When we describe something as “sublime,” we reference the grand or exalted nature of the thing, and yet what really holds our eye almost invariably is a small detail. Bigness grabs our attention for a moment, but what keeps our attention is some smaller aspect that excites our imagination. However big something may be our imagination is forever bigger, and so it is only our excited imagination that will keep us invested.
What stirs the imagination? It is almost always something minute, even at first unnoticed by the conscious mind. The imagination grabs onto shades, or nuances, or inflections, or negative spaces, or silences between sounds, for the natural inclination of imagination is to paint a landscape with a pinpoint of color. It wants to do a lot with a little. Imagination is the creative analogue to faith. As faith may do great wonders even if only the size of a mustard seed, so is imagination most demonstrably boundless when springing up from an incidental. As the meek shall inherit the earth, so shall the subtle details in one small rose be the life and the soul of an entire landscape of roses.
So the irony in sublime beauty is that it is subtlety writ large. Mona Lisa is not particularly beautiful, but there is something in her half smile that captivates the eye and makes her an icon. If you want to find the beauty in a breathtaking vista, find what seems incidental at first, and yet grows on you the more you consider it. If you want to figure out why you are so moved by a particular piece of music, focus on a recurring, subtle variation on the melody. If you want to know why you are drawn to someone, consider what appearance detail or character trait is so small as to be nearly unnoticed.
God is the very definition of sublime, and yet He is smaller than nothingness and quieter than silence. God stirs the heart, and yet He is completely still. The fullness of all of the sublime beauty ever conceived is smaller than an electron in St. Julian’s hazelnut. If we really believe that, then we can find absolute beauty everywhere we are at any moment.