There are only two things
that pierce the human heart,
beauty and affliction.
Earlier in the Story, back in the beginning of our time on earth, a great glory was bestowed upon us. All of us—men and women—were created in the image of God. Fearfully and wonderfully made, as the saying goes. Living icons of the living God. Those who have ever stood before him fall to their knees without even thinking, as you find yourself breathless before the Grand Canyon, a sunrise, the cliffs by the sea. That glory was shared with us; we were in Chesterton’s phrase, “statues of God walking about in a Garden,” endowed with strength and beauty all our own. All that you ever wished you could be, you were—and more. We were glorious.
When I look at the night sky
and see the work of your fingers—
the moon and the stars you have set in place—
what are mortals that you should think of us,
mere humans that you should care for us?
For you have made us only a little lower than God,
and you crowned us with glory and with honor.
(Psa. 8:3-5 NLT)
I daresay we’ve heard a little about original sin,
but not nearly enough about original glory,
which come before sin and is
much deeper to our nature.
We were crowned with glory and with honor. Why does a woman long to be beautiful? How does a man hope to be found brave? Because we remember, if only faintly, that we were once more than we are now.
I wondered over again for the hundreth time what could be the principle which, in the wildest, most lawless, fantastically chaotic, apparently capricious work of nature, always kept it beautiful. The beauty of holiness must be at the heart of it somehow, I though. Because our God is so free from stain, so loving, so unselfish, so good, so altogether what He wants us to be, so holy, therefore all His works declare Him in beauty…
His fingers can touch nothing
but to mould it into loveliness;
and even the play of His elements
is in grace and tenderness of form.
Why is sex fun? Reproduction surely does not require pleasure: some animals simply split in half to reproduce . . . Why is eating enjoyable? Plants and the lower animals manage to obtain their quota of nutrients without the luxury of taste buds. Where are there colors? Some people get along fine without the ability to detect color. Why complicate vision for all the rest of us?
It struck me, after reading my umpteenth book on the problem of pain, that I have never seen a book on “the problem of pleasure.” Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his or her head in perplexity over the question of why we experience pleasure. Yet it looms as a huge question: the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians. On the issue of pleasure, Christians can breathe easier.
A good and loving God would naturally want
his creatures to experience delight,
joy and personal fulfillment.
Christians start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But should not atheists have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world of randomness and meaninglessness?
. . . Where does pleasure come from? Chesterton settled on Christianity as the only reasonable explanation.
Moments of pleasure are
the remnants washed ashore
from a shipwreck, bits of Paradise
extended through time.
We must hold these relics lightly, and use them with gratitude and restraint, never seizing them as entitlements.
. . . Evil’s greatest triumph may be its success in portraying religion as an enemy of pleasure when, in fact, religion accounts for its source: every good and enjoyable thing is the invention of a Creator who lavished gifts on the world.
There you are, standing at a window, watching oak leaves flutter down from dark boughs, and without warning your whole body fills with a longing for something you can’t name, something you’ve lost but never had, that you’re nostalgic for yet don’t remember. You sense a joy so huge it breaks you, a sorrow so deep it cleanses.
Or in line at a store one day, you turn and look at a child who doesn’t notice you. The skin on her face curves down flushed and smooth along her cheekbones and creases into delicate folds at her eyes. There is a wild hope in those eyes, and her beauty pierces you in a way you don’t understand.
. . . And you wonder, How can this be?
This is how: You want to go home. The instinct for heaven is just that: homesickness, ancient as night, urgent as daybreak. All your longings—for the place you grew up, for the taste of raspberry tarts that your mother once pulled hot from the oven, for that bend in the river where your father took fishing as a child, where the water was dark and swirling and the caddis flies hovered in the deep shade—all these longings are a homesickness, a wanting in full what all these things only hint at, only prick you with. These are the things seen that conjure in our emotions the Things Unseen. “He has set eternity in the hearts of men,” the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:11).
Heaven is that greater glory
of which Nature is only
the first sketch.
–C. S. Lewis
If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness, beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for.
The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams
come from and our truest prayers.
We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength.
The Kingdom of God is where we belong.
It is home, and whether we realize it or not,
I think we are all of us homesick for it.
―Frederick Buechner (emphasis added)
But so many Christians
are like deaf people at a concert.
They study the programme carefully,
believe every statement made in it,
speak respectfully of the quality of the music,
but only really hear a phrase now and again.
So they have no notion at all
of the mighty symphony
which fills the universe,
to which our lives are destined
to make their tiny contribution,
and which is the self-expression
of the Eternal God.
