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The European adventurers who sailed west across the Atlantic in the 15th and 16th centuries discovered a new hemisphere.
But on April 24, 1676, Anton von Leeuwenhoek, without leaving his home in the Netherlands, discovered a whole new world.
Leeuwenhoek’s innate curiosity went far beyond the fabrics he peddled as a cloth merchant. One of his hobbies was grinding lenses. He created a microscope – then a scientific novelty – that could magnify objects 266 times. He was curious about black pepper. What was responsible for its characteristic bite? Leeuwenhoek’s guess was tiny, sharp hooks, invisible to the naked eye.
After soaking some peppercorns in water for three weeks, he zeroed in for a closer look. His hooks theory, although a clever one, turned out to be wrong. But that disappointment was quickly set aside in the excitement of what he saw swimming in the water.
There were tiny creatures. Hundreds and thousands of them. For the first time in history, a pair of human eyes gazed upon the microscopic universe in which we live, move, and have our being.
Within a few years, Leeuwenhoek had identified bacteria, mold spores, and red blood cells. A few drops of pond water, he learned, hosted a microscopic metropolis of strange creatures – “wee beasties,” he called them. As he told others about his discoveries, friends and neighbors assumed he had lost his mind.
The spouses of inventors and geniuses are sometimes called to an unusual degree of personal sacrifice. Leeuwenhoek compelled his long-suffering wife to carry insect eggs under her dress during chilly Dutch winters in order to keep them warm. This presumably makes your spouse’s demand to hold the TV remote the other night seem a little less crazy.
What do we learn from Leeuwenhoek’s story?
Some of our most important discoveries happen when we aren’t looking for them. They are serendipities. That word comes from The Three Princes of Serendip, a Persian folk tale that dates back more than a thousand years. According to the fable, three young men from the island of Serendip (now known as Sri Lanka) experience one happy adventure after another, even though they’re always hoping for something else.
You may be hoping for a life partner. Or your dream job. Or the healing of a nagging illness. In the process of working and praying for those good things, God surprises you. You receive the serendipity of a faith you never thought you could have. Or perhaps the gifts of courage and patience. Or maybe even the discovery that your life can still be complete without that partner, that job, or that healing.
Leeuwenhoek also helped us begin to understand, in a way that no one had ever suspected, that small things matter a great deal.
Human beings typically assume that big things deserve big attention. That was represented in the history of art well into the Middle Ages. If someone was identified as being theologically or morally superior, that character dominated the canvas, all out of proportion to lesser figures.
Suddenly the world awoke to the reality that a great deal of God’s creation cannot even be seen – and those entities may well turn out to be either important allies or serious adversaries.
Leeuwenhoek was the first to glimpse the micro-world. But he only ventured a few steps. Today we know that something like 900 different species of microbes live within your nostrils, another 800 or so on the walls of your mouth, at least 1,300 on your gums, and as many as 36,000 varieties of wee beasties call your gastrointestinal tract home. While a few of them may cause the occasional stomachache, a great many more are the only reason you’re able to digest this morning’s breakfast burrito. The vast majority appear to be blissful bystanders.
Jesus had much to say about the dignity of small things.
According to Matthew 13:31, life in God’s kingdom typically begins with something as small as a mustard seed, which ultimately grows into a plant where birds can nest.
That means that our relationship with God is likely to rise and fall on little steps, little decisions, and little acts of kindness to which one might hardly pay attention.
In a world that has an outsized fascination with big celebrities, big corporate mergers, and big voices, small things make all the difference in the world.
In the memorable words of St. Theresa of Calcutta, we may not be able to do great things. But we can all do “small things with great love.”
Anton von Leeuwenhoek would be the first to say that such small things are a very big deal, indeed.