an amount of rice would be sufficient to cover the whole territory of India with a layer of rice a metre thick. At ten grains of rice per square inch, the above amount would require rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. The debt could not possibly be paid…
How quickly, by simply doubling, did the chessboard take us up to numbers my nephew could not possibly have imagined existed. 264-1 is a convenient shorthand for this number, but it’s still amazing, an unthinkable quantity. And yet, although Daniel might have enjoyed the activity (for a while, at least), one cannot count up to infinity. While you count, you are in the realm of the finite. The mystery of the infinitely large, or the infinitesimally small, will always baffle the human brain. The fact that we cannot calculate the exact area of a circle except by approximation, in practice, by using Pi to as many decimal places as we need, is a timely reminder of the limits of our reason. Some things are beyond us. The universe is steeped in mystery. This should be no surprise to the believer: for God, as the Scriptures remind us, is eternal, omnipotent, and infinite: “the Alpha and the Omega, who was, who is, and who is to come.” As such, we cannot comprehend him totally; if we could, he would not be God. We can try and imagine the breadth of the Universe, and fail to grasp its magnitude at all. We can try and imagine no universe, no created thing, no God, just oblivion – try imagining absolutely nothing – and our brains hurt trying. St Augustine says: “The past and boundless eternity during which God abstained from creating man is so great, that, compare it with what vast and untold numbers of ages as you please, so long as there is a definite conclusion of this term of time, it is not even as if you compared the minutest drop of water with the ocean that everywhere flows around the globe.”
The psalmist expresses once again the greatness of God in these words:
“O Lord, thou hast searched me and known me! Thou knowest when I sit down and when I rise up; thou discernest my thoughts from afar. […] Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to Heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. […]To me, how mysterious thy thoughts, the sum of them not to be numbered! If I count them, they are more than the sand; to finish, I must be eternal, like thee.” [Ps. 139(138)]
We can see how the mathematical zeal to explain infinity was often connected with man’s quest for the truth, whether by counting or by believing. The writer Brian Clegg calls it “The Quest to Think the Unthinkable”- “the ultimate in number, and the ultimate reality – the Creator of everything.” (Cf. B. Clegg, Infinity p.46). But the very divine nature of the problem can also lead to pride, the desire of Adam and Eve to be “like God.”
It has long been the practice of thinkers and philosophers to speculate on eternity and infinity, and to take little mental trips to staggeringly impossible questions, such as whether this world is the only one. Is this universe is the only one in existence? Multiple universes? Endless possibilities? The seemingly unattainable can bring out the best in man, or the worst… Plutarch relates that, “Alexander wept when he heard from Anaxarchus that there was an infinite number of worlds; and his friends asking him if any accident had befallen him, he returns this answer: ‘Do you not think it a matter worthy of lamentation, that when there is such a vast multitude of them, we have not yet conquered one?’” [Plutarch, On the Tranquility of the Mind]
I propose that we, on the other hand, follow the psalmist once again, who prays: “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes. I have not gone after things too great nor marvels beyond me. Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. A weaned child on its mother’s breast, even so is my soul. O Israel, hope in the Lord both now and forever.” [Ps. 131(130)]
The whole wonder of the Incarnation is that the Infinite God, beyond all measure or comprehension, having created the world, and man in his own image, resolved to enter into his own finite creation, and take on human flesh. The condescension of God! The Humility of God! To come down to us. No wonder that we genuflect at those words: “Et Verbum Caro Factum Est.” The eternal one took on human flesh; God became a baby. Why? Because that Fall of Adam and Eve, in wanting to be “like God” was a sin that needed Redemption. We will sing at Easter of the “Happy Fault” that won for us so great a Redeemer, but we should also remember why the Incarnation happened, as well as how.
Today – and every day – our model of humility and grace when faced with the question of God’s Infinity is the Blessed Virgin Mary. We honour the vessel for the Infinite Godhead, the one chosen from before all ages, to be the God-bearer, the finite human being chosen to be the Virgin Mother of the eternal Son of God. Blessed art thou among women!
We will reflect on this mystery more in the second talk. For now, let us contemplate in the Holy Mass the humility and condescension of God, and the wonder of the Infinite dwelling within the finite. “Jesus, living in Mary…” Within her womb, by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost, the Virgin conceives the Son of God, simply by her consent: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” She says yes to the infinite, and becomes the vehicle for the salvation of the Human race. It was not the last time that Mary would offer her flesh for the numberless generations of men and women who would need Salvation – she would do it again at the foot of the Cross, when she might have pointed at her Son and correctly said, with him: “This is my body, given for you… Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone.” Let us ask Our Lady to show us how to see an eternal purpose in the finite things around us, and particularly in the Sacraments. She will show us, in this Holy Mass, how to glimpse the eternal in the temporal, the infinite within the finite, or, in the words of William Blake which might well apply to the Holy Mass we are about to celebrate: