Made in 1924 on the hard, end-grain surface of a boxwood block, Nativity is one of David Jones’s “early attempts” at wood-engraving and lettering. It embodies these lines from the Mass of the Eve of the Assumption: “By the mystery of thy Holy Incarnation, deliver us / O Virgin Mother! He whom the whole world cannot hold was enclosed in thy womb.” The engraved letters crowd and press together against the confines of their frame, achieving in this constrained space a kind of jumbled intimacy. Above them, the figures of Mary and her newly born son meet in intimate embrace, their bodies wrapped in the cloth, hay, and land itself, all of which form a kind of sheltering womb. Only the barnyard animals—the ox and the ass—exceed the frame, freely grazing and looking on in tender contemplation.
At a time when the rule of life across the globe has been disrupted by the paradoxes of collective isolation, a sensitivity to “the small,” to containment and enclosure, presses upon individuals, families, and society in unexpected and often confounding ways. Like Jones’s experimental letter forms, we awkwardly jostle for space within the confines of our homes, balconies, and gardens. Even communal spaces like parks and grocery stores seem to have shrunk, as attempts to heed social distancing alter our awareness of space. Our sense of what counts as crowded has changed, as we learn to accommodate these new rules. Meanwhile, many of us, particularly those in self-isolation, are simultaneously learning just how vastly vacant even a small space can feel.
We can recalibrate our senses to the mysteries of the small through meditation on that paradox of paradoxes, the Incarnation, with the help of this little wood block by David Jones. Throughout Jones’s work there is a marked affection for “things familiar and small.” It is inseparable from a spiritual practice of attention—tuning our senses to that which is easily overlooked or undervalued. Wrapped up in this sensitivity to the small is a care for the fragile, the vulnerable, and a discovery of the surprising resilience of the delicate. It is guided above all by the conviction that it is through refinement of our attention that the wonder and mystery of the created world, particularly in its relation to the divine, reveals itself most fully to us. Focusing on what is small and seemingly commonplace becomes a portal for seeing all things in light of the love of God and thus yields, paradoxically, the most generous and capacious of vantage points.
The liturgical text inscribed in Nativity orbits around a central axis of the mystery of creation and a transcendent Creator: “He whom the whole world cannot hold.” The Creator, who is not within this whole, but Maker and Sustainer of all that is, exceeds the expansive reach of not just this globe but the hidden cracks and crannies of an unfathomably vast universe. The thickly carved “o” of “world” directs our attention to this letter as the symbol of both enclosure and infinity. As in Alain de Lille, Dante, and Nicholas of Cusa, the divine is imagined to be like an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. The Maker of stars and worms is intimately present to each part of creation, yet circumscribed by none. Praised in the reverberations of the O Antiphons and the trisagion across the globe, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” these invocations are echoed in the inscription’s stacked o’s of “whom,” “world,” and “hold”—the Holy One who holds that which only God can hold—all that is.
Near these “o”s, a pattern of three diagonally descending “o”s emerges from the left margin to the right in “ole,” “not,” and “closed.” The immense enclosure represented by “the whole world” is not, the inscription suggests, a closed whole. If this delimitation of power challenges the pretensions of the closed circle—reminding us that “o” is also the digit zero—it simultaneously graces the whole with a greater power and presence than its own. Held open by that which is in excess of it, like that hyphenated “can-not” broken across lines, the circle of the world awaits completion in that which it is not—in this timeless, invisible, and infinite relation to its Maker.