“if cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be…”

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Heathen), ch. 11, says,

 the serpent allegorically signifies pleasure crawling on its belly, earthly wickedness nourished for fuel to the flames

Whether or not we agree with this allegorical interpretation (I believe most of us believe the serpent to have been either literally or allegorically the Devil), this interpretive moment should give us pause in late capitalism, in late/post-modernity.

As in, press pause on Netflix. Pause as you sip your coffee/Coke Zero/craft beer/Darjeeling. Pause the game. Pause as you eat a nice piece of chocolate cake.

Not only does late capitalism provide us with greater leisure time than any other moment in culture or history, it also provides us with means of entertaining ourselves, some by going out during our leisure (play/watch live sports, live performances, art galleries, museums, the cinema, night clubs), some by staying in. We seek pleasure in food, drink, entertainment, etc., etc.

And certainly, pleasure is not wrong, per se. Is it?

I think that a lot of us not only have enormous opportunities for pleasure (despite our professed busyness — some are themselves the cause of some busyness) but also have them as a chief goal of our lives. Get a good enough job to earn enough money not only to live on now and in retirement, but to live comfortably, even luxuriously. Organise our time when not at work to get as much pleasure as possible — as little as possible of necessary chores and work, thankyouverymuch.

I know, as a job seeker, I fall into this way of thinking about work. And as a weary father, I fall into this way of thinking about leisure time.

But Clement of Alexandria perceives pleasure as enticement to disobedience and evil.

Clement of Alexandria is, in some ways, at the fountainhead of sustained Christian reflection on asceticism (actually, the New Testament is). Elsewhere, in The Instructor, he recommends eating plain, simple food, and dressing simply. Imagine that! We can cheaply and easily acquire exotic food (from a Canadian perspective, is it not remarkable that I eat bananas and drink coffee every day?). Clement urges us not to.

Why? Well, let’s turn to “I Feel the Winds of God Today” stanza 2:

It is the wind of God that dries
my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise
the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease
or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze,
and I’ll put back to sea.

The shores of selfish ease are here and now in our comfy living rooms. The battlefield for our souls is not being waged in amphitheatres as pagans toss us to lions like Perpetua and Felicity (whose feast was this past Friday), nor at the stake like the Oxford Martyrs of the Reformation. It is being waged as we sit before our TVs, the blue light invading our hearts and minds, as we snack on unnecessary delicacies, and neglect prayer, Scripture, fasting, and almsgiving.

This, then, is why we need interiorized monasticism, to enter into the monkhood of all believers and gain the strength to fight selfish ease and pleasure, to find ourselves living, quickened, and basking in the glory of the risen Christ.

Letters to Malcolm 17: Pathways to Adoration

This past Tuesday at the Christian Classics Reading Group, we read three of C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.  This book is a series of  imaginary letters to an imaginary interlocutor named “Malcolm” (naturally).  They revolve around prayer primarily (naturally).  The letters we read were 17, 18, and 19, if you wish to catch up with us.

Letter 17 is essentially about pathways to adoration.  Lewis reminds Malcolm about a time they were walking in a wood and Malcolm recommended him to start where he was to move towards adoration — with splashing cool water from a spring on his warm face.  From there, Lewis discusses the use of pleasure as a pathway to the worship of Almighty God, saying that he finds it easier to move to adoration from tangible pleasures than from thinking about the doctrines of God.

He makes a good point about “bad” pleasures, that it is not the pleasure itself that is bad, only the method of acquiring it:

It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness.  The sweetness is still a beam from the glory.  That does not palliate the stealing.  It makes it worse.  There is sacrilege in the theft.  We have abused a holy thing.

This is important to consider, although Lewis later in Letter 18 does point out that there are pleasures that are actually bad, such as the pleasure derived from nursing a grievance.  Yet by and large, the pleasures of this life are “patches of Godlight”.  As a paraphrase of G.K. Chesterton says:

Life is like a waking up after a shipwreck and moments of pleasure are remnants washed ashore from the wreckage, pieces of paradise extended through time. We must hold these relics lightly and use them with gratitude and restraint, never seizing them as entitlements.

I believe this is important advice to take hold of.  The world is God’s creation — by nature, it is good, even having been pronounced so by the Almighty in Genesis 1.  In Soliloquy of the Soul, St. Thomas a Kempis contends that the pleasures of this world, being transient, are not to be sought, but that we are, instead, to live lives of self-deprivation (a form of the Way of Negation).

Lewis and Chesterton would vehemently disagree.  Yes, there is pain in this life.  Yes, we are destined for the New Country, for the Kingdom of the Heavens, for the New Heaven and the New Earth, for the Resurrection, for the Recapitulation of All Things.  Yet here we are on Earth.  The present life is transitory, but the pleasures of it are not to be shunned.

And Lewis shows us a way forward, a way to enjoy transient pleasures without compromising the future life — these pleasures are from the God of Glory Himself.  They are moments where the Kingdom of the Heavens breaks through into our transitory lives and shows us a bit of His glory.  They are vehicles of grace and pathways to adoration.

We live in a world of pain and sorrow — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where the Church is having something of a crisis around public worship — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists tell us that this material thing is all the reality there is — pathways to adoration are necessary.

We live in an age where materialists of a different ilk tell us that the value of this material thing lies within the thing itself — pathways to adoration are necessary.

Seek to worship God daily through pleasure, beauty, theology, hymns, Psalms — follow the paths to the adoration of the Majestic One seated on the Sapphire Throne.