Small Things



If you can't be a pine on the top of the hill,
be a scrub in the valley... but be
the best little scrub by the side of the rill;
be a bush if you can't be a tree.

If you can't be a bush, be a bit of the grass,
and some highway happier make;
if you can't be a muskie, then just be a bass...
but the liveliest bass in the lake!

We can't all be captains, we've got to be crew.
There's something for all of us here,
there's big work to do, and there's lesser to do,
and the task you must do is near.

If you can't be a highway, then just be a trail,
if you can't be the sun, be a star;
it isn't by size that you win or you fail...
be the best of whatever you are!
- D. Mallock

Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt (In Harmony Small Things Grow)
- Xaverian College motto

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta

The poem Be the Best of Whatever You Are I learnt at primary school, the Latin motto I learnt at college, and the Mother Teresa quotation I stumbled upon while googling. I think that there is an important message contained in all of the above words, and it is something that is sadly often disregarded by many people in secular society and scorned by many Christian people: I am speaking about the value of small things.

There seems to be a cultural laxity about doing things well. I am not referring to people doing their best and making mistakes but rather to the attitude that care for the little things doesn't matter. We see it in spelling and grammar, in workmanship, in precision of communication, and in various aspects of life. When those of us who are troubled at this express our thoughts, we are often accused of being fussy, pernickety, and are treated with some degree of hostility because we are perceived as being critical. After all, these are just small things. What do they matter? Whether or not this is a cultural shift I am too young to say - it may well be the case that this carelessness has always abounded and that mankind has survived in spite of this. I don't know.

What I do know is that this mentality has infected Christians. I can think of a number of occasions in my life where I have been dismissed as petty, called a bigot, or accused of being pharisaical because of my desire to do things well in church - and this by other Christians. I do not understand this way of thinking or the motivation for dismissing somebody's act of faith in this way. On one Sunday, at a former Anglican parish of mine, we had a visiting priest who overestimated the amount of wine that would be required. After everybody had been communicated and the priest had consumed what he could, there was still a full chalice left over, which I put into the aumbry. Before the Wednesday lunchtime mass, our regular priest removed it, placed it on the altar, and treated it as though the previous Sunday had not happened, consecrating it afresh. When I politely expressed concern about this afterwards, I received the cavalier response, "Oh well. If God can get into it he can get out of it again". I can list a number of examples, both within and without Orthodoxy.

Where does this come from? Is it from a genuine lack of care for how things are done? Do people imagine that, because God is, in his essence, beyond our wildest imaginings, the mundane things of earth are of no concern to Him? The Incarnation and all of salvation history would seem to suggest otherwise. Or is it possibly due to a low sense of self-value, so that people think that their own actions and devotion are so meaningless that it cannot possibly matter if they are not done well?

The Anglican church of St Anne on the island of St Kitts used to have a sexton called Mr Ronald Mills, (may his memory be eternal). One day, he was in church, performing his usual duties during the daytime. He paused to ring the Angelus before continuing with his duties. An hour or so later, he was making his way home and, as he was leaving the churchyard, the priest shouted from the rectory balcony across the street, 'Ring the Angelus, Ronnie!' 'But I've already rung it,' came the reply. 'Well, ring it again!' said the rector. It turns out that he had initially rung it an hour early.

When Mr Mills told me this story, I was about 12 years old and he was well into his 80s. The events of the story had happened at least forty years earlier, yet he told me about them while he was polishing a censer. I hasten to add that, by this point in his life, his fingers weren't quite as nimble as they had once been and his buffing perhaps not as vigorous, and it showed in the appearance of the censer afterwards, and he was aware of it, but that's all rather beside the point. The point is that this was his devotion. He had very little money and had never lived outside his small town on his small island. This service that he performed to the best of his ability was his way of giving of what he had to honour God, of contributing to the communal worship by his parish of almighty God, and it had nourished his faith for nearly half a century. If it wasn't done well, it upset him. It was a small thing.

