the simple grace of loving

christianwiman

Poet Christian Wiman:

“There are other moments, too, which are simply moments of life. Simply! I think of the poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I have 3-year-old twin daughters. It would be disingenuous in the extreme for me to pretend that they don’t at times drive all thought of God out of my head and make me want to write a series of sonnets in praise of celibacy, but it would be equally insane for me not to acknowledge that they are the source of my greatest happiness. Father Zossima, in The Brothers Karamazov, defines hell as “the inability to love.” I have known that hell, and I should probably spend my remaining days thanking God that I am free of it.”

When my wife was pregnant for the first time, a friend who had just the year before had his first child, was trying to tell me how great it was to have kids. He said, “It’s amazing. You are filled with so much love.” 

I’ve since thought many times of the simple, surprising truth in this: that one of the greatest graces in life (what makes parenthood so “amazing”) is not anything your children give you or do for you. Rather, it is the gift of being filled full of love for someone else. (And of course, you need not have children to know this kind of other-focused love.)

To learn this is to somehow draw near to the beating heart of all reality. To never learn this – to never know this – is an unspeakable loss.

Making good things more precious still

I’ve heard that Saint Augustine told a story of a new bride on the morning after her wedding. With the groom lying beside her, she awakes in love, enthralled. But not with the groom. Instead, the morning after her wedding, she falls helplessly in love not with the man but with his most expensive gift. She is enthralled with the wedding ring. Eyes only for the ring, she begins a life in love with the beautiful stone. The spouse who lies beside her has already lost her interest. She leaves him to live for the ring he gave her.

Augustine told the story to illustrate the human tendency to love the gifts more than the Giver of those gifts – a condition of the heart as foolish and as tragic as the condition of the bride in his brief story. Surrounded by a world full of wonderful gifts, given one and all from the Father of heavenly lights, man becomes enthralled with the gifts themselves and ignores or rejects the Father who gave them.

This is the danger of valuing good things too highly; we must not just rejoice in the ring, but in our Beloved who gave it. This is idolatry, a deep and deadly sin and one of the primal sins of all of humanity according to the apostle Paul (among others). It is remedied in part by gratitude. But gratitude alone is not enough. To give thanks rightly requires gratitude not only for the good things we have, but also gratitude directed to the Giver of the things themselves.

Yet understanding good things as gifts from a Giver changes the way we see the gifts in another way as well. It makes them even more precious than they are on their own. For in light of the reality of a Giver, good things are not only good in themselves, but take on an even greater value because of the reason why they are given.

Consider a diamond: a precious stone, costly and beautiful, with it’s own spectacular, unique properties. A diamond ring is good. But a diamond wedding ring is more precious still, for a diamond wedding ring has a value that lies beyond the costliness of the stone, in the reason and the relationship out of which it was given. The wedding ring is priceless to the bride because it is a token of love, given by a lover, to signify his commitment and passion and love.

When we consider any gifts we have been given – from family and friends, to sunshine, and coffee and emerald green grass alongside the vast and brilliant sea – we see things that are good and precious in and of themselves. How priceless is laughter with friends! How rich and warm the taste of coffee, the sight of a sunrise! How good is life, all around us! Good, precious gifts, good and precious in and of themselves.

And yet, more valuable still. Because each comes to us as a token of love. Because behind each stands a great Giver, committed, passionate, extravagant, and good.

There is a danger, like the bride in Augustine’s story, of valuing the good things of this world too highly. We must not. Their ultimate value lies in the One who gave them.

But we also must not value good things too little. Their goodness is real, and they have come to us as a token of love. The reality of a Giver, makes good things more precious still.

the air into which we are born


Eugene Peterson, quoted by Carolyn Custis James:

“Giving…is the air into which we were born. It is the action that was designed into us before our birth. Giving is the way the world is. God gives himself. He also gives away everything that is. He makes no exceptions for any of us. We are given away to our families, to our neighbors, to our friends, to our enemies – to the nations. Our life is for others. That is the way creation works. Some of us try desperately to hold on to ourselves, to live for ourselves…afraid to risk ourselves on the untried wings of giving…and the longer we wait the less time we have for the soaring and swooping life of grace.”

the art of a good death

Thomas Long, in his book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, takes on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ classic On Death and Dying.