–Evelyn Underhill (1875 – 1941)
I began to listen to my own longings as rumours of another world, a bright clue to the nature of the Creator. Somehow I had fallen for the deception of judging the natural world as unspiritual and God as antipleasure.
But God invented matter, after all,
including all the sensors in the body
through which I experience pleasure.
Nature and supernature are not two separate worlds, but different expressions of the same reality.
“The highest heavens belong to the Lord,
but the earth he has given to mankind.” (Psa. 115:16)
Why did You create all these things? They were all made for man and man was made for You. That was the order which You established. Woe to the one who reverses it, who would that all should be for him and turns in upon himself. He breaks the fundamental law of creation.
–François Fenelon (1651 – 1715)
Our world is saturated with grace, and the lurking presence of God is revealed not only in spirit but in matter—in a deer leaping across a meadow, in the flight of an eagle, in fire and water, in a rainbow after a summer storm, in a gentle doe streaking through a forest, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a child licking a chocolate ice cream cone, in a woman with windblown hair. God intended for us to discover His loving presence in the world around us.
Imagine the most beautiful scenes you have ever known on this earth—rain forests, the prairie in full bloom, storm clouds over the African savanna, the Alps under a winter snow. Then imagine it all on the day it was born…
Into this world God opens his hand, and the animals spring forth. Myriads of birds, in every shape and size and song, take wing—hawks, herons, warblers. All the creatures of the sea leap into it—whales, dolphins, fish of a thousand colors and designs. Thundering across the plains race immense herds of horses, gazelles, buffalo, running like the wind. It is more astonishing than we could possibly imagine. No wonder “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7. A great hurrah goes up from the heavens!
We have grown dull toward this world in which we live; we have forgotten that it is not normal or scientific in any sense of the word. It is fantastic. It is fairy tale through and through. Really now. Elephants? Caterpillars. Snow? At what point did you lose your wonder of it all?
Even so, once in a while something will come along and shock us right out of our dullness and resignation.
We come round a corner, and there before us is a cricket, a peacock, a stag with horns as big as he. Perhaps we come upon a waterfall, the clouds have made a rainbow in a circle round the sun, or a mouse scampers across the counter, pauses for a moment to twitch his whiskers at you, and disappears into the cupboard. And for a moment we realize we were born into a world astonishing as any fairy tale.
A world made for romance.
A child kicks its legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, Do it again; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough
to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough… It is possible that God says every morning, Do it again, to the sun; and every evening, Do it again, to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike: it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
–G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundreth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, “the light of common day.”
–G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
The Greek philosophers . . . called the deepest ground of knowing wonder. In wonder the senses are opened for the immediate impression of the world. In wonder the things perceived penetrate the sense fresh and unfiltered. They impose themselves on us. They make an impression on us . . .
People who can no longer be astonished, people who have got used to everything, people who perceive only as a matter of routine and react accordingly: people who live like this let reality pass them by . . .
Wonder is the inexhaustible foundation of our community with each other, with nature, with God.
One of the most attractive things about G. K. Chesterton was the unending sense of surprised delight he had for all creation, the world and everything in it. He found newspaper ink to be as wonderful as beach glass, which—it went without saying—was as marvelous to him as any good cigar.
He was as awe-struck and grateful
for the world as a teenager in love,
and he wondered about the unconditional
gift of days that God had given him.
He asked with astonishment, “Why am I allowed two?”—a great question in an age where we expect unending, medically-engineered days.
Chesterton was joyful, because he was grateful; he was grateful because even within his busy life, he was allowed the leisure of silence, with which gift, he was able to wonder. And, as St. Gregory of Nyssa is credited with saying, “only wonder leads to knowing.”
If we cannot wonder, how can we presume to know the Timeless and Eternal God?
I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what [C. S.] Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
–Clyde Kilby (1902 – 1986)
If we once realize all this earth as it is, we should find ourselves in a land of miracles:
We shall discover a new planet at the moment
that we discover our own.
Among all the strange things that men have forgotten, the most universal and catastrophic lapse of memory is that by which they have forgotten that they are living on a star.
–G. K. Chesterton (1874 – 1936)
When everything we receive from him is received and prized as fruit and pledge of his covenant love, then his bounties (generous gifts), instead of being set up as rivals and idols to draw our heart from him, awaken us to fresh exercises of gratitude and furnish us with fresh motives of cheerful obedience every hour.
–John Newton (1725-1807)