Life Is Sweet
C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters depicts a senior devil who is training a junior devil to intercept a man on the verge of becoming a Christian. The young devil is to deter the man from God, or “the Enemy.” The junior devil tries his best to distract his subject, but after a few weeks returns unsuccessful. The frustrated young devil cannot explain what went wrong, but notes that the man did two simple things each day. Every morning he would get up and go for a long walk, thoroughly enjoying the air, the scenery, and all in all, the walk itself. Then every evening, at then end of his day, the man would curl up with a good book, thoroughly delighting in that book, the reading, the time itself. To this, the senior devil notes sharply: “This is where you went horribly wrong! You should have put it into his mind that he had to get up in the morning and take that walk for the sake of exercise. It would have become drudgery to him. And you should have gotten him to read the book so that he could quote it to somebody else. It would have become equally uninspiring. You allowed him to enjoy such pure pleasure that the Enemy’s voice became more audible within those experiences. That is where you went wrong.”
What Lewis calls “pure pleasure” is something that often eludes us. Enjoying the current moment for what it is and for all that it offers is easier said than done—particularly in a world where the making and marketing of “desire” is meant to keep us perpetually unsatisfied. Lewis recognizes both the difficulty and the depth of simple enjoyment, an almost sacred quality which brings us within the reach of God’s voice.
The concluding words of the apostle Paul to the Philippian Church speak of a similar mystery. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things….And the God of peace will be with you.”(1) The Christian imagination is filled with the countercultural hope of a far different desire than the ravenous, unsatisfiable appetite for more. How often do marketers encourage delight as an end in itself? How often do manufacturers claim that we can desire what we already have?
An opening proclamation in many liturgical Christian worship services is that God is the maker of all things, the sheer hope of which calls us to worship. There are times when we are given the mind to truly seize this, where simple enjoyments of truth, of beauty, of excellence whisper of the great mystery that a good God is intimately with us.
Now consider an explanation in stark contrast to the words of Lewis, Paul, and Christian liturgies. “It’s hard for me to enjoy anything because I’m aware how transient things are,” said Woody Allen. “Yes, there are times when you think, ‘My God, life is sweet, it’s nice,’ and thoughts of mortality are in abeyance. You know, watching the Marx Brothers or a Knicks game or listening to great jazz, you get a great feeling of ecstasy… But then it passes, and the dark reality of life starts to creep back in.”(2)
We find in this life undeniable glimpses of sweetness, as Allen describes, glimpses and feelings that tell us there is something wonderful about life itself, something profound, something worth our enjoyment in and of itself. Sometimes these moments come crashing like intoxicating waves over us, other times like good secrets that have crept up on us. But how do you interpret these moments of delight? If life itself is meaningless, quite logically, as Allen concluded, such moments are merely trivial and fleeting interruptions of that dark reality. And sadly, even the sweetest moments then become something like cruel tricks played on us by life itself.
The Christian poses a different means of imagining and participating in the world. Truly, there is much that is bad and seemingly meaningless in the universe; King Solomon called it a meaningless chasing after the wind. Certainly, the world is full of those who point this out as reason for unbelief. But instead, the Christian acknowledges that this is a good world that has gone terribly wrong. It is a good world with palpable memories of what should have been. In this, our moments of wonder are exactly that, moments of wonder, experiences of what was and is and should be, visions of God’s presence among us, rich longings for redemption and what will one day be completely so. This is the startling mystery Christ whispers to us in our delights and voices loudly in our desires of what we already possess and yet desire more: This abundant life of which you have thus far only seen glimpses, will indeed, be fully yours.(3)
(1) Philippians 4:8-9.
(2) From “Lowdown Fulfills a Sweet Dream for Allen,” by Fred Kaplan (Boston Globe) printed in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 28 January 2000, Q4.
(3) Cf. Revelation 21:3-6.
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