“Another Voice” this week features an article written in 2007 by Stephanie Paulsell. Stephanie is not just an academic star who wrote this powerful article while at Harvard Divinity School, and she’s not just one of the premier contemporary scholars offering her expertise to the major theological questions of the day, and she’s not just a lifelong student of the ways of monasticism and frequent guest at several abbeys. But Stephanie is also the daughter of one of my earliest and most important spiritual mentors in my journey, William Paulsell. Stephanie comes from a strong spiritual lineage, that she gets from both her mom and dad. 

This article has a whole lot to say to each one of us … and to our church. You see, I think there’s something very spirited about smallness and closeness. I think the Holy Spirit soars in small places and among close friends. I think small and close aligns well with ‘The Way” of Jesus, and I think small and close is our secret weapon here at Vine Street. Too understand more, please read on …

On the Road to Jerusalem, with You …                                                       

Pastor Bob <><


A small, beautiful thing: Making a difference; changing the world

by Stephanie Paulsell

Years ago, when I had just begun teaching and wondered what kind of contribution I might make to the great world of scholarship, I spoke with a teacher and scholar whose work I very much admired. She had translated neglected works by medieval woman writers, written important articles on medieval women’s religious lives, and made influential contributions to the theory and practice of teaching history. What she had not done was write “the big book,” the monograph that laid out her theory of everything. I asked her if she planned to write such a book. “Oh,” she replied, “I prefer to do the small, beautiful thing.”

I’ve never forgotten her way of describing the kind of scholarship to which she is drawn: the small, beautiful thing. It is a good description of her work: every idea pursued down to the ground, every story told richly and every sentence polished until it glows. The small, beautiful thing has been the doorway through which she has felt herself invited into large, broad places where she could think her best thoughts and do her best work.

“You have set my feet in a broad place,” the psalmist sings in Psalm 31. Isn’t this what we all long for? A broad place in which to stand and stretch and look about us, a vantage point from which to make the best choices about how to spend our life’s energies? A place with room for our engagement with God, the world and one another to take root and grow?

It’s what I want. But too often I find myself stuck in narrow places, unable to imagine a way out. Psalm 31 names some of the nets that trap us: shame, entanglement, misplaced trust, affliction. But sometimes getting stuck is as simple as feeling that setting our feet in an increasingly narrow groove is the only way to get from one end of our commitments to another.

God longs to draw us from narrow places into more spacious ones. “God speaks,” the psalmist says, “and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.” Coming as it does in every moment of every day, God’s call is present not only in extraordinary moments, but also in the ordinary negotiations of our life in community. Our most mundane Lenten renunciations—a daily commitment to prayer, a daily commitment to be present to every person we encounter—are small, beautiful things that lift us from the groove of anxiety and busyness, production and achievement, and reorient us to the gift of our life.

  1. S. Lewis begins his autobiography with a story of a small, beautiful thing. When he was a little boy, his brother, Warren, brought him a tiny garden he had created in the lid of a biscuit tin. “As long as I live,” Lewis writes, “my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden.”

At its best, the life of faith gives an account of some small bit of the world—a bit of moss and twig and flower, a little bread, a little wine—and returns it to us as something larger, broader, more spacious. Religious traditions are full of stories in which something small repays practices of loving attention by cracking the world wide open. C. S. Lewis’s brother creates a toy garden in which his brother sees paradise. 

I have noticed, however, that some of my students shift uncomfortably in their seats when I talk about this. They are in school to learn how to change the world. When I say small, they hear irrelevant, ineffectual. When I say beautiful, they hear decorative. A middle-class consolation, like Tivo or a trip to the beach.

During Lent I feel those worries too. What are these Lenten sacrifices for, anyway? Who cherishes these small renunciations? Surely God has bigger fish to fry in this world. Does God really care, or even notice, if I give up that glass of wine, that cup of coffee, that piece of cake?

But the small gestures that we are invited to embrace each Lent help us experiment with our lives; they help us try on different ways of living. Last year, a nine-year-old friend of my daughter told her, “I’m giving up sarcasm for Lent. And it’s really hard.”

So, her Lenten practice taught her what it feels like to have that sarcastic reply come to mind, and then to wait and let it pass. Perhaps she learned that to say no to a sarcastic remark opens a space for other kinds of conversation. Perhaps she learned to cherish the anticipation of what might be said instead. And perhaps, through her learning to say no to a small, destructive force, her ability to resist larger destructive forces increased.

The poet, C. D. Wright, in Cooling TimeAn American Poetry Vigil, writes, “Everything has its meaning, / every thing matters; no one is a means – every one is an end.” If everything and every person matters, then the small, beautiful thing is never decorative, never icing on the cake. It is the thing itself. It makes a difference. It changes the world.