“‘Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.’ None of us could understand it then but he was weeping with joy: ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it at all.'”
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In my last post, I wrote about the anxiety I was feeling after hearing of the Florida school shooting. All day, day after day, I couldn’t stop imagining the terror those students experienced as they hid. And my the relative ease of my life–the quietness of naptime, the freedom to walk in the sunshine and blow dandelion tufts with my two year old, curling up with a nursing baby and book–felt unfair, imperiled, and worst of all, less real, than the evil carried out on Ash Wednesday this year. And then I found solace in recalling the words of Jack Gilbert, in his poem, “A Brief for the Defense”:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubborness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
It helped for me to try to distinguish what are the pleasures in my life that I could do without and what are the delights that are good to relish:
It is a pleasure to grab a latte on the way back from dropping the toddler off at Mother’s Day Out, a pleasure to snack on empty carbs, a pleasure to eat meat every day.
But it is a delight to eat boring lenteny fare every day in order to save meat for the feast of Sunday, to pick out a chicken at the farmers’ market, a chicken that spent a happy chickeny life running around in the sunshine, to slow down to prepare and cook it, and to share it with family and friends.
It is a pleasure to skim article after article online and scroll through blog post after blog post leaving my brain numbly buzzing with words, words, words.
But it is delight to really read a good book: to read every word on a page, to relish beautifully-constructed sentences, to penetrate into a thick web of polysemous meaning and immerse myself in the light of truth over mere fact and conjecturing.
It is a pleasure to widow-shop online for things I don’t need. Yes, even beautiful, well-designed things from small, ethical shops.
But it is a delight to reflect with gratitude on the things I do have: a wardrobe which does not perfectly epitomize “my style” but is more than enough, a dining room table that is not big enough for all our gatherings but is sturdy, stain-resistant(!), and has held every home cooked meal we’ve shared since the beginning of marriage, a house with good bones to be lived in and gathered in now and not merely to have its potentialities daydreamed over.
It is a pleasure to peer into the stylized rendering of other people’s lives on social media: to mentally drool over her children’s wardrobe, her following, her artistic talent.
But it is a delight to peer into and drink deeply of my own life: into moments un-stylized, un-captioned, un-framed, un-filtered: the quiet pause with Christ in adoration, Joseph playing that Chopin piece for the hundredth time, Leo’s un-self-conscious singing as he bangs around in the pots and pans cabinet, the azaleas all in bloom. And then to keep those things in my heart and not in my phone.
It is a pleasure to connect with kindred spirits with a felicitous comment here or there tossed up into cyberspace.
But it is a delight to write or receive a letter or email, to engage in the rich, under-sung art of conversation, in private, in the intimacy of friendship.
Maybe this list comes off as twee or superficially aspirational. Or worse, as propping myyy conscious, examined life up over thoose shallow online personalities. I hope not.
I certainly don’t operate at a conscious level of gratitude most of the time. I waste mental energy thinking about the garden that doesn’t exist in my backyard while I sip the drink conveniently handed to me through the drive-through window. I plummet down pretty social media accounts while ignoring “God’s glory all around me”. Or I despair about death and about the passing away of all things. I fixate on the sufferings of rape victims and refugees and battered wives and drug addicts and neglected children all the while rejecting the delight-filled gifts of the breeze in my face and the words of prayer and the invitation to be patient with my tantrumming two-year-old.
And anyway, I’m not trying to say the small pleasures are evil in and of themselves. There is a certain kind of joy in the occasional ease of takeout after a long day, the affection borne of kindred spirits in the combox, and the smartphone snap of my children in good lighting (lovingly gazed at after I’ve miserably pined for bedtime and the babes are fast asleep, of course).
And I’m not trying to say that you get to ignore the evil and do nothing but passively enjoy the beauty around. Christ didn’t just sit around listening to the birds chirp. He had work to do.
But I am trying to say that the Cross does not exist without the Resurrection, the Resurrection without the Cross. And you have to contend with both. The world is filled with every kind of sick horror. But the world is also charged with the grandeur of God. To seek pleasure alone numbs us to both Cross and Resurrection. But I think real delight tells us the horror will be redeemed and that all will be made new.