Addictions and cynicism: they aren’t what I expected to learn about when I signed up for a weekend at St. Benedict’s Retreat and Conference Centre in Winnipeg, led by Oxford scholar, poet, musician and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite. But as we discussed C. S. Lewis’s theology of desire — our aching desire for God, and God’s aching desire for us — the weekend naturally shaped itself as a response to these pressing problems so many of us know first-hand.
Early in the weekend, Guite suggested that addiction and cynicism result from an inability to cope with a deep, piercing, unnamable, inconsolable longing. This longing, identified powerfully by Lewis in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, is found in romance, beauty, poetry and creativity, but all this is a prefatory echo of the joy of heaven. To want is to want heaven, to want God, but our experience of that wanting — our desires for beauty, love, friendship, and sex — doesn’t always appear immediately or obviously as being connected to God, and bad things happen if we don’t know how to deal with these longings.
Some of us set up idols, mistaking our experiences of this joy for the source of the joy itself. These are addictions. Others fear the sheer power of these desires and seek to bury or diminish them. This is cynicism. Lewis speaks of the ways we take revenge on these proper yet never fully fulfilled longings by dismissing them under terms such as romanticism, nostalgia or adolescence.
This latter remark hit close to home for me. I often find myself waking from such dreams of beauty and desire, and still seeing around me broken worlds, broken loves, broken faiths and broken selves. The disjunction tempts me toward despair, to look all these desires full in the face and shout at them for callously preaching a hope that seems to ignore the suffering around us. In my worse moments I bury them and walk away, each time a little colder, a little stonier than before.
Fortunately, Guite anticipated this very possibility and was ready with Lewis’ response. Our afