Resisting Bigness

If you’ve lived in our nation’s capital as long as I have, which is all my life, you get used to bigness, as a fact and also as a cherished ideal. Big office buildings like the Pentagon and the grotesque Rayburn Building, where many members of the House of Representatives hang out in style. Big promises with big deficits to match. Big egos. Big scandals. Little things don’t count for a lot around Washington, D.C.
Or in many other places these days, it seems. The American obsession with bigness has become entwined with a rampant obsession with celebrity, thereby creating a spiritual pandemic as virulent as any flu.
Neal Gabler in Newsweek calls celebrity “the great new art form of the 21st century.” Except that art is — or at least it used to be — a celebration of beauty, whereas celebrity is a celebration of self: as in the case of the couple who crashed a White House state dinner in order to be famous; or the parents who, craving exposure on reality TV, claimed their six-year-old son had been carried off by a giant balloon.

I am reminded of Leo Tolstoy. Had Tolstoy been around to see all this, he would not have been amused. As readers of War and Peace will recall — not necessarily with pleasure — that marvelous book is marred by mini-essays elaborating the Great Man’s theory of history, which is that Great Men don’t matter much.
That is to say, the force driving history isn’t what the Churchills and the Bismarcks and the Caesars say and do; it’s the accumulation of decisions and actions by countless ordinary people that produces historic events. A passage in War and Peace more amusing than most of the Tolstoyan theorizing illustrates the notion:
To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause [of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia] as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula . . . for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Although Tolstoy pushes his point too hard and too far, he unquestionably has a point to be pushed. It’s worth consideration now by Americans struggling for spiritual balance in the face of a manic culture of bigness and celebrity. And, Tolstoy aside, there’s important testimony to it in two classic spiritual writers: Rev. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J., and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
Father de Caussade, a French Jesuit (1675-1751) famous as a spiritual director, is best known today for his book Abandonment to Divine Providence. And the book is best remembered for its doctrine of what the writer calls the “sacrament of the present moment.” A typical passage goes like this:
Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God. . . .We can find all that is necessary in the present moment. We need not worry about whether to pray or be silent, whether to withdraw into retreat or mix with people, to read or write, to meditate or make our minds a receptive blank. . . . Nor do poverty or riches, sickness or health, life or death matter in the end. What does matter is what each moment produces by the will of God. . . . Our only satisfaction must be to live in the present moment as if there were nothing to expect beyond it.
Then there’s St. Thérèse (1873-1897) and her doctrine of the “Little Way” and spiritual childhood. Here is Thérèse in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul:
I will look for some means of going to heaven by a little way. . . . It is Your arms, Jesus, which are the lift to carry me to heaven. And so there is no need for me to grow up. In fact, just the opposite: I must stay little and become less and less. . . . That is all Jesus asks from us. He needs nothing from us except our love.
Excerpts barely scratch the surface of the riches present in these two spiritual masterpieces. They deserve to be read and reread by anyone serious about the interior life.
Realistically, though, it’s not so easy to resist the lure of bigness and give little things the spiritual significance they deserve. St. Josémaría Escrivá spoke of the kind of person who’d be glad to be crucified in the center of downtown Madrid (make that Washington or Chicago or Los Angeles or any other place) but is incapable of dealing with the petty trials and tribulations of everyday life. Besides, as Father de Caussade emphasizes, appreciation of the little things requires a kind of moment-by-moment discernment of God’s will. Never easy for anyone, that’s particularly difficult in the face of the distractions constantly thrown up to us by a pervasive culture of bigness and celebrity.
I suspect this problem has no single solution. Rather, it’s part of the ongoing ascetical struggle in all its dimensions. Yet I also suspect that important, indeed indispensable, help can be found in cultivating a lively sense of personal vocation — of one’s own special role in God’s plan: a role that is quite possibly small in the eyes of the world but hardly unimportant on that account.
A famous prayer by John Henry Newman catches the reality of that:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments.
Therefore, I will trust Him, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, he knows what He is about.
Bigness? Celebrity? St. Paul was right: “The wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor 3:18-19).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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