Small Is Huge and Beautiful
Our culture is starving for a renewed devotion to beauty.
It may be simply that we have fallen natures and therefore tend toward the grandiose. I’m referring to the tendency among so many Catholics to talk about the Culture Crisis and to call for major overhauls, elaborate ideas about how to Turn This Crazy World Around, and dream about plans to fix the macro.
I propose we recover the micro, the personal, the small. A former atheist named E.F. Schumacher wrote a slender volume in 1973 titled, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. It has been acclaimed time and again as one of the most influential books since World War II. Its premise is applicable to many other areas of culture.
My recent guest on The Patrick Coffin Show (link: https://www.patrickcoffin.media/videos/from-neo-nazi-skinhead-to-literary-scholar ) is a former neo-Nazi skinhead who did jail time twice in the UK. We talked about the deadly Charlottesville rally-riot and what it’s like to see the world through rage-fed eyes.
You may have heard of the Catholic biographer and Shakespearean scholar Joseph Pearce. He and the former neo-Nazi are one and the same. You may not have known his violent background! It was Pearce who told me that Schumacher converted to the Catholic Faith later in life.
In the spirit of the beauty of smallness, and rather ginning up glorious global initiatives, why not start small – and hence beautiful – with gestures like saying “God bless you” when a stranger nearby sneezes?
Or when you’re told of a recent death, to mention that you’ll “pray for the repose of so-and-so’s soul”?
Or how about making the sign of the cross in restaurants before eating – and not interrupting your own prayer if the waiter drops by? I’m not talking about dramatic shows of piety. Just a simple expression of your gratitude for the food you’re about to receive through Christ’s bounty. ‘tis all.
Or how about thanking a priest or a religious sister for wearing their clerics or habit in public?
Or walking up to a homeless person with a freshly made sandwich or hamburger combo?
Or calling up an old friend out of the blue to say you were thinking about him or her?
In the quest for big bold proposals it’s easy to forget that the macro is a synonym for the micro. What is the culture but a large set of collective micros forming a macro? Culture is our shared collectivity – the sum of our mores, taboos, unspoken rules, musical tastes and architectural designs.
Go to Italy, Spain, France, Ireland or Poland, and pay attention to the design of public buildings, not just the churches. You will find examples on every corner of finessed cornices, lovely brick designs, and a sense of the ornate –simple, not ostentatious. Then come back to America with its functional, post-World War II architecture, typified by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and the flat sterility of the Bauhaus movement.
What’s behind the difference?
The former is an outer manifestation of a culture steeped in Catholicism. The latter, of a secularist, statist worldview. With no God necessarily above, then no need for sweeping upward architectural lines; with no angels, no need for detailed finesses on door frames, lampposts and foyers.
Buildings, facades, public objects like trash bins, bus waiting areas, parks, manhole covers and the like, all witness to the underlying cultural premises of its creators and designers. Whether we believe man is specially made in God’s image and likeness, or is a merely random collection of chemicals, bone and charm – both beliefs will find their way into the form of the outer environment.
Of course, not everyone is called to be an architect. But everyone who goes by the name Christian is called to radiate beauty. Virtue is beautiful. So is honesty. And vulnerability.
Our divine Savior embodied the deepest depths of Beauty. We often focus on the other transcendentals, Goodness and Truth. Our culture is starving for and would flourish with a devotion to Beauty.
Start small. Small is huge. And beautiful.