Tiny Expanses: Small Is Beautiful

While writing a book called The Consolation of the Ordinary, I tried to come up with as many synonyms as possible for ordinary: daily, everyday, mundane, quotidian, common, and so on. Only late in this process did it occur to me that one such synonym is small.

I thought of this on New Year’s Day when, having a lot of notes and emails to write, I hit upon a standard salutation that I liked: Here’s wishing you a new year full of happiness in big ways and—more importantly—in small. The great importance of smallness is a pervasive theme in spiritual writing, as only a small selection of quotes will demonstrate. 

Tiny Expanse #29 by Olive Chan

Julian of Norwich had a vision of “a little thing the size of a hazelnut.” As she asked the Lord what this was, the answer came, “It is all that is made. It lasts and ever shall because God loves it.” Later she wrote: “God wants us to know that not only does He care for great and noble things, but equally for little and small, lowly and simple things as well. When He says, ‘Everything will be all right,’ we are to know that the least thing will not be forgotten.” 

St. Teresa of Calcutta: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” And: “We have so much that we don’t care about small things. But nothing can make me holy except the presence of God, and to me the presence of God is fidelity to small things. Fidelity to small things will lead you to Christ. Infidelity to small things will lead you to sin.” 

St. Bonaventure: “The perfection of a religious person is to do common things in a perfect manner, and a constant fidelity in small matters is great and heroic virtue.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only he who gives thanks for little things receives the big things. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts. How can God entrust great things to one who will not thankfully receive from Him the little things?” 

Karl Rahner: “One should be good to small things—the things of everyday life that are modest and insignificant. They are irritating only when we receive them in an irritated way; they are boring only when we don’t understand them for what they are.”

Pope Saint John XXIII: “The feelings of my smallness and my nothingness always keep me good company.” 

Christopher Hall: “The great writers on the spiritual life are universal in their insistence that the most important matters are the small ones.” 

Rich Mullins: “The small things are where it all comes together, or falls apart.” 

As the old hymn says, “Jesus bids us shine … You in your small corner, and I in mine.” But do we know how to shine in our smallness? In Wake Up into My Love Carson Leith writes about being a new father: “Everything in my world—from the increments of time to the size of my child’s socks—had shrunk. And I didn’t know how to deal with tiny. I only knew how to deal with big. Tiny scared me.” 

Tiny didn’t scare artist Olive Chan, who mounted an exhibition called Tiny Expanses of one hundred two-by-two-inch paintings, all featuring the sky. I have one of Olive’s tiny paintings, and the concept of capturing something so large within such a small frame speaks to me of what it is to be human, made in the image of God.


Images used by permission of my artist friend, and fellow Canadian, Olive Chan. Visit the “Tiny Expanses” exhibition, where some of Olive’s tiny paintings are still available for purchase.

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