The Greatness Commission by Anthony Esolen


The Greatness Commission

Christ, Individualism & the Meaning of Cultural Diversity

The following is a lecture that I had wanted to give at Providence College, but was warned against doing so by word from one of the deans, who said that a certain group of students would "shut it down." The dean was not displeased by such preemptive censorship.

I am here to speak of cultures in all their splendid diversity, what it may mean to them when they encounter Christ, what that encounter has to teach us about where the value of diversity lies, and how that diversity is threatened by the secular West. But I think it would be most convenient to do first what Plato does in the Republic. That is, I should like to begin not with the great but with the small; not with the society or culture, but with the human person. To do so, I turn to a scene from C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.

Imagine an old man sitting upon a stone, looking whimsically upon a traveler who has taken a bus from the gray city below to the bright borderlands above. The traveler gazes with wonder upon a beautiful woman whose robes seem like the expression of her person, so that she is clothed yet fully revealed in her clothing, as if she were Milton's Eve before the Fall, "with native honor clad / In naked majesty." They need no clothes in that country to hide themselves, but rather "the spiritual body lives along each thread." She is followed by a long train of immense beings bearing flowers and dancing, of youths and maidens singing, and of dogs and cats and birds and horses.

"Is it—is it?" the traveler stutters. He believes he is looking upon Mary, the Mother of God.

"Not at all," says the old gentleman with a broad Scottish brogue. "It's someone ye'll never have heard of. Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green."

The traveler is a bit confused. "She seems to be . . . well, a person of particular importance."

"Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things."

Sarah Smith of Golders Green; that is all she was, but the old guide tells us why she is great. "Every young man or boy," he says, "that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter." Even the animals partook of her motherly care. Says the old man, "Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves."

In her they became themselves—that is an astonishing claim. Such is the elevating power of the love of Christ. Says the old man, "It is like when you throw a stone into a pool and the concentric waves spread out farther and farther. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young."

The Diversity of the Saints

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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