Sunday, January 29, 2012

Does It Matter To A Man Dying In A Desert By Which Choice Of Route He Missed The Only Well?

First read this excerpt from C.S. Lewis' essay titled A Slip Of The Tongue. I promise is well worth your time.

              'This is my endlessly recurrent temptation: to go down to that Sea (I think St. John of the Cross called God a sea) and there neither dive nor swim nor float, but only dabble and splash, careful not to get out of my depth and holding on to the lifeline which connects me with my things temporal. It is different from the temptations that met us at the beginning of the Christian life. Then we fought against admitting the claims of the eternal at all. And when we had fought, and been beaten, and surrendered, we supposed that all would be fairly plain sailing. This temptation comes later. It is addressed to those who have already admitted the claim in principle and are even making some sort of effort to meet it. Our temptation is too look eagerly for the minimum that will be accepted. We are in fact very like honest but reluctant taxpayers. We approve of an income tax in principle. We make our returns truthfully. But we dread a rise in the tax. We are very careful to pay no more than is necessary. And we hope– we very ardently hope –that after we have paid it there will still be enough left to live on. The lie consists in the suggestion that our best protection is a prudent regard for the safety of our pocket, our habitual indulgences, and our ambitions. But that is quite false. Our real protection is to be sought elsewhere: in common Christian usage, in moral theology, in steady rational thinking, in the advice of good friends and good books.. Swimming lessons are better than a lifeline to the shore. For of course that lifeline is really a death line. There is no parallel to paying taxes and living on the remainder. For it is not so much of our time and so much of our attention that God demands; it is not even all our time and all our attention; it is ourselves. For each of us the Baptist’s words are true: “He must increase and I decrease.” He will be infinitely merciful to our repeated failures; I know no promise that He will accept a deliberate compromise. For He has, in the last resort, nothing to give us but Himself; and He can give that only insofar as our self-affirming will retires and makes room for Him in our souls. Let us make up our minds to it; there will be nothing “of our own” left over to live on, no “ordinary” life. I do not mean that each of us will necessarily be called to be a martyr or even an ascetic. That’s as may be. For some the Christian life will include much leisure, many occupations we naturally like. But these will be received from God’s hands. In a perfect Christian they would be as much part of his “religion,” his “service,” as his hardest duties, and his feasts would be as Christian as his fasts. What cannot be admitted–what must exist only as an undefeated but daily resisted enemy–is the idea of something that is “our own,” some area in which we are to be “out of school,” on which God has no claim… When we try to keep within us an area of our own, we try to keep an area of death… Thomas More said, “If ye make indentures with God how much ye will serve Him, ye shall find ye have signed both of them yourself.” Law.. said “If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God, it will make in the end no difference what you have chosen instead.” Those are hard words to take. Will it really make no difference whether it was women or patriotism, cocaine or art, whisky or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies. Does it matter to a man dying in a desert by which choice of route he missed the only well?'

I read this essay at exactly the right time. It struck me to my core, more so than I can put in words. And really, I am not going to expand too much because trying to write something eloquent after being engrossed in the verbiage of C.S. Lewis is simply foolish. 

Let me start by saying, ouch. "Does it matter to a man dying in a dessert by which choice of route he missed the only well?" I found myself a little perturbed after reading this, for I think it is a thought I had been subconsciously grappling with before I read this essay but seeing it pinpointed on paper by another conscious mind who too sees the real danger in calling anything "our own" forced me to identify it as ugly, and even more so, something ugly in me.

Being a self-identified creative personality, I feel as if it can be hard for me to separate worshiping God in light of beauty as opposed to worshiping beauty for beauty's sake. It is a dangerous road, especially the further you travel down it. What starts as a good motive to see and glorify God in the things I enjoy and the ways I express myself slowly, ever so slightly, starts to be replaced by a love for the thing or expression itself. And as I go on in the same vain, I continue to lose more of God and gain more vain self-serving pleasure. Whether you consider yourself a creative person or not, this is a danger and I am sure you know what I am talking about if you are a believer with a pulse.

There comes a point though when my conscious ignorance of where my heart is at mixed with my desire to only "dable and splash" in my relationship with God points unmistakably to an area in my life that has become 'my own.' It doesn't matter if that area is innocent in-and-of-itself, or even if it is valued in Christian circles, the fact that it has become 'my own' is the issue. (To take C.S. Lewis' example and apply it to myself) Whether it be men or exercise, cocaine or fashion, whiskey (too much of course) or aesthetic, money or soccer (fill in the blanks with your own idols). "Does it matter to a man dying in a desert by which choice of route he missed the only well?"

I ask you to grapple with this too, for it is a problem I not only perceive in myself but that is rampant, particularly in my generation of believers. We have become far to pleased with things that aren't inherently evil simply because they are not so; and because we have been 'splashing about' with God we've become far too easily pleased because we have forgotten the satisfaction of a long refreshing 'swim' as well as that claiming anything as "our own" IS inherently evil, in fact it is the original evil.

I realize this post might be little brash and sound more or less like a call to self-denial. It may be the first, but is in no way the second. However, I will never know, we will never know, if it is not the second until we experience the deep sense of joy and purpose that comes from drinking deeply from the well we 'haven't' missed.

To close, I leave you with another C.S. Lewis quote, one of his most famous....

'We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.'

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