One objection: “the implication in Kubler-Ross’s work that knowledge of impending death somehow drives people rapidly up the stairway of emotional and ethical development is a fiction of the therapeutic culture.”

“The fact is that people die pretty much as they have lived. If someone has been enraged throughout life, we can expect rage at the end. A person who tries to bargain with life, family, physicians, and God on death’s door has probably tried to cut a few deals before. A person who blesses the world at death has not learned this in the last few hours of life but has been shaped to live a life of blessing. As one rabbi said, ‘A Jew is expected to die, as he has lived, with the name of God on his lips.’

The best preparation for dying a Christian death, then, is living a Christian life.”

Long notes that in the past, Christians have developed resources to prepare for death, and specifically for confronting death well and as a Christian. The prime example he gives is the 15th century Ars Moriendi tradition. Ars Moriendi is latin for “The Art of Dying”, and was the name of a pair of latin texts developed in response to the “Black Death” which was currently ravaging Europe.

The texts help the Christian to prepare for death by running through a dress rehearsal of their final moments, and of the kinds of temptations to despair that may assail them at that time. Long notes one dialogue from the Ars Moriendi in which Satan approaches a Christian dying alone:

Satan: You’re frightened, aren’t you?

Dying person: Yes, I am frightened, but I am trusting my Savior who calms my fears.

Satan: Oh really? You think you are going to be rewarded by this Jesus, don’t you? You who have no righteousness.

Dying person: Christ is my righteousness.

Satan: Oh ho, Christ is your righteousness? You think Christ will welcome you to the company of Peter and Paul and the apostles? You who have sinned over and over again?

Dying person: No, I am not going into the company of Peter and Paul. I am going into the company of the thief on the cross, who heard the promise, ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise.'”

It is striking that this comes from the 15th century (pre-reformation), and was a popular and much used devotional tool. It was also, of course, extremely practical.

Long writes, that having been versed in the Ars Moriendi, “When Christians got to their deathbeds and felt the fear and anxiety and unworthiness that almost every dying person feels, they had been there before. They possessed the language to describe the experience and to speak faithfully in the midst of it.”

to illustrate incomparable mercy

John Cassian (360 – 435):

“And if we may illustrate the incomparable mercy of our Creator from something earthly, not as being equal in kindness but an illustration of mercy:

if a tender and anxious nurse carries an infant in her bosom for a long time in order sometime to teach it to walk, and first allows it to crawl, then supports it that by the aid of her right hand it may lean on its alternate steps;  presently leaves it for a little and if she sees it tottering at all catches hold of it and grabs at it when falling;  when down picks it up, and either shields it from a fall or allows it to fall lightly, and sets it up again after a tumble;  but when she has brought it up to boyhood or the strength of youth or early manhood, lays upon it some burdens or labors by which it may be not overwhelmed but exercised, and allows it to vie with those of it’s own age – 

how much more does the heavenly Father of all know whom to carry in the bosom of His grace and whom to train to virtue in His sight by the exercise of free will. And yet He helps him in his efforts, hears him when he calls, leaves him not when he seeks Him, and sometimes snatches him from peril even without his knowing it.”

the gift of restoration, unwittingly received

W.H. Auden, from his Horae Canonicae:

That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh

May work undisturbed, restoring

The order we try to destroy, the rhythm

We spoil out of spite: valves close

And open exactly, glands secrete,

Vessels contract and expand

At the right moment, essential fluids

Flow to renew exhausted cells,

Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed

Alan Jacobs:

Our bodies – our animal bodies, working heedless and independent of our ruined, rebellious wills – bear witness not just to God’s creative power, but to his ever-gracious, universal, ongoing work of healing and restoration. Whether we suffer righteously, or suffer the inevitable consequences of our own ‘spite,’ the restorative work of our flesh continues, a free gift offered to all and, yes, received by all – though by most unwittingly.

The action of mercy

Flannery O’Connor:
“Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise.”
A beautiful description of personal identity shaped by the grace of the gospel.
Mr Head is at once aware of the “monstrous” depth of his own sin AND aware as never before of the firm and sufficient love of God (he is “ready at that instant to enter Paradise“). All this due to “the action of mercy”, which “covered his pride like a flame and consumed it”; which revealed to him his depravity; and which revealed to him the magnificent proportions of God’s love.
Mercy for which there are no sufficient words in the world.