At my parish, most of us don't have very much money. Some of us sing, others mop, while others bring back candles, wine, and incense from their travels. Some people bake prosphora while others arrange flowers and clean icons. Some of us arrange the variable parts of the services week by week, feast by feast, while others pick the embedded wax out of the candle stands or prepare food to share after the Sunday Liturgy. All of us try our best to make sure that what we do is done as well as it can be. I sometimes see one lady fixing the flower arrangements as she venerates icons because she wants them to look the best that they can. Before they unwrap it, some people privately check with our priest that the food they have brought to share doesn't break any fasting rule because they want their offering to be a joy and not a stumbling-block for their brothers and sisters. I bury myself in books of rubrics during the week because I want my parish's worship to bring our people into the life and common worship of the Church as much possible. These are small things.

Are we Pharisees? After all, a petal falling to the floor, eating a piece of chicken during Lent, and the Sunday Communion Verse sung on a Thursday are all things that are unlikely to set off a sequence of events which will ultimately culminate in the end of the world, (which is probably just as well, because we don't always get it right). However, I prefer to think that we are just people who have inherited a Christian Tradition through which the Saints have been saved, and are trying our best to be faithful to it, for the honour and love of God, out of love for each other, and for our health and salvation. These may just be small things, but they are our small things, and we offer them so that may come together to make a beautiful offering to God. In harmony small things grow.

I always remember the parables of the Saviour whenever people make accusations of pharisaism in matters such as these. There is the parable of the unjust steward:

(Jesus) also said to his disciples: “There was a certain rich man who had a steward, and an accusation was brought to him that this man was wasting his goods. So he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’

Then the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do? For my master is taking the stewardship away from me. I cannot dig; I am ashamed to beg. I have resolved what to do, that when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses.’

So he called every one of his master’s debtors to him, and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ So he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ So he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.

And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much. Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?"
- Luke 16:1-11

The teaching of this parable is that even the most unlikely, worldly, things may be used for the service of God, and that the world is better at using money for the sake of its own ends than religious people are at using money for higher things. The Saviour asks how we can possibly be trusted with great things, with true riches, when we have shown that we cannot be faithful even with small things.

We see this also in the parable of the talents.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a man traveling to a far country, who called his own servants and delivered his goods to them. And to one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability; and immediately he went on a journey. Then he who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and made another five talents. And likewise he who had received two gained two more also. But he who had received one went and dug in the ground, and hid his lord’s money.

After a long time the lord of those servants came and settled accounts with them. So he who had received five talents came and brought five other talents, saying, ‘Lord, you delivered to me five talents; look, I have gained five more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’ He also who had received two talents came and said, ‘Lord, you delivered to me two talents; look, I have gained two more talents besides them.’ His lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.’

Then he who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.’ But his lord answered and said to him, ‘You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has ten talents. ‘For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’"
- Matthew 25:14-30

The lord of the servants gives to each according to his ability, just as we receive our lot in life. Do we use whatever small portion we have for the glory of God or do we instead convince ourselves that what we have is of so little worth that God cannot possibly have any use for it? This is the immortal God Who, for our salvation, deigned to be incarnate of the Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, and without change became man, and was crucified. Surely this God is concerned with the physical things of the world and appreciates our offering, given with a humble and contrite heart. Psalm 138 should convince us of this.

Do I think that there is a danger of legalism? Yes, I do. If we merely follow the externals of our faith slavishly, rather than because they spring from a lively faith, then we are not open to the transformative power of God's grace. Yet the external elements of our faith - even the most minute act of devotion and careful precision - can be spiritually beneficial. We learn from the psalmist that the external offerings are not rejected but that they must be offered in humility and contrition.

O Lord, Thou shalt open my lips, and my mouth shall declare thy praise. For if Thou hadst desired sacrifice, I had given it; with whole-burnt offerings Thou shalt not be pleased. A sacrifice unto God is a broken spirit; a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise. Do good, O Lord, in thy good pleasure unto Sion, and let the walls of Jerusalem be builded. Then shalt Thou be pleased with a sacrifice of righteousness, with oblation and whole-burnt offerings. Then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar.
- verses from Psalm 50

