(We Are) Good But Overrated

John Singer Sargent, Street in Venice | Oil on Canvas, c. 1882. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

John Singer Sargent, Street in Venice | Oil on Canvas, c. 1882. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Exeunt enim multi latenter,
et exeuntium pedes sunt cordis affectus;
exeunt autem de Babylonia
He begins to leave who begins to love;
Many the leaving who know it not
For the feet of the leaving are affections of the heart;
And yet they depart from Babylon.
-St. AugustineEnarrationes in Psalmos, Psalm LXIV

It happens often by surprise — that flash of insight by which we see in hindsight the span of a lifetime and begin to ponder its relevance.

What would we do if we could choose all over again?

The Christian life allows for this question to be asked and replied each waking hour of each waking day. And this is no insignificant reality, because they very asking marks a beginning — a step in the direction of a return to earlier innocence.

Marked by our Baptism, we are set apart, rendered new creations, washed clean — we are fundamentally changed. So we believe. So we forget. And if this actually mattered to us, as adults who consider many things to matter, then our lives would most likely be different than they are.

One need only watch the shift in those who are baptized as adults to see the change happen over and over again. They are interiorly transformed and outwardly different. You speak to them and they have an ease of faith that strikes at the core of our modern cynical optimism — it is a pure and enviable: the kind of momentary flashback that makes us wish we could be even remotely like them. Grace is alive and effusive. They have regained the soul of the infant, and for a while, they bask in the delight of innocence.

The modern heart is mired. No extensive proof of this is required.  Every phone call seems to be a story of choice and confusion. Every song on any playlist is proof of the deep desire for purer times, deeper loves. Loneliness and boredom are chronic illnesses. The desire to be known, to be cared for, perhaps, yes, even to dare hope so much as to be loved, is pervasive. The disappointment is palpable, visceral, real. The despair is one of abject unhappiness; that desire of wanting more than nothing, and then despairing that such is asking much too much.  We are asked to give more from the little we have — an impossibility with vast existential consequences.

It occurs, then, to ask the question of why this is.  And the answer come in parts, corresponding to the extent of our capacity for an introspective honesty.

But at the heart of any such attempt is perhaps the realization of the ways desire causes us to make lateral moves in the direction of a continuous insufficiency. We expect people to give us something that fills the gaps of your own nature, as if they have more of what we want. We expect things to satisfy the aching gaps of unfulfilled desire. The problem with this approach is that we idealize, and thereby idolize the insufficient. Pleasure is often is overrated,  beauty is often overrated,  wealth is often overrated, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will ultimately conclude that we are ourselves good but overrated: in possession of an intrinsic goodness by virtue of the way we are created, but a living as though wounded, frail, restless, searching, unsatisfied and in perpetual exodus.

The contact with more of this kind of frailty will not strengthen. It is by contact with what is stronger that strength is gained. Surely friendships can be bedrocks of support and pillars to sustain us in difficulty. But at a far deeper level, even the best of friends can only go so far. There are thresholds they simply cannot cross.

Consider the best of marriages, where a man and woman thrive in the happiness of their intimacy, of their union. This is a real and wonderful thing. But even in its enviable beauty, it remains insufficient. All the love in the world could not replace the eternity that their present union mirrors; a prelude and foretaste of something bigger still. And so even this is to an extent an overrated beauty — a reality that is no clearer than when illness strikes, or privation deprives, or death parts, or when the smaller struggles fracture the seemingly perfect. Even here there is the tension between time and eternity, between the temporal and the lasting, between insufficiency and grace, between us and God.

We are prone to desire what we do not have — that that freedom which captives seek: one step beyond the rivers of Babylon. But the heart desires more even than this. And the soul is made for a love greater than our own. Each desire and each choice inches us closer to seeing this vision of truth. Freedom is not enough, nor is pleasure, nor is purely human love. As we engage the struggle between our goodness and our insufficiency,  we are caught between this world and it overrated delights, and that heavenly Jerusalem. And one will have to win, or captives we remain.

In that flash of insight we are left wondering what could possibly be. What happiness could possibly await. What captivity might actually end. In that fleeting clarity what strikes is the relative agelessness of the years that have passed, as if in the span of eternity the years one lives matter little, and all is regenerated in grace. A return to innocence and a reclamation of youth takes precedence against the weight of jaded hearts and wearied bodies; we are propelled backwards, in an attempt to do things over again. Grace rewinds our lives and goodness prevails; happiness appears possible.

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.”
-Luke  17. 20-21

The kingdom of God. Within us.

It is that epic distance that one spends a lifetime trying to cover. The distance between everything that passes, and that which lasts; the pilgrimage between blessedness of seeking and the joy of finding.

Realizing this it is becomes possible to look beyond what we are and what we want, and begin to love what is good in itself, true in itself, beautiful in itself. We begin to love God Himself, and so initiate a departure from the bondage we know.

Many the leaving who know it not
For the feet of the leaving are affections of the heart;
and yet they depart from Babylon.

It happens often by surprise — that flash of insight by which we see in hindsight the span of a lifetime and begin to ponder its future.

He begins to leave who begins to love. Truly love, and love the Truth.

Heaven-bound, the path here is alright. And everything else, overrated remains.

+
____

You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com