Starting Small

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As one of the early Christian writers says, referring to union with God, ‘Everything that grows begins small. It is by constant and progressive feeding that it gradually grows big.’ So I say to you, if you want to become a thorough-going Christian … then you will have to be very attentive to the minutest of details, for the holiness that Our Lord demands of you is to be achieved by carrying out with love of God your work and your daily duties, and these will almost always consist of small realities.

Friends of God, no. 7

Prior to my recent—and first—pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had been warned by a fellow priest not to expect the holy sites to bowl me over with their size and grandeur. “Once you’ve seen places like Egypt and Rome,” he said, “everything in the Holy Land seems very small.” He, a native Egyptian, was right: many standing monuments of the ancient world, even in their ruined state, still command respect and awe. A walk through the Roman Forum or through the temple at Luxor is enough to dwarf anyone’s expectations for greater things elsewhere.

The Holy Land is certainly small compared to its rivals in antiquity. The region is not only small geographically (comparable in size to New Jersey), but the holy places themselves are also remarkably small—with quarters made even closer by the volume of pilgrims crowding their sanctuaries, the most famous being the grotto at Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulcher. Both of these admit no more than two or three pilgrims at a time to venerate the place of the Lord’s birth and that of His resurrection.

But the Lord chose this land as the setting for His relatively brief earthly mission—selecting it, in fact, from all eternity as the place in which the most important events in history would occur. Many lessons follow from this choice. And at this time of year, God’s choices stand out in a particular way—whether it is the choice of Mary as Jesus’s virgin-mother or that of a Bethlehem cave for His birthplace. These and other divine choices are unexpected and wonderful, cluing us in to the type of God He is and the reason why He chose to leave both finger and footprints in these places.

Put simply, He prefers to start small. Apart from the relatively restricted areas in which Jesus lived and ministered, His parables verbalize a preference for things barely measurable and easily overlooked. Tiny mustard seeds, leaven hidden in dough, treasure buried in a field, a single pearl of great price—all of these carefully chosen images suggest a kingdom and a king who like to work on a small scale, over time, until a full flowering and harvest occur: “The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:28-29). A day will come—the biblical Day of the Lord—when the entire population of world history will stand shoulder-to-shoulder before Him, amassed for judgment. But until that final, apocalyptic harvest, the kingdom of God spreads discretely, in ways mostly unseen.

We might share the understandable frustration of the disciples that Jesus would not manifest Himself “to the world,” because as even His “brothers” said, “No man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly” (Jn 7:4; cf. 14:22). But the Gospel immediately brands this as a lack of faith, a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ’s work on earth: “For even his brothers did not believe in him” (Jn 7:5).

This is why the saints, as St Josemaría indicates above, share the Lord’s predilection for littleness: great things, such as worldwide salvation, are not simply declared, much less forced upon people. The kingdom of God begins in the privacy of each individual’s heart, a heart which God has conquered and converted. And it is from one such heart to another that the kingdom is spread.

The mark of the disciple is a loving attention to detail, a care for small matters, in imitation of the Master. The Lord Jesus, who draws our attention to the lilies of the field, the birds of the sky, and the hairs on our head, demonstrates an astonishing concern for the details of human life. The Lord’s concern in holding up tiny things as models of Christian life and growth is to show us how thoroughly involved He is with us. No aspect of human life is off-limits to God, and there is nothing that can’t be sanctified or dignified in some way by His children.

Whereas many people go in for the dramatic and spectacular, the Lord asks us to look more closely at the humble person or duty before us—not to neglect them or otherwise brush them aside as unworthy of our time. It is, unfortunately, in the “small realities” of daily life that we often bypass opportunities to serve God and to pay loving attention to our neighbor, thus bearing witness to the God who numbers the sands on the seashore.

The Benedictine spiritual writer, Hubert van Zeller, encapsulates the message in this way:

[If] our chief duty as Christians is to be re-living our Lord’s life in our own world, it is not going to be in performing the great works of Christ but in performing the little ones. And just as the little ones which he did were not little in the eyes of the Father because they were being done perfectly by the Son, so the little ones which we do are not little to the Father because we are trying to do them perfectly in the Son. [1]

Clearly, it’s not a kind of fretful perfectionism we’re after, but the serenity and humility of living in the littleness of the present moment, assured by faith that God sees and values all we do under His inspiration. This alone transforms the person bored and irritated by his circumstances into one who finds life and peace in them. Note: the circumstances and annoyances might remain the same, but like the seed embedded in the same plot of soil for days and months on end, growth occurs because God grants the increase.

The preaching of Jesus as it rises from the pages of the Gospel never gives the impression of cramped spaces or of constraint—except when the circumstances are sometimes said to be so teeming with people that the disciples could not even eat. Rather, His voice resonates in an expansive echo reaching not only the terrain of Galilee and Judea, but across centuries and continents—and what is more remarkable, into the hearts of people from every culture and walk of life.

The keynote observation made by Fr Jacques Philippe at the outset of his book Interior Freedom makes the point. Upon visiting the Carmel of Lisieux, made famous by the saint of the “little way,” St Therese of Lisieux, Fr Philippe was struck by the smallness of the convent and its grounds. His expectations for a grander setting for the life of the Little Flower had been heightened by the Saint’s own proclivity for expansive language in her autobiography.

Being a saint of great desires and deep interior life, Lisieux seemed like a veritable Luxor or Roman basilica. Therese saw her little world not as a confinement but as a cavernous recess in which the infinite depths of God might be plumbed—somewhat as her fellow Carmelite St John of the Cross likened knowledge of Christ to a deep mine of riches, never exhausted and revealing ever more intricate nooks the further one searches into Him.

Fr Philippe very simply attributes the Saint’s perspective to the intensity of her love. Hers wasn’t a preference for miniatures or small spaces, but for the God who is sought and found with fewer distractions in a setting where needs are simple and expectations are modest. In the monastery, multiplicity and variety are deliberately curtailed to train the eyes of the mind and heart on the one thing necessary. The fewer things we consider necessary, the more naturally do we set our sights on the simplicity and unity of God.

If love can make small places into universes, this helps explain why a place like the cave at Bethlehem continues to draw multitudes, and why it still fascinates and consoles people today, whether near or far from the Holy Land. The infinite expanse of love that filled it two millennia ago has forever transformed a lowly hollow in the rock into the pedestal of the infinite. What can it do for us?


[1] Hubert van Zeller, Sanctity in Other Words: A Presentation for Beginners, p. 22.

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