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Thomas International Center
August 2006


Ralph McInerny


In Clover



Sitting on the patio behind the Morris Inn at Notre Dame I look out at the lawn and notice among the green grass the white flowers of clover. There is a phrase, "in clover," that one still hears from time to time, but what does it mean? To be in clover is to be in a desirable condition, to be happy, to be lucky. There is a line of a once popular song containing the upbeat claim, "I'm in clover." Like so many terms and phrases, originally metaphors, this one has all but lost its literal base. When that happens, the metaphor is likely to travel in the opposite direction, so that to be in clover seems somewhat like "smiling fields," a transfer to the natural world of a human condition. Happy grass to have such clover in it.

Originally, the phrase would have referred to the field in which clover grew among the grass, a condition favorable to ruminants. The milk of cows on such a diet was preferable. Language, like its users, is ever on the move; we think and talk in a world quite different from that of our agrarian forebears in which nature was a mother and source of food and drink. Ours is by and large a plastic world, electronic, and our reality more virtual than real. Not entirely, thank God. We still get caught in the rain, pick an apple from the tree, feel the warmth of the sun, cultivate our gardens, and savor on occasion a glass of unbottled water. Hudor ariston indeed.

Homilists, with mixed success, substitute for the Gospel parables what they regard as modern equivalents, taken all too often alas from their personal lives. "A sower went out to sow..." What can that mean to modern urban man? So many layers of the artificial obscure the natural world that it seems our only access to it is by way of the metaphorical extension to it of human characteristics. But without a primary grasp of flocks and fields and crops and wind and rain language becomes unanchored and worse than jargon.

No wonder philosophers dwell on what they call the "intuition of being," an effort to get beneath the layers of familiarity so we can wonder at what is, marvel that there is anything at all. Quite abstract, of course. After all, to be is to be something or other.  Poets have the same problem, trying to arrest our attention and direct it to the primary things all but eclipsed by chatter and routine. It is paradoxical that we have to discover the obvious, uncover it, only to realize that it was always implicitly there for us. It had better be. The created world is the first language God uses to speak to us and without it the further destiny to which we are called can never be expressed. The world has not been lost. We have been. To regain it is to be in clover indeed.


Ralph McInerny