Friday, November 26, 2010

in honor of C.S. Lewis' 112th birthday...

Because I go to one of the coolest (read: nerdiest) churches ever, my pastor has organized a little quasi-'Inklings' gathering at a local pub and asked me to write something (!) about one of Lewis' most famous articles "the Weight of Glory." So I wrote the following (Warning: It's a little thick, and if you haven't read the article it might not make much sense):

“You have a twinkle in your eye!” says my friend, Teresa, as we meet on the sidewalk in front of my house, “Is there anything you should be telling me?” she asks with a grin. I know what she’s talking about. She and I share a common malady: singleness. She’s wondering if I’ve met someone, or been called out of the blue by a long-lost sweetheart, or if Prince Charming has stepped out of man-land and into my living room. “No,” I say, with a grin of my own, “I’ve just been writing.” And it’s true. I’ve been working on this very paper. But the funny thing is, I didn’t even realize I was so happy. The more I think about this, the more I see that C.S. Lewis got it right in his great sermon “the Weight of Glory.” Although Lewis’ words are more eloquent and incisive, the over-riding message is that all of the happiness implied by our most lavish ‘happily ever after’ stories is but a hint of the Real Joy that Christ offers us. This is a Joy so expansive that we literally cannot imagine it as we are in this present world, except as the stuff of which our seemingly bottomless need is but an inside-out reflection. It is a Joy so beyond our understanding that we must be taught to let go of the paper doll replicas we have fashioned for ourselves so that we can reach out and touch the living hands of Love Himself.

Lewis begins his sermon by arguing against the “negative” virtue of unselfishness (negative because it is defined by abstinence rather than substance, not necessarily bad) in favor of the positive virtue of “Love” (again, positive as in substantive rather than vaguely good) in order to bring to light the subtle but powerful difference between a devotional life characterized by rejected desires and one that abandons lesser goods in pursuit of greater ones. After all, what makes Christianity different from eastern religions and altruistic humanism, if not its explicit, almost ludicrous, appeals to our deepest desires—heaven, an intimate and personal relationship with God, miracles, forgiveness, etc? Our insatiable desire, then, is not a blight of the human condition, but its most precious asset. It is the first hint that our tawdry souls are meant for more than the richest pleasures our collective imaginations can make of this world, meant for divine communion with the One who literally sustains the universe with His very breath, the Mind who invented minds. “[I]f we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels,” Lewis writes, “it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak…We are far too easily pleased.”

But if the promises are true, then why do we insist on “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us”? In my heart, I long for adventure. I don’t want merely to shine; I want to blaze across the sky like an exploding star, to overwhelm this dark world with a searing and breath-taking brilliance! So why don’t I? Why don’t I live like my deepest dreams have come true? Well…I just don’t know how. I don’t yet know how to desire the greatest good because I have only just begun to scratch the surface of what goodness means. I suspect that this is why we populate our fictions with so many fascinating scoundrels and boring heroes. As long as we conceive of Good as simply the absence of Bad, we are bound to find the Phantom of the Opera far more interesting than that soppy Raoul fellow (am I right, ladies?). In our worldly culture, the human animal, with all its frailties and destructive tendencies, is the noblest creature imaginable, and a fictional character without these limitations, who does not deal with them, is not noble, he is strangely deficient. We do not yet have the imagination to become experts on the positively Good. Nevertheless, even in our limited and dingy materialism, the stories that mean the most to us are those that tap into our “inconsolable secret,” the yawning ache in our hearts for Goodness that is real, and true, and solid—the desire, in fact, to be more than we know, to be more than human.

As a Christian, I ought to rejoice in the promise of Christ’s redemption, and be content that although I am not whole today, I will be in eternity. But it’s hard not to wonder why the transformation from miserable sinner to glorified saint does not happen instantaneously. After all, is anything too hard for God? I think Lewis would say that on one level, and as far as eternity is concerned, the transformation is instantaneous. Certain parts of the Great Divorce seem to argue that redemption, once accepted, runs both forward and backward through time, so that the ugliness of the past is made beautiful in light of the eternal. Is it possible that our future glory might also reach back through time to transform us now? It might, and indeed does transform us now, or it begins to, for nothing is too hard for God. A great many things are too hard for us, however, and enduring in our present frailty the full power of our future glory is one of them. It seems to be God’s pleasure that we grow into our promised glory as we learn to desire Love for Love’s sake and see ourselves as He sees us. Perhaps He wants our love to grow naturally, like a seed grows into a tree. Perhaps, in this way, the willfulness and frailty that characterizes our humanity can be transformed into something incorruptibly beautiful, instead of being blown apart like shrapnel, in the face of instantaneous holiness. Is it possible that God refuses to force His will upon us, but instead waits, with a lover’s patience, for the gradual unfolding of His beloved’s heart? There can be no doubt that His patience is costly, both to Him and to all of us who must live with each other’s incompleteness, but the survival of the human race up to this point seems to argue that God believes that the glory of our ultimate completion is worth the struggle and the wait.

This is why, even though I am no closer to my childhood dream of playing first mate to the captain of my heart (jam jar opening, oil changing, philosophizing renaissance man that he is), I can still be seen grinning like a fool, humming to myself, and waving to strangers like the soprano lead in a broadway musical. I am convinced today that, regardless of my circumstances, I have something better than my dreams, certainly something more real. And then, as if it were not enough for Lewis to whisper in our ears: Courage, friends; someday, you will be more magnificent than you could possibly imagine, he has to go and give us something to turn our present dreariness into gold. I will not ruin the effect by paraphrasing. Just let me point out that the extent to which we understand and apply the following words to the people around us is the extent to which we actually live in the weight of glory which is to come, the glory we truly long for.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”