Sense and Nonsense: Radiance

In Trenton, not too long ago, not far from the State of New Jersey government buildings, by the Delaware River, I was in a lovely old stone church, beautiful inside, the oldest Catholic Church in that state, as its good Pastor, Msgr. Leonard Toomey told me. Sacred Heart, as I looked it up, dates from 1814, in a place where my friends, the Judge sisters, went to grammar school, albeit long, long, long after the Church’s founding! As I walked out of the sacristy, after concelebrating the eleven o’clock Sunday Mass with the monsignor, I noticed that he was about to baptize (still perhaps the most lovely of our sacraments) several infants.

I went over briefly to see more closely the first baby as the parents brought her up to the baptismal font for Msgr. Toomey to give her this gift she would spend her life wondering about. She was dressed in white, with a cute bonnet. Her mother told me, if I recall correctly, that her name was Emily, a name I quite like. She was maybe a month old, and I touched her head just to prove again, mainly to myself, that anything so dear could be real. She was an absolutely radiant child. She rather took my breath away—I was merely walking by on the way to the front door of the church, quite unprepared to glimpse such unexpected beauty—though I have come to suspect beauty is always unsuspected. We realize, I think, that the vivid beauty and innocence of the human child does not “come” from us, even if we be its parents.

Anymore, I tend to look at a child such as this one—beautiful and whole as she was there suddenly before me in her mother’s arms—and know she could have been quite legally destroyed only a few months before without a sound of law or pity—except perhaps for Dr. Nathanson’s film, Silent Scream. Thank God for parents who defy such laws, who carry what was theirs from conception now in their arms. Those who do not, and those who assist at the destruction, will be haunted forever, I suspect, by the radiant Emilys of this world who were not allowed to exist among us as was their right, but who are now with the God for whom each of us was created from the beginning.

Yet, here I was, in Sacred Heart Church, in Trenton, not thinking of any of this. I had just had a good conversation with a parishioner in the sacristy about the economics of vending machines, the gentleman’s business. I had learned a lot, in fact, about the problems of the small vendor. And suddenly on the way out, I was sort of awe-struck by a chance seeing of this lovely child, whom I will never see again. I really did not see her parents or grandparents, just her, from the nowhere of our origins.

Josef Pieper, in his extraordinary book, The Silence of St. Thomas, has a long discussion about the nature of creaturehood, in which we all, including this little Emily, exist. “It is quite impossible for us, as spectators, so to speak,” Pieper wrote,

to contemplate the emergence of things from “the eye of God.” Since this is so. our quest for knowledge when it is directed toward the essence of things, even of the lowest and “simplest” order, must move along a pathway to which there is, in principle, no end. The reason for this is that things are creaturae, that the inner lucidity of being has its ultimate and exemplary source in the boundless radiance of Divine knowledge.

I read this passage from Pieper on the Amtrack Palmetto, leaving Trenton at 9:21 a.m. for Washington. I thought to myself, well, of course, this is what I saw in little Emily, newly born and baptized, a beauty in a tiny creature whose full origin reaches, directly, to infinity itself. This is why it was given to us and why we dare not touch it, except to touch her to make us realize that such things exist; we are blessed with them because we are struck by them.

In T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”—which I try, ritually, to read on that day every year it says:

Because of the goodness of the Lady

and because of her loveliness, and because

she honours the Virgin in meditation,

we shine with brightness….

Even since Aristotle, philosophers have tried to account for the something “more” that exists in all things beyond what we ourselves might think they “need.” The account, we realize in seeing such a one as this Emily, is one that must be made.

We live in a world crowded with people who maintain that we have been “given” too little. Poor, desperate souls! This is not our problem. We live in a world in which we can hardly imagine how much we have been given—and even when we succeed a little to suspect this from the reaches of space to the radiance of Emily, we are tempted to create our own parsimonious world instead. And if we do insist on so doing, well, we are left with merely our own world. If we destroy millions of our little Emilys before they see our daylight, we are left with the nothingness of their absence, without the radiance of the little one I actually saw and touched by chance in an old church in Trenton, thinking I already knew all about my world.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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