Live in the middle ground: between the big picture and the close-up.
While living amongst Oxford’s dreaming spires a few years ago, I realised that most of the world writes the date in ascending order: day, month, year. This seemed logical and more practical to my understanding, and I quickly adopted the practise. Recently, when writing the date on the corner of my journal, I was stunned to reflect that writing the date month-first deconstructs our very selves, as well as the universal framework in which we live. You see, if we begin, not with the overarching framework of the “year of our Lord,” nor the particular minutes or days that make up our part in that story, what do we have left? An arbitrary median that shows us neither the details nor the whole picture. It is like looking at an impressionist painting at a middling distance—all rather blurry—causing one to miss the intricate strokes and colours of the up-close detail, as well as the clearer picture from a farther vantage point.
It is important that the strokes make up the whole, even if the big picture flashed upon the artist’s inner eye first. For example, God said, Let there be light, and there was; then He went on to make the sun, moon, and stars. The universal preceded the particulars. Our particular minutes and hours are how we spend our days, and as Annie Dillard says: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”1 If we live only in the minutes, in the what we are doing, without the framework of the universal “year of our Lord” or the metanarrative of all of history, then what we are doing becomes those unintelligible brushstrokes of a Monet, seen an inch from the canvas. Our moments in the story are unintelligible without a larger framework.
However, there is a big picture laid out from the beginning of time, from the conception of the universe. When we find ourselves placed inside of that framework, then our moments and days—how we spend our lives—flow in the picture. Our days are the light and shadow of a section of the painting. The stroke of our lives may seem incredibly small compared to the giant canvas, but our placement matters in the whole.
Is there room for something between the particulars and the universal? Like months slipped between days and years? Yes, of course. The colossal and minute give parametres for other things. There is something between individual atoms and the galaxy: planets and stars, rivers and lakes, trees and flowers, animals, men, and more. So, too, there are individual humans and society as a whole. What comes between? I posit two middle-forms: the family and the Church.
Families are made up of individuals, helping one another both to survive and to thrive; society is made up of families composed of individuals. The Church (throughout time and space) is made up of individuals and families being knit together into the Body of Christ Jesus. It is these blurry middle-forms where we sometimes have a hard time seeing either the whole story or the individual words on the page.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story. (2)
You know the individual words, you begin to see the whole story by the stringing and weaving of those words together into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The middle-form of a story is the chapter; a good length of the story to read, to mull over, to build upon each times one picks up the book. But a chapter alone does a poor job of conveying the story as a whole with its plot and chronology; nor does a chapter catch the depth of the characters, their memories, histories, or significance to the whole. A chapter is a necessary middle-form or larger building block—much like a month—obviously somewhere between the details and the whole.
So, we return to families, the building blocks of society. There is really no such thing as an individual family—there are always extended relatives, family members marrying and branching out again and again. It is easy to see why we use the image of a tree to explain families, because there is that continual growth and branching, like a tree, that make up a whole. A family is a bit elastic, branching out in marriages and births, pruned by deaths. It is fluid, and thus a bit blurry—like a swift stream, like the Monet seen somewhere between brushstrokes and long-distance clarity. The present is the same, the blur between the future and history. The middle-form is always the blur, the brushstroke, a single chapter—it is the action point, the beam swinging from the crane in the building process. It is like present circumstances, rather hard to understand as you are going through them, but easier to see the edges, the whys and wherefores, after you have made it beyond, gaining perspective from the passage of time.
We live in the moments and the days. Particulars build those middle-forms of family and Church, of months and years, of planets and stars; all within the frame of the whole picture, God’s universal story. The moments matter—become material—like paint on the canvas or inky words on a page. The middle-forms matter, too—setting lonely people in community; ordering words and paragraphs; building brick upon brick—so that we can see the family, or story, or home. We see the whole by the blurs in concert, the fragmented pieces coming together.
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the pleasant land.
So the little moments,
Humble though they be,
Make the mighty ages
Of Eternity. (3)
- Dillard, Annie The Writing Life (New York, New York, Harper Collins, 2009), emphasis mine
- Oliver, Mary, “Breakage” in Why I Wake Early (Boston, Massachusetts, Beacon Press, 2004), 32
- Carney, Julia Abigail Fletcher, “Little Things” Public Domain
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article was published by Conciliar Post.
Image: Morning, Interior. By Maximilien Luce, 1890. Via Wikimedia.