True students of history know how truly small they are. This is difficult to see in today's society, where everything is catered to my whims, provided I have a little money. Everything around me can be customized to my preferences, from the style of the car I drive to the TV package I receive, to my phone's ringtone, to the height and tilt of the chair I'm sitting in (thankfully, in my case I really only have control over the last of these). This grand cultural force conspires to give me the impression that it's all about me.
But it's not. And even those of us who know it's not must strive every day to cut back the weeds of pride. It's hard not to feel slighted when circumstances don't go our way, even in small things. But small things constitute reality.
Several times a week I walk past the Littleton cemetery--at one end are grand new plots with polished stones, engraved with pithy sentimentalities. At the other end stand the tombstones of the early settlers, men and women who died over a century ago. Most just show the person's name and dates, while a few give a relationship ("father" or "wife") or a station in life ("pioneer"). Perhaps someone still remembers their stories, but most will soon pass away into the anonymity of history, remembered only by a tombstone or a few entries in a dusty town archive. And if we take a step further back, another hundred years or so, there would have been very few, if any, American settlers in this region--only its native inhabitants, the tribes that remember by stories and not by lists. But those people are largely gone now, killed or assimilated or driven away, and few remember the names of the men and women who lived and died in the shadow of the mountains. And how many generations have gone by? Hundreds? Thousands? Of all that we know of history, we have retained perhaps a millionth of a percent of all that happened. In the words of Will Durant, "Civilization is always older than we think; and under whatever sod we tread are the bones of men and women who also worked and loved, wrote songs and made beautiful things, but whose names and very being have been lost in the careless flow of time" (The Life of Greece).
As a student of history, it is perhaps natural that I want to leave behind a legacy that will be remembered. I would wish to emulate the heroes of the past that fill the pages of my books, and who still speak in voices of thunder across the ages. And perhaps such a thing may happen for me, but it is not my destiny to claim. There's the subtle poison of pride that waits to creep into every such desire, and I must guard against it with every breath. The truth is, I will probably be forgotten, like so many good men before me. My tombstone will fade away into illegible etchings on a crumbling rock, and my body decay into dust. All the words I ever write may be lost in the whirling, tireless glut of media that my generation produces. In a century or two even my descendents will forget my name, and the life that I lived will fade from the thoughts of men. The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it well: "There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow" (1:11).
But history is a fluid thing, and even if one's memory fades away, his influence may remain, the blessings or curses of a million choices made. A word of kindness that I speak today might serve in bringing a wandering soul home, even without my knowledge; a prayer I pray today might raise to salvation the grandfather of the next great saint who will shake the kingdoms of the earth.
The things we remember about history--wars and kings--may not be the most important things. In God's economy and God's kingdom, it may be that a single act of mercy by a now-forgotten individual was of more historical worth than the whole campaign of Attila, which gave that act of mercy its context. We shall never know on earth how many of those forgotten men and women were saints of mighty power and influence, who through small choices and small prayers changed the course of history. In short, God can use his children to produce a "butterfly effect" for his kingdom, and the prayers we pray and the words we speak today might, next year or a century from now, produce a hurricane of power in the kingdom of God.
This is what I would like to call "the challenge of sainthood." Only God can make a saint, both in terms of saving us and raising us to spiritual maturity, but we have our role too, following his lead in the dance. We remember the great acts of the saints, the ways they stood up to change history. But most of those great acts were occasioned by rare circumstances or were given prominence by the fame that the person already had. The truth is, many of us will never encounter circumstances so dramatic that history will be obliged to remember us. But it is not so great a challenge to respond heroically in times of crisis; all manners of men can be heroes. If a disaster happens around us, it is only the shallow and selfish man who holds back his aid. Much more difficult is the call to be heroic in all the small things that no one will remember. I could easily be a hero when disaster strikes, but it is much harder to be a hero in the daily course of life, to order all my steps according to the law of God and the principles of righteousness. But the latter is a higher heroism, and that is the heroism that God can use, perhaps even more effectively than the dramatic sort, to change the world.
The challenge of sainthood, then, is not what pops into our heads when we think of the great saints. It is not the grand act of defying a pagan tribe by chopping down their sacred tree (Martin and Boniface) or of traveling to Egypt to preach to the Sultan (Francis). Rather, the true mark of sainthood is found in the quietness of the cell, where the Christian labors and rests in prayer. The hardest challenge is not external, but internal. To subdue the flesh every day, to march out against the temptations of pride and lust and sloth and never to surrender an inch--that is true and saintly heroism. To greet our brothers and sisters in love and to work for their good, to labor in prayer for their salvation and holiness--that is the mark of a history-maker. To order all the small things in our lives according to the righteousness of Christ--that is an act worthy of the highest rewards of heaven.
It is no easy journey, as I said before. It would be much easier, and more pleasant here on earth, to spend our time looking for grand things to do, things that will be printed in tomorrow's newspaper. But that is not the rhythm of Christian service. True Christian service, as all the saints would agree, is largely on the level of drudgery, of dry places where we yearn for God's presence, and of taking up the towel to wash our enemies' feet. But if God is truly working in our hearts, then even that drudgery will be transformed for us into peace.
And in the end, all of history will be remembered and redeemed. No act done in secret will be lost in the mists of time. No prayers will be forgotten. Even if the generations to come lose our name, even if all our descendents perish and our influence fades away, God will remember. We are loved by God, and he will not allow his children to perish. In love he is breathing eternal life into our souls, and we will rise again. The dust of the world will be recalled, and men who breathed the air of a younger earth will break forth from forgotten tombs with shouts of joy. And every word and deed that they ever did for good, no matter how small, will be seen in radiance, in crowns to be cast at the feet of One we love.
Nothing is small to us--not because we are important in ourselves, but because God is important, and we are important to him. No Christian can possibly live a meaningless life. We work and pray and live and love for the glory of God, and nothing is small to us.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.