Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI: “Silent, Hidden Gestation”

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Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Some years ago, I visited the Holy Land. It’s a strangely different place. Nobody doubts that. Virtually every inch of its soil has been soaked in blood, including the blood of Christ himself, and history leaps out at you from every rock.

Ancient things from beyond our time seem to come to surface there and mix with the things of today. When you stand in its sacred spots, you begin to understand why Moses was told to take his shoes off and why, through the centuries, so many wars have been fought over this small strip of desert.

It is aptly named the Holy Land. I walked its ground, barefoot in soul, for several weeks.

Of all the things I saw there, however, including the tomb of Christ itself, none touched me as deeply as did the Church of the Visitation. It stands in sharp contrast to many of the other churches there which mark the key events in Christ’s life.

Unlike these other churches, the Church of the Visitation is a very modest building and is basically unadorned. You don’t see any gold or marble there. Its wooden walls and oak ceiling are plain and mostly bare. However, on the front wall, behind the altar, there is a painting that depicts the scene of the Visitation. It was this painting of Elizabeth’s visit to Mary that struck me so deeply.

It’s a picture of two peasant women, both pregnant, greeting each other. Everything about it suggests smallness, littleness, obscurity, dust, small-town, insignificance. What you see is two rather plain-looking women, standing in the dust of an unknown village.

Nothing suggests that either of them, or anything they are doing or carrying, is out of the ordinary or of much significance. Yet, and this is the genius of the painting, all that littleness, obscurity, seeming barrenness, and small-town insignificance makes you automatically ask the question: “Who would have thought it? Who could ever have imagined that these two women, in this obscure town, in this obscure place, in this obscure time, were carrying inside of themselves something that would radically and forever change the world?

Who would have thought it? Yet, it’s true. What these obscure peasant women were gestating and carrying inside of themselves would one day change history more than any army, any philosopher, any artist, any King or Queen, or any entertainment star ever would.

Inside of themselves, they were gestating the Christ and the Prophet. These births changed the world radically. Today we even measure time by the event of those births. We live in the year 1994 AD, that is, after that event.

There is a lesson in that: Never underrate, in terms of world importance, someone living in obscurity who is pregnant with promise. Never underestimate the impact in history of silent, hidden gestation.

We might well meditate this image: Insofar as we have real significance all of us live in obscurity, pregnant with promise, silently, in away hidden to the world, gestating that which will change time and history.

If we understood this, there would be more peace in our lives, one of the raging fires inside of us would torment us much less.

There is a deep restlessness in all of us that can only be stilled by understanding this for all of us live that martyrdom of obscurity, the martyrdom of a life within which we do not have adequate self-expression.

There is a relentless pressure inside of each of us that pushes us to be known, to make a difference, to make our lives count in terms of the big picture. Thus, we yearn to do great things, big things, things that affect beyond the boundaries of the small towns we all live in.

Invariably then we sit inside of our own lives and we feel unknown, small-time, undistinguished and frustrated because almost all of our riches are still unknown to others. We have so much to give to the world, but the world doesn’t know about us.

What we need to bring us some peace is what is expressed in that painting in the Church of the Visitation, namely, that what changes the world is what we give birth to when, in the obscurity and dust of our small towns and within the frustration of lives that will always seem too small for us, we become pregnant with hope and, after a long, humble gestation process, a process which is not advertised or known to the world, we bring that hope to full term.

A songwriter once said: “Many’s the bottle of wine that’s never been drunk—and many’s the thought that’s never been thunk!” I look at what hope did when it was gestated in obscurity and ask: “Who would have thunk it?”