All of us live in small worlds. They stretch no farther than our horizons. Before the modern era, this was literarily true. Most people never travelled beyond the boundaries of the physical spot where they were born. It’s still true today, figuratively speaking. Jets and superhighways, modern media and communications can show us "the world in all its wonder"—in all its misery as well—but that doesn’t mean that they deepen the world, in which we truly live.
That world is no larger than the people and concerns you care about. Everything else is only the wallpaper of your world. This is why the fundamental task of life is to push back the horizons of your world. A young man, who has observed the commandments from his youth, asks of Jesus, “What next?” He learns that, beyond and beneath the rules, the moral life is this: we all start with small worlds. How large they grow, how deep our concern for others, is the work of grace. Even the powerful, the ones who run the world, will be judged—someday—by whether their own worlds, the sphere of their souls, grew in the course of their lives.
Queen Victoria ascended to the throne at the age of eighteen. The world was handed to her on the proverbial silver platter, but ruling an empire, or running a corporation, isn’t the same thing as allowing one’s world to expand. A good example of a small soul needing to grow came in the first years of Victoria’s reign.
Lady Flora Hastings was a lady-in-waiting for the young queen. Victoria didn’t like the Hastings family. Their politics differed from hers, and Lady Flora herself had been brought to court through the influence of Sir John Conroy, her mother’s manipulative secretary, who had once dominated the young princess and her mother.
In January of 1839, when Lady Flora returned to court after a visit to her family home in Scotland, her abdomen was visibly distended. Rumors began to spread. Flora was ill, and the court thought that it knew the cause. The Queen wrote in her journal, which she kept faithfully throughout her long, long life, that Flora’s body looked “exceedingly suspicious.” Victoria even thought that she knew identity of the putative father. The juvenile queen rather callously insisted that her court physicians and ladies physically examine the young woman. Think of Lady Flora’s chagrin. It’s hard to imagine a greater disgrace that could have been leveled against a young aristocratic lady of the time. Her very future depended upon her reputation.
The examination showed Lady Flora to be a virgin, but vindication doesn’t erase calumny. The doctors established her innocence, but they didn’t diagnose her cancer, which was spreading rapidly. By June, the young woman couldn’t leave her room. After visiting her sickbed, the Queen noted in her diary that Lady Flora “looked as thin as anybody can be who is still alive, literally a skeleton.”
Peering into Victoria’s world from the pages of her journal, one can see how small it was. “I said to her, I hoped to see her again when she was better, upon which she grasped my hand as if to say ‘I shall not see you again.’”
Remember, all of us live in small worlds. They stretch no farther than our horizons. The task of an authentic life, a life of virtue and of grace, is to push back those boundaries. We can’t even see the sin, in which we dwell, or the possibilities of grace until those horizons expand. God doesn’t demand that we see farther than we can, but we are asked ever to expand our horizons.
There are two signs that this is happening. The first is gratitude. A person, who is growing in grace, which is to say, developing the depths of his or her God-given humanity, becomes ever more grateful for life, for its blessings. As the years pass, prayer becomes less about petitions and more about thankfulness. You notice the solemn splendor of autumn and can’t help but to wonder why you’ve never seen it before. You mark the faces of those whom you love, and marvel at God’s goodness to you.
The second sign of growth is regret. You look back, and, from the heights of new horizons, you see how small your world has been. The shallow think that regret is for the weak, that it is something imposed upon us from outside, but only those who are growing can see how small their life has been. Regret is the grace no one wants, but it reveals the expansion of our world, the growth of our soul.
Victoria reigned long enough to give her name to an era. I like to think that the inner world of the Queen of England, the Empress of India, also grew during those many decades. Writing in her journal about those early years, Victoria admitted, “I was very young then.” She added, “and perhaps I should act differently if it was all to be done again.”
Wisdom 7: 7-11 Hebrews 4: 12-13 Mark 10: 17-30