Yet, while there is the danger of falling into legalism, I do believe that it is often with too much
ease that this accusation is made, and that it is sometimes used, perhaps unwittingly, as an excuse for slovenliness and for the placing of personal preferences over and above the humble obedience to Holy Tradition that should naturally flow from love for God. So yes, perhaps sometimes I get a little frustrated when things go wrong with my preparation of the services, or when I don't understand how something should fit together; and perhaps I flinch a little when I see due care not being given to the offering of the services, but it is only because it is primarily through participation in the services of the Church that I am nourished and fed. I need them, and when I have a part to play in them, I want for it to be the best offering that I can give to God and to my brothers and sisters in Christ. If this makes me a rubricist, or a pharisee, or a fusspot, then it is a label that I am willing to embrace, because what matters to me most of all - what I truly long for - is that, after a lifetime of trying to pray faithfully, and striving to love ardently, and struggling to worship fervently, and being embraced by God's grace in the Mysteries of salvation, when I breathe my last, I might just hear the words, 'Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful in small things, I will make you ruler over great things. Enter into the joy of your lord.'

Lord, have mercy!

4 responses:

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

If one is faithful in the upholding the small things, it is easier to be faithful in upholding the bigger things in the Faith as well........

Michael said...

I think so, Elizabeth. I really do. It's the small things that give us a foundation on which to build. Without the small stones, our great cathedrals could not exist, and I don't think the spiritual life is much different.

Max. said...

Michael, I understand where you are coming from... but I think from our conversation earlier IRL is that there can come a point where simply keeping rules can become the focus of rather than a part of worship.
In my own tradition, there can be idea that the liturgy must be perfect: "Do the Red, Say the Black" is the motto for some, the music must be performed beautifully otherwise it's wrong.
But some of the most beautiful masses I've been to have been masses where the opposite is done. The rubrics have been ignored, the music is terrible and is poor quality songs played on an old electronic organ but the devotion is there.
It's my own spirituality that one should worry about getting the basics right and holding onto a faith which is simple. As soon as one gets tangled up with the little details, one can end up getting distracted by them and forget about the big things which is something I just can't do.

I struggle as a Christian to deal with the basics so to add extras into the equation would cause me even more problems.

Michael said...

I think from our conversation earlier IRL is that there can come a point where simply keeping rules can become the focus of rather than a part of worship.

Thank you, Max, and welcome. :-)

Yes, I agree with you. Indeed, as I said in the post itself, I draw a distinction between people offering their best and not getting it quite right, (which I think is the ideal - that we give our best but not always get it right so we know we still have progress to make), and the attitude on the other hand that we can just do our service to God in a slipshod way and think that it doesn't matter. I only object to the latter.

Any action that outwardly appears spiritual can become merely an empty shell, doing us no good but rather making us slaves to the action rather than embracing the benefits that it brings when done in a spirit of humility and obedience to the wider gifts of the Tradition of Christ's Church.

However, the little details are not distractions for me but are the glue which holds the greater whole together - I need them. When we look at a wall, we may simply see a solid structure that is the wall. We may not notice the cement between the bricks and may consider it insignificant, but if it is not there or if it not done properly, the whole structure easily falls apart, (see my recent personal example of shoddy pointing and the resultant damp, leading to shards of brick falling away from the wall and mould on the inside of the house).

For many people - and I include myself - these small things, keeping the fast, ensuring the correct tones for the hymns, getting the music right, getting the order right - these things are not stumbling blocks that barricade the way or additional extra burdens to carry on the journey, but rather they are the stepping stones that make the journey possible, and it is important to us that they be done well, properly, and with the proper care that befits an offering to God. Christ Himself asks us how we can be trusted with great things when we cannot even be faithful in small things. This alone should give us pause for thought.

Does it harm God if we don't make the effort? No, I don't believe that it does or even can. However, I do believe that it affects us. Just as being surrounded by an atmosphere of empty legalism can negatively affect us, so also I believe that being surrounded by an atmosphere of carelessness where these matters are concerned can also have lasting effects on us.

I enjoy very much the words of a priest online, who identified himself only as "Father Joseph". I know nothing more about him but this is what he said:

We can always make innovations and change what our Holy Fathers and Mothers, Sisters and Brothers have kept for us intact for 2000 years - the Church canons, fasts, rules, etc. None of these later served as an obstacle to them to obtain sanctity and salvation. In fact, they believed that these were the means the Apostolic Church handed down to us from Christ. Strange that we would think so much differently than them, that we are somehow wiser now than they, more understanding and compassionate, more liberated! We can change the rules and whatever we like, but let us not expect the same results.

I think we would all do well to heed those words.

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