The Usefulness of Useless Things

COMMENTARY: A single prayer, seemingly unimportant in itself, can have a far-reaching positive effect.

The Battle of Lepanto from Oct. 7, 1571.
The Battle of Lepanto from Oct. 7, 1571. (photo: National Maritime Museum / Public Domain )

In Anton Chekhov’s famous play, The Three Sisters, Masha, one of the sisters, complains that knowing three languages is a needless luxury in a small, unsophisticated town. She compares it to something like having a “sixth finger.” A military officer who is present argues that no knowledge is ever useless. In fact, he goes on to say, the least intellectual refinement will have its effect on others and eventually leaven the entire environment by elevating it.

In 1275, a Spanish alchemist by the name of Raymundus Lullius mixed sulfuric acid with alcohol and distilled water to produce a sweet, white fluid which, at first, he and his contemporaries called sweet vitriol. The chemical compound was later called ether. This apparently useless mixture was the first important advance in the development of anesthesia. Its usefulness in smothering pain has been one of the greatest blessings that science has given to mankind. Nonetheless it took six centuries before its ultimate use would be discovered.

What seemed initially useless paved the way for painless dentistry and painless surgery. It is frightening to think of what surgery was like without anesthesia. The London Hospital, built in 1791, a model for future hospitals, was designed with the operating room on the top floor. When a surgical procedure was contemplated, a bell would ring to summon all the nurses, physicians, and aides to the operating room and close a heavy door so that the patient’s screams could not be heard elsewhere. The entire hospital staff assisted in holding the patient down, gagging him or her if necessary. What initially seemed to be a trivial discovery proved, in the end, to be useful beyond measure.

“He that is faithful in that which is least,” said Christ, “is faithful also in much” (Luke 6:10). He explains:

“The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matthew 13:31-32). 

All of creation is a web of interconnections. What occurs in one area has an effect on all other areas. Therefore, a single prayer, seemingly unimportant in itself, can have a far-reaching positive effect. It may be likened to the so called “butterfly effect,” which is closely associated with the work of the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz. It is derived from the details of a tornado (exact time of formation, the exact path taken, etc.) being influenced by a distant butterfly flapping its wings several weeks earlier. 

The rosary, in one sense, appears to be a powerless trinket. Yet, praying the Rosary, even from the quiet of one’s home, can have a decisive effect elsewhere. In 1571 the Turkish armada was poised to invade Europe. Pope Pius V directed Catholics everywhere to say the Rosary. The Turkish army greatly outnumbered the Christians. 

The weather, which favored the Turks at dawn, changed and the Christian forces overwhelmed their opponent at the famous Battle of Lepanto on Oct. 7. Their victory was attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary and a feast day to celebrate the event, initially called Our Lady of Victory was later changed, to Our Lady of the Rosary. 

The Christian troops are said to have prayed the Rosary throughout the night before the battle, and some sources say that the rhythmic repetition of the prayer thoroughly frightened and demoralized the Turkish army. In 1580, Philip II of Spain and the Ottoman sultan Murad III tacitly signed a treaty.

The apostles referred to Jesus as the stone that the builders rejected. In being rejected, that stone was deemed useless. Yet in God’s hands it became the cornerstone of his kingdom. What was regarded as useless became essential in the building of God’s new building (1 Peter 2:5). 

In God’s eyes, nothing is useless. “There are no dustbins in heaven,” said G.K. Chesterton. To carry the thought to its logical end, God created the world from nothing. No one can imagine how nothing could be converted into something, nay, even the whole universe emerged from God’s hand from nothing. To God even nothing is useful.

People who share the values of the secular world are impressed with things that are big: a big house, a large bank account, an extensive wardrobe and a high paying job. Their assumption is “the bigger the better,” and equate size with usefulness. The Christian finds wonders in little things: the gentle smile, the pat on the back, the kind word, the helping hand, the sharing of bread and the nod of approval.

St. Theresa of Avila is known to have displayed a spirituality of littleness. St. Thérèse of Lisieux is known for adopting her Little Way. Both these saints found God’s presence in things that the world discards as useless. Christ advises all of us to be like little children: 

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

The Christian lives in a world of surprises in which the mustard seed develops into a large shrub, a rejected stone becomes the cornerstone of a temple, and a fertilized egg evolves as a human being.


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COMMENTARY: ‘We all want progress,’ writes C.S. Lewis, ‘but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.’