Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fulfilling human desire.

"My heart is restless until it rests in thee." Saith St. Augustine. And I do believe this is true. It belies some of the more austere and stoic expressions of Christian faith--the rigid systems that today's disaffected former Catholics say was their lot as children.

Contrary to all of that, there is a basic understanding that the Christian heart should not be restless. But what does it mean for the heart to rest in God?

For Augustine, it did not mean that the heart must disdain everything besides God. Rather, whatever the heart loves, it must love it in God. God becomes the cipher through which our love of everything in the world is purified and made good.

This doesn't mean that all of that Christian tradition of "contempt of the world" is invalid. To love something in God, it is necessary to be willing to give it away. This is the paradox of our existence. It is fine to love something so much that you would die for it. "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15:13).

But Jesus' teaching presupposes that the love is already rooted in God. That very same act, of dying for what one loves, can be twisted. Think of Gollum pitching headlong into the lava of Mount Doom, clutching his filthy bauble. The difference is that Gollum's love was not rooted in anything. It was a closed love--a closed system. Therefore it became subject to entropy, self-enervating without the ability to replenish itself from any source beyond.

That kind of twisted, closed love can be had for human beings just as much as inanimate objects. Just because we are God's most sublime creation doesn't excuse us from entropy; and latching ourselves to one-another will not save us from the passing away of the world. And so, yes, we love one-another, but we do so "in God", always opening up our personal interconnections to an infinite source.


But the above text is not the reason I sat down to write. I wanted to reflect on an emotion I felt one night, while I was driving down AZ79 with Laura, from Florence AZ to Tucson, during our vacation there last March.

The emotion was a flood of pleasant childhood feelings and memories. Listening to the gurgling of a humidifier when I was sick. Mom on Christmas Eve telling me that a red light in the sky was Rudolph. Sleeping in the recliner in my parents' room when I was afraid of a nightmare.

I can't help but think that the most intense longings we have--the longings that drive our thousands of adult efforts--are shaped by our first experiences of tenderness. It sounds like common sense. Pop psychology. But I wonder if it might not be deeply true. How far can we go with this idea? Is our quest for happiness always a reclaiming of happinesses lost? Is the Biblical hope for the New Creation not also in some respect the individual hope for a personal new Eden?

I confess that a part of my excitement and joy at the prospect of being a family man is that Laura and I will have an opportunity to create the same wonders and joys and heavenly comforts for our children that we ourselves experienced. We get to bring back the long-past mysteries of our first life discoveries, and we get to live them again, only this time, as the parents.

Is it wrong to hope to live vicariously through one's children? Only if that means that one's children are nothing more than a vehicle of one's own self-project. We can't ultimately control our children, who they become, or even what they think of us. We can't impose our immature dreams on our children, as if their purpose is to leave a mark on the world in the way I failed to do.

But I don't think it's wrong to take great pleasure in our children's childhoods--to permit them to stoke the old glowing embers of our own childhoods, to relive old moments of tenderness with the same serenity of my eight-year-old self sleeping by the humidifier.

When we become adults, we never cease to be the children our parents loved--and the children that God loves. Everything we once have been subsists inside of a skilled social professional. But the social professional, the solemn choice-maker, the adult, is after all the expression and the servant of a soul that yearns to be held. The mother holding her baby is, at one and the same time, holding and being held; creating a new experience of love and reliving it.

If the elderly sometimes seem more child-like to us, perhaps this is not so much of a regression as an unveiling of what was always there. With age, and with relief from the pressures of professional life, perhaps the adult is allowed to recede a bit and permit the deeper and more persistent self to show.

"...for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these" (Matt 19:14). Jesus may not have been speaking loosely. I have heard priests explain that Jesus meant to emphasize a child's openness and faith. That may be true, but I think more can be said. To be child-like is to be vulnerable and passive in a way that we always are before God, but which we hide as adults to protect ourselves from a world broken by sin. Maturity is a defense mechanism--and a good and necessary one. But when the world has finally passed away in full, what need do we have for maturity in Heaven?

I need to make a distinction. The absence of maturity, i.e. adult defenses, professional social graces, etc. is not the same thing as immaturity as we conceive of it negatively. There is a difference between the one who is child-like and childish. To be child-like is to be innocent, naive, unafraid, open, awed, wondering. What we call childishness--brattiness, selfishness, etc.--is in fact the unrefined very beginnings of adult defenses.

An analogy. The child-like person might be like a figure skater. Figure skating is innocent of goals, pucks, and sticks. The childish, immature person is the beginner hockey-player. Consider the scene from "The Mighty Ducks" where the kids start by clumsily whacking the puck around. Michael J Fox illustrates their immaturity by replacing the puck with a raw egg, which predictably breaks. By learning how to play hockey with an egg, learning how to gently coax it instead of annihilating it, the Ducks learn maturity.

For Jesus, maturity is necessary and good. "Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Matt 10:16). But it becomes obsolete in heaven. The saints in heaven are figure skaters. The saints on earth are professional hockey players. But while on earth, we taste heaven when we put the stick, the puck, and the padding away.


Matt of CG said...

I think it was Emilio Estevez. Heh-heh-heh-heh.

Father Maurer said...

"The mother holding her baby is, at one and the same time, holding and being held; creating a new experience of love and reliving it."

I know that one of my reasons for becoming a priest was to do the same in this role. Pop psychology or not, I think you're spot on - thanks for posting this!

Happy Easter, too, to both you & Laura!