Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wrestling With Joy

"If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us... We are far too easily pleased." ~ C.S. Lewis

A friend posted this quote on Facebook and I felt it added such a great new dimension to the topic of rewards that I had to pass it along.

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are often imagined as populated by figures such as the prudish moralist or curmudgeonly ascetic who are concerned that somebody somewhere might be having a good time and are out to put a stop to it. But this remark of C.S. Lewis turns the whole thing on its head.

It's not that we are creatures carried away by our desires. Rather, our desires are "weak." We are "half-hearted." We don't want enough! Is it possible that we talk about pursuing happiness, but are really seeking something less? We look for admiration. We want to be entertained. Many just want to be numb and not feel at all. For me it's comfort (which includes all of the above) for which I trade the possibility of joy.

The poet, Rilke, knew that we asked for too little. He wrote:

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing
In another poem he uses the image of fighting, but the message is the same. We set our goals too low:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I don't know why "we are too easily pleased." Rilke suggests that our perspective is too narrow. We want to reduce the "extraordinary and eternal" to a manageable, consumable size. But if the joy that is offered us is truly infinite, we need to take on some of the quality of that larger world. When we "let ourselves be dominated," we grow. Rilke goes on to say that being defeated by the eternal changes us at a fundamental level. We become ready to give up the ambitions of the ego and to accept the promises of the Spirit:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Letting go of our "half-hearted" wants can sometimes feel like a defeat. But perhaps it is our little self that is being overcome to make way for a much larger life.

I, for one, am ready to stop wrestling with infinite joy. It's time to cry "uncle!"

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