Tag Archives: Weight of Glory

Our Inconsolable Secret

In response to my last post about Balloon Boy and our human obsession with being recognized and affirmed, Christianne—a faithful and wise reader of my blog—offered a comment that was a helpful corrective to my admittedly harsh rhetoric about how things like Facebook and Twitter are “silly” attempts to “get the attention of other people who are just as weak and attention-seeking as we are.” Here is part of what Christianne wrote:

But where you look at the behaviors we exhibit en masse on Facebook and Twitter and land at exasperation, I look at those behaviors and land at compassion. Yes, I agree with you that we are broken and need something more than our broken selves to heal one another. But the answer isn’t pasting knowledge on ourselves about Christ’s sufficiency, even though Christ’s sufficiency is real and true. People need to experience real love to counter the false loves they’re finding elsewhere to fill a vacuum. And the love of Christ does not become real by being told it’s sufficient and to just believe. It becomes real, in some ways, through Christ-followers who demonstrate the kind of love and compassion Christ would if he were here, walking among us, today.

I think this is very true. It’s easy to say that Christ’s affirmation and love is sufficient, but in reality it’s a bit of an abstraction and it’s hard to experience in practice. Christianne is right. God’s love can and does manifest itself in humanity—through our mothers and brothers and friends and lovers. Certainly we experience the heavenly ideal of unconditional love in bits and pieces—however imperfect—in our human brethren. It’s right to seek it, to appreciate it when we find it, and to recognize God’s grace in it.

I suppose my vitriolic, exasperated tone with regard to Facebook and Twitter comes from the fact that I see this type of “love seeking” as such a pale substitute for the sorts of “heavenly” connections I know exist. It’s sort of a mudpies-when-we-could-be-at-the-sea sorta thing, to reference “The Weight of Glory.” Sure, social networking websites can provide transcendent, unconditional, life-affirming connection at times. But just as often it seems to be a disappointment and a distraction. Too often I realize that with all the time I spend seeking “friends” and “comments” online, I could be praying or reading God’s word. When I’m feeling the need for connection, it’s easier to pop onto iChat and get some instant conversational attention from a friend. It’s so convenient, in fact (and offers such immediate return), that it becomes harder to justify chatting with God who is silent and mysterious.

On a good day, it’s easy to see God speaking to me in the chats and emails and conversations with the people in my life. It’s wonderful to feel his love in things like the weather, coffee, and a text message. But on bad days—on glass half empty days—it becomes painfully clear that no one can ever live up to the standard of love we are wired to seek. We were made for something more than this earth can satisfy. Everyone, at one point or another, proves to be a disappointment. Everyone we love will, at one point or another, cause us pain. We are all so broken; so inexhaustibly frail.

This doesn’t mean we should hide away from it all, shun human contact and pray all day and night in solitude (though maybe it does… monks seem to think so). On the contrary, I think God wants us to love each other, to experience his love in and through community. And thanks be to God, this world and its inhabitants can frequently offer us glorious glimpses and blips of existential satisfaction that can amount to something very near sustained joy or stasis. Very near… but never all the way there.

As is typically the case, C.S. Lewis expresses it most eloquently, as in this passage from “The Weight of Glory”:

When I attempted a few minutes ago, to describe our spiritual longings, I was omitting one of their most curious characteristics. We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

I did not intend my balloon boy post to be an invalidation of this very human “inconsolable secret.” Rather, I was simply trying to explore how this pining—this acute awareness of our “stranger” disposition—evinces itself in our contemporary experience: in the news, in technology, in everything.

The “glory” Lewis talks about has everything to do with the human desire for affirmation and recognition—the Platonic notion of thymos. Lewis describes glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by Him (1 Corinthians 8:3, 1 Corinthians 13:12), and we dread being cast away from Him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23).

At the end of the day, it is this deep, unrelenting desire to be fully known that drives everything we do—the loves and satisfactions we seek in both good and bad places. But we can only really be fully known by God. And this is the burden of glory. This is the weight: that we live in a world that teases us with glory, offers us a taste, but never completely satisfies.

It’s not something that should defeat or exasperate us. We should acknowledge the tension and let it enliven us, spurring us on toward hope and future glory.

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Thinking of Another Place

I was thinking just now about how I’d like to return to this little seaside town in Northern Ireland called Newcastle, which I had occasion to walk around for about 5 hours one summer a few years ago, with my best friend. We didn’t really know where we were, but we spent the afternoon walking around, playing little storefront casino games and drinking some sort of ale in the lobby of a fancy hotel. The air smelled salty and vaguely Nordic. There were green mountains all around, and low-lying gray clouds, and a famous golf course that someone said Tiger Woods really enjoyed. It was a lovely afternoon.

The town of Newcastle lies in the County Down, which was an area of Northern Ireland that C.S. Lewis was partial to (he once said that his vision of heaven was Oxford picked up and set down in the middle of County Down). Now I’ve only been in County Down for about half of a day, but I can see what Lewis meant. It’s a magical place. And—like so many places we find ourselves rushing through between the last and the next thing—it feels more immense and wonderful in memory than it was in brief encounter.

Today I felt, as I sometimes do, a little bit distant from the world. A number of thoughts—none wholly new or original—collected in my mind. The thoughts included, in no particular order: “there is always something more that can be known about someone,” “humans are so aggressively distant from one another,” “the best moments in life are fleeting,” and “I shouldn’t have left that homemade focaccia uncovered—it’s totally dry now.”

I also thought about how, at the end of the day, almost all of life is just one big, reckless, haphazard attempt to be known. Every human—in seeking love, affirmation, success, significance—is ultimately just working through this most rudimentary existential dilemma: to be known, both by others, by oneself, by God. The little blips of joy when we feel known by another person, or by a place—what Martin Buber calls “queer lyric-dramatic episodes” and what I like to call “Lost in Translation moments”—become our sustaining nourishments, our water in the desert. But these moments are rare; they’re not the norm. Most of life exists in the lack, in the divine discontent. We can look back and towards the knowing, and experience it in fits and starts as we daily live, but it’s always elusive. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

Another moment I’d like to return to also occurred in the UK, this time in Oxford. It was a hot summer night inside University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and an audience was gathered to hear a British actor deliver a re-creation of the sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” which C.S. Lewis preached on June 8, 1941. Up in the pulpit, the actor—who resembled Lewis in appearance and tone—bellowed the epic, soul-stirring sermon for the better part of an hour. It was hot, sticky, crowded, and not air-conditioned, which is how epic summer night sermons should be received. I think a thunderstorm might have been happening outside the church walls too (though I might be mixing memories here).

In the sermon, Lewis describes the word “glory” in two ways. On one hand, the “glory” that weighs heavy on our being is the glory of being “noticed” by God. We want to be known by him (1 Corinthians 8:3; 13:12), and we dread being cast away from him (“I never knew you. Depart from me…” Matt 7:23). But the other sense of glory, says Lewis, is more literal: luminosity. It is the idea that we don’t want to merely see beauty, but to be united with it, to “shine like the stars.”

But we are not allowed to do that yet, Lewis points out: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

There is, of course, a deep sadness to the inability to fully touch this glory, to mingle with the splendours we see. This is probably why sunsets are so equally beautiful and tragic, why our strongest sense of “home” can sometimes occur on a brief afternoon on the Irish Sea. It’s the source of so much of our tension, our unsettledness, our petty preoccupations and quirks and insensitivity and malaise. It’s the thing that continually reminds us that we aren’t what we ought to be, that the world is aching for something better, that sometimes we just have to shrug our shoulders, take an aspirin, and be okay with a world that occasionally seems so present and yet so far.