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 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.”

gratitude and God

I’m not a philosopher. So I’m just poking around here, not trying to claim too much. But it seems to me that one of the best lines of apologetic argument is to argue from the premise of some good of human existence or human flourishing, on to a demonstration that this “good” only makes sense in light of the existence of God.

This is nothing new, but it seems to me potent. Putting together a number of these arguments helps demonstrate that Christianity is the most livable worldview; that it not only makes the best sense of the world logically, but that it makes the most sense of, and is the most consistent in terms of, lived human experience.

C. S. Lewis makes a number of these arguments in Mere Christianity, arguing from the existence of morality or a moral law in the beginning of that book, on to the existence of a Lawgiver; or arguing from the existence of a deep universal, unfulfilled desire, on to the reality of God, as in his chapter on Hope.

So it seems you could put together arguments for God based on things like “gratitude”; something like this:

  1. It is good for humans to live grateful lives. (or, Gratitude is essential to human flourishing.)
  2. Ultimately gratitude makes no sense apart from a transcendant good and an ultimate Giver.
  3. Therefore, there is an ultimate Giver – God.

Philosophers would formulate this better, and they probably have. Chesterton argued this in a number of ways. But it seems to me very fruitful ground for reflection, and for Christian apologetic living. Living a life of gratitude is beautiful and good, and yet that life makes the most sense only in the context of the existence of God. As Chesterton said somewhere, the athiest’s loneliest moment is when something happens that fills him with immense gratitude, and he realizes he has no one to thank.

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.

We mustn’t be more pious than God

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison:

I believe that we ought so to love and trust God in our lives, and in all the good things that he sends us, that when the time comes (but not before!) we may go to him with love, trust, and joy. But, to put it plainly, for a man in his wife’s arms to be hankering after the other world is, in mild terms, a piece of bad taste, and not God’s will. We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us; if it pleases him to allow us to enjoy some overwhelming earthly happiness, we mustn’t try to be more pious than God himself and allow our happiness to be corrupted by presumption and arrogance, and by unbridled religious fantasy which is never satisfied with what God gives… . Everything has its time, and the main thing is that we keep step with God, and do not keep pressing on a few steps ahead — nor keep dawdling a step behind. It’s presumptuous to want to have everything at once — matrimonial bliss, the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem, where they neither marry not are given in marriage. “To everything there is a season.

HERE.

The mystery of virture

Alan Jacobs, in his book Shaming the Devil – Essays in Truthtelling:

I want to suggest…that we (and I mean here especially we Christians) need to explore the mystery of virtue as well as the mystery of iniquity, to press our audiences to see the strangeness of goodness, the extraordinary unexpectedness of love and grace…

How does this kind of thing happen? I demand to know. Why is anyone good to anyone else? That we’re cruel to one another doesn’t surprise me in the least; I want an answer to the problem of goodness. Even if it takes a lifetime, or more, to figure it out.

All other goodness falls infinitely short

Jonathan Edwards:

So merciful and so full of pity is God, that when miserable man, whom He had no need of, who did Him no good, nor could be of any advantage to Him, had made himself miserable by his rebellion against God, He took such pity on him that He sent His only Son to undergo his torment for him, that he might be delivered and set free. And now He offers freely, to bestow upon those rebels, complete and perfect happiness to all eternity upon this, His Son’s account. There never was such an instance of goodness, mercy, pity, and compassion since the world began; all the mercy and goodness amongst creatures fall infinitely short of it: this is goodness that never was, never will, never can be paralleled by any other beings.