The Greatness of Little Things: A Reflection on a Quote From St. Augustine
May 1, 2019
Community in Mission
I have found that one of my favorite quotes from St. Augustine is not all that well known. Here it is in Latin, followed by my own translation:
Quod minimum, minimum est,
Sed in minimo fidelem esse,
What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing.
But to be faithful in a little thing
is a great thing.
(from St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, IV, 35)
I first saw this quote on the frontispiece of a book by Adrian Fortescue. Fortescue applied it to the intricate details of celebrating the Old Latin Mass. That form of the Mass has an enormous amount of detail to learn: how exactly to hold the hands, when and how to bow, what tone of voice to use, what fingers should be used to pick up the host, and on and on. Some might see these details as picky and overwhelming. But as the quote above states and Fortescue apparently wanted us to think, love is often shown through reverence for the little things. (See the second video below.)
It’s so easy to become lazy, even about sacred things like saying Mass. I often have to remind myself about little things like the condition of my shoes. Are my vestments clean? How about the altar linens, are they properly cared for? Do I bow and pause at Mass when I should? How is my tone of voice? Do I walk reverently in the sanctuary? Am I careful to pronounce the sacred words of the liturgy with care and a prayerful spirit? Some may find such questions tedious or even too scrupulous. But when you love, little things are often important.
Married couples may also struggle to remember the little things that show love: a kind remark, a simple thank you, flowers brought home for no particular reason, a simple look, the gift of listening attentively, cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen, a simple reassurance like “I’m glad I married you” or “You’re a great father to our children,” a quick phone call saying, “I love you and was thinking about you.”
They’re just little things. But to be faithful in little things is a great thing. A gospel passage comes to mind:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt 25:21)
Another passage says,
Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much (Luke 16:10).
Little things—who cares? God does. Little things are great things to those who love.
This song says, “You must be faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be thou faithful unto death and God will give you a crown of life.” It ends in a rousing chorus: “Well done good and faithful servant, well done!”
And since I mentioned the details of the traditional Latin Mass, here is a video that illustrates how little things can mean a lot. Some unaccustomed to this form may find such details stuffy, but to those who appreciate them, these “little things” are small signs of love for God and are a way of suppressing a kind of careless informality.