The average American man stands 5’9 ½ tall. The average non-Hispanic white American man stands 5’10”. I measure five feet eight inches in my stocking feet. Among my own people, I may not be microscopic, or even pocket-sized, but it is beyond dispute that I am a delicately scaled-down version of what a grown man should be. It’s probably no coincidence that, of all the cars I’ve owned, the one I felt most attached to was a Geo Prizm (which, by the way, was also white).
As a species, we associate height with authority and majesty and shortness with its opposite. Compare what is conveyed by the adjectives high and low, lofty and base, haut and bas, even the prefixes super- and sub-. At 5’6”, Napoleon was not, in fact, especially short for a man born in 1769. But the idea that he was, born of a mistranslation from French to British measurements, has endured partly because it fits so well the picture of an adventurer driven by unwholesome ambition to grasp for more than was rightfully his.
At the procession to Arlington National Cemetery following JFK’s funeral, the six-foot-five inch Charles de Gaulle found himself marching alongside the five-foot-four-inch Haile Selassie. The French president wore a civilian suit; the Ethiopian emperor, a military uniform bearing the stars and ribbons of various knightly orders. Blinded by this general prejudice, a White House staffer reflected, “How like De Gaulle to keep a dwarf as an aide.”
The vertical dimension is (to put it in horizontal terms) central to the Christian worldview. Going back to the Hebrew shamayim, all the words for God’s abode – ouranos, caelum, heaven – describe a place in the sky, or at least above the earth. In Isaiah, God himself calls the earth his footstool. We sing, “Glory to God in the Highest.” In the Nicene Creed, we repeat the Jesus came down from heaven (where he suffered death and was buried) and descended into hell before ascending back. The message: Up = good, or better and Down = bad, or worse, is pervasive. When atheists poke fun at our sky-god, they’re proving they’ve done their homework.
Maybe I’m nibbling sour grapes, but I like to think that short people have an especially keen sense of the distance between heaven and earth. Vertical issues dominate our lives. The brute facts of our physical existence oblige us to look upward constantly, not only at mountains and skyscrapers and the stars, but at signs and other people. After a few years of this, nothing could feel more natural than sitting or kneeling in a pew and casting eyes toward a corpus hung high on the wall. With its pointed spires and arches, the goal of Gothic architecture is to draw the eye – and the mind – heavenward, toward God and his throne. It democratizes the perspective we shorties enjoy as a birthright.
In tandem with this all-eyes-look-toward-thee-O-Lord perspective, we acquire a sense of limitedness, of being unable, without assistance or strain, to attain what we’re gazing at. Standing on tiptoe to retrieve plates from the cupboard or hopping up on a stool to knock dust off a ceiling fan leaves us with a gut-level understanding why Jacob needed a ladder – and Elijah a whirlwind, and the Blessed Mother a pair of angelic flight attendants – to reach heaven. By the same token, struggling against unflappable long-boned giants in foot races and arm-wrassles reminds us just how arbitrarily God distributes his grace.
In his famous drawing of the Great Chain of Being, Didacus Valades imagined God enthroned above the orders of angels, men, and beasts, grouped by rank in descending order. The first time I laid eyes on that drawing, I flashed straight back to those class pictures. They were my reality check, my first inkling that God had assigned me a place relative to my fellow man from which I could not easily escape. My childhood crush, the golden-haired R.P. – 5’6” at the age of 11 — belonged to the highest order of angels. Nearly a foot shorter, herded by the photographer toward the very end of the middle row, I could only hope to huddle at the edge of human respectability, a petit-bourgeois in every sense of the word.
How tall people, with their heads already in the clouds, manage to come by any sense of Christian humility I have no idea. Maybe reading Dante’s account of simoniacs stuffed into rock fissures reminds them of flying coach. They will have to speak for themselves. When the former Saul of Tarsus, renamed “Paulus,” the Latin word for “little,” wrote that all men come short of the glory of God, he spoke for our team, for the ages.