It Matters to Know We Are Small

One of the greatest nights of my life was spent alone. My husband and sons were off camping with the Boy Scouts and I took myself to Montauk, and found a small beachfront and parked myself on a blanket under the sky. I simply watched the constellations roll by, and all the shooting stars falling. Such depths of sparkling beauty. Such a night of wonder.

Electric light is wonderful — it’s near-miraculous — but we give up an awful lot to have it all about us, making us feel safe and less afraid. We give up our understanding of the spaciousness of the mystery of the Creator, among other things, and we give up our willingness to know we are small:

Does the fact that we can no longer see the stars have anything to do with our loss of wonder? . . . It seems like when we were more aware of milky ways and horizons, it was easier to believe. Could Joan of Arc have led her army, could she even have thought to, could she have trusted enough, without having a sense of something greater, bigger than herself?

We have obliterated the stars with our artificial light – but perhaps we’ve blinded ourselves, too. Without the wonder, the greatness of the galaxies in our sight, we’ve lost the ability to believe in, or expect, miracles.

When you cannot see the glory of God’s creation, how can you wish to glorify the Lord? No longer seeing anything greater than ourselves, we turn inward, we worship our own thoughts, our invention, our desire.

Each generation–and perhaps my boomer generation more than any other–thinks of itself as the most enlightened, most informed, most aware, but how can that be?

We see the world through 19 inch computer screens, and 40 inch television screens. We melt the sand to create 36 inch windows, and we think that’s as big as the world gets.

That night in Montauk, alone on a deserted beach, I felt very small, but remarkably safe and unafraid, too, because all about me was evidence of something so much greater than myself, something powered by the unstoppable “yes” of love.

Found over at Mark Shea’s place: something to enlarge the view and un-narrow the perspective! Stick with it — it’s a boffo finish!

God has all the essential characteristics of what we mean by a “person,” in particular conscious awareness, the ability to recognize and the ability to love. In that sense he is someone who can speak and who can listen. That, I think, is what is essential about God. Nature can be marvelous. The starry heaven is stupendous. But my reaction to that remains no more than an impersonal wonder, because that, in the end, means that I am myself no more than a tiny part of an enormous machine. The real God, however, is more than that. He is not just nature, but the One who came before it and who sustains it. And the whole of God, so faith tells us, is the act of relating. That is what we mean when we say that he is a Trinity, that he is threefold. Because he is in himself a complex of relationships, he can also make other beings who are grounded in relationships and who may relate to him, because he has related them to himself.
– Pope Benedict XVI, (from God and the World)

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Gail Finke

    I remember a college lecture about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal, and other things that supposedly made people feel insignificant and destroyed their faith. I could not figure out why the immensity of the universe would ruin anyone’s faith. St. Augustine was contemplating infinity long before the invention of the telescope; you don’t need modern science to be dazzled by it! Somehow, the infinity of the universe has always made me feel larger, not smaller. I figure, infinity has no center. So every spot is just as much the center as every other spot. Maybe EVERY spot is simultaneously the center of the universe. The dazzling immensity of the universe, the hugeness of the Earth… these are beautiful and comforting to me for some reason.

  • Gail Finke

    PS: I could never figure out what the Uncertainty Principle had to do with ending faith either. So what if you can never know where a particle is and its speed at the same time, or whatever? IT’S STILL THERE.

  • Clare Krishan

    And for those who like their Vatican City to be somewhere near the center of the Universe, try this out (found on NewAdvent browser aggregator page)
    The whiz-Huang twins have the religious sense of Giussani methinks!

  • leelu

    Your comment “We see the world through 19 inch computer screens, and 40 inch television screens. We melt the sand to create 36 inch windows, and we think that’s as big as the world gets.” reminded me of this:

    I miss Freberg…

  • jkm

    The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle RESTORES my faith. It concedes we can’t ever really know everything. Duh! Creation is not the Creator, but it is one of the languages in which the Creator sings us love songs and sends us warning notices; science is one of its dialects, but not the only one. I always remember a friend’s story about a Franciscan priest, his high school seminary science teacher, who used to end classroom displays of the wonders of the world by intoning, in a kind of James Earl Jones dramatic bass, with a full stop between each word, “AND THEY SAY THERE IS NO GOD!” I repeated that last night, stunned by the brilliant light sculpture of the crescent moon, Jupiter, and Venus in the clear, cold winter sky.

  • Beth

    Ever since a night spent under the brilliant West Texas stars I have never been able to understand how anyone could look at such a magnificent sight and say, “There is no God.”

  • firstHat

    Two favorite books of my adolescent years taught me this concept (and made me a great fan of the authors). Tolkien’s character, Sam, as he reached the boundaries of despair, looks up to see a star (in this case not just any star, but one laden with legends of the past) and suddenly realizes that no matter what his own fate will be, there is a greater story being told than just his own and that beyond this world’s despair there will always exist a purer and more permanent light. Then in Lewis’s Perelandra, Ransom stands before the Eve of that planet after having played his part in saving her from our Eve’s fall and he is told by the god of that world that he should “take comfort in his smallness”—that though he played his part well, God’s plans reach far beyond him. These two passages have been my comfort through many bad times and seem especially important these days.

  • Mark

    I had a similar moment walking alone one day around the Giant Redwood’s north of San Francisco. Walking around trees that were living at the time of Christ and that would be living when I was long gone bring a certain realization to our small part in a grand world beyond anything we can ever understand. The trip had started in one of this countries most beautiful cities, across the Golden Gate bridge from which you can see Alcatraz and up to these Redwoods. It was a look at what man is capable of doing at his best and worst and what God clearly created that man can only preserve from himself.

  • Will

    Two years ago, my wife and I went to Death Valley National Park and visited Scotty’s Castle. The tour ended just as it was getting dark. We were staying in Las Vegas, so had a two hour drive. I stopped the car a along side the road while we were still in the National Park. We got out for a few minutes and were in awe of the stars in the dark dessert sky.

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