The time: A Friday in Lent.
The place: A refrigerator in a Catholic home.
The trivial little thing I want to talk about today: An American corn dog — meat on a stick, dipped in batter and deep fried — with all the batter carefully nibbled away, leaving a sheepish-looking hunk of red meat, denuded but intact, much like the conscience of the kid who, after starting to snack on leftovers, suddenly realized it was a Friday in Lent.
Silly, right? It certainly looked silly, sitting there on the plate; and I’m sure the kid felt silly delicately separating the batter-fried wrap from the meat.
Nevertheless, I think God was pleased.
How easy it is to misunderstand this kind of scenario. If God is so great, eternal and omnipotent and omniscient and all, why the heck does He care about a few ounces of processed animal protein? What difference could it possibly make? What kind of infinite deity even notices stuff like that? And how in the world can you say that God is love if He cares about hot dogs?
Well, did you ever stop and think what it would mean if God didn’t notice or care about the little stuff? If He only cared about grand, giant, life-altering works? Where would we be then?
I have the good fortune to be friends with a number of adult converts, and there is nothing more touching than the nervous, self-conscious concern they show toward the little things. Does it matter what colour rosary I use? If I’m saying grace before meals, do I have to say “amen” each time I make the sign of the cross at the beginning and the end and at the end of the prayer, or is one “amen” enough?
In a few cases, they are nervous because they are afraid of being laughed at or yelled at, and in a few cases, they are afraid of making God angry. But most of the time, what they are displaying is the eager attention to detail you will see in a young couple newly in love. Should I wear this necklace or that necklace, or maybe a scarf instead? Does she like her coffee with two creams or one, or should I try to put one-and-a-half creams in, to make it perfect for her? I hope it doesn’t get cold! Maybe I should fetch another cup, just in case. Every little thing the beloved does seems charming and interesting; every little service in the beloved’s honor seems worth while and urgent.
It may seem strange to put it this way, but this urgent desire to serve and delight our beloved is a form of humility. Humility means seeing ourselves rightly in relation to the beloved. When we are passionately in love, it is pleasant to serve, and easy to see that our vocation is to serve the one we love.
After time, when the early passion cools, a couple tends to grow careless with each other. It’s common for a married couple to hit a slump after several years, and the same is true for converts: Once the honeymoon period of their faith is over, it’s easy to slide into habit, cynicism, and corner-cutting. The little things that once seemed so bright and appealing now feel like a chore, or even like a joke. The humility of love, which allowed us to see ourselves as here to serve each other, is replaced by the arrogance of presumption, and we begin to ask, “Why should I bother with the little stuff? Why should it matter?”
Well, in marriage and in faith, little things are harder than they seem. Sometimes it’s a million billion little things that form the bridge to Christ over the chasm of self-interest.
It’s important to note that, when I speak of “little things,” I’m not speaking to people who struggle with scrupulosity. Scrupulosity tells us that God is out to get us, and that we better not ever, ever stray out of the lines, even a tiny bit, or even think of doing something that might possibly be construed as an inclination toward straying outside the lines. Scrupulosity tells you that God will never be satisfied, and no matter how hard you try, he’s always going to find you wanting and will always be mad.
Humility, on the other hand, tells you that there is no possible way we can ever bring our account into balance with God, because it’s just not that kind of relationship. It’s love, not a business ledger. When we do little things for God, it ought to be out of humility, which is a form of love.
So if someone says to me, “Tell me again why this infinite God you worship cares about a bit of hot dog meat?” the answer is: He cares about the little things not because He Himself is small, but because we are. He meets us in the trivial, in the mundane, in the bits and scraps and crumbs of our daily existence, because we are seldom big and strong enough to manage more than one crumb at a time.
The little things are an opportunity for us to enter (and re-enter, over and over again over the course of our lives on earth) into a courtship with God, where we pay attention to the details that are small, knowing that the foolish, the trivial, the slight and non-earth-shattering gestures we do for our beloved will be received as signs of great love.
That’s why we take the trouble to nibble the batter and forego the meat. It’s not because we’re afraid God will stop loving us if we do otherwise. It’s because we know He has never stopped loving us. It is because He loves us that He sees and accepts these trivial gestures as acts of love.