What do you see when you walk from your house to the mailbox, or from the parking lot to your workplace, or from the school to the park? You probably imagine looking straight ahead, or from side to side. That's the normal way of looking, to see where we're going, to be sure what's around us and keep safe.
But what do you see when you look down? We're used to looking down only when we're uncertain of our footing, but what's down there may be the most interesting of all, a kind of heaven below. Heaven on earth usually brings to mind creation's grandeur: a mountainside, a desert landscape, the ocean, sunrise, sunset. In our time outdoors we seek those kind of vistas to reconnect with our Creator. There's another way of making that reconnection in a spirituality of small things.
Our contemporary culture is fixated on living large. The adjective extreme gets put in front of almost everything to make it seem appealing. Extravagance is considered admirable. Expressions like "too much is never enough" show up in songs, videos, and blogs, and in marketing for restaurants, motorcycles and consumption tours of London and Las Vegas. The spiritual life, the authentic life, by contrast, has always been much more about living small. It is about having less, being less visible and less known. The name for this quality is humility, and it can be nurtured by various practices.
One of the ways of living small is a simple attentiveness to what is under our feet. Down there is a small world hidden within our world, below the level of ordinary perception, small things, objects that are visible but too tiny to catch our attention, so close to the ground or so much a part of background scenery that we just don't notice them. Learning to notice these creatures, to observe these small communities, is a discipline of observation. But it is also a spiritual discipline, because down there, hidden from our blundering eyes and vulnerable to our clumsy feet, is a world designed and loved by God. It is knowledge gained when we are willing to be small, near the ground, the humus, from which the word humble is derived. Any moment spent outdoors, even just walking down the sidewalk, offers the opportunity to practice humility. If nothing else, sidewalks have cracks, and those cracks all contain little communities of living things, small creatures as we walk by each day. So does the bit of soil at the base of a telephone pole or the space between stones in a wall. If we slow down a little, bend over or kneel for a bit, we will find ourselves face to face with wonders. It may be a patch of moss with blossoms only a few millimeters in diameter, or a wild strawberry smaller than your fingernail. Or it may be a cluster of dried leaves and pine needles with a half inch red mushroom cap peeking out.
In any climate, any patch of earth, life makes its desire known. We only need to change our attentiveness to see it. Paying attention to small things can open our eyes to the Creator's glory in unfamiliar portions of creation. It can be like seeing for the first time. I remember a retreat when I was asked to look at a tree. I could suddenly see not just swatches of color on the tree, but specific leaves and clusters of leaves. Beginning to notice the world beneath our feet can be like that. We begin to see things that were always there, just missed by our inattention. G.K Chesterton wrote an essay, "A Defense of Humility," in which he says, "a beetle may or may not be inferior to man, but if he were inferior by a thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle point of view of which a man is entirely ignorant."
And how might one attain the beetle point of view? Listen to Chesterton: "Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own rules and structures. But to the spirit which has stripped off its own standards, the grass is an everlasting forest; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled upon each other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heathbells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other. These are the visions of him, who, like the child in fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. The towering vision of things as they really are shall perish with the last of the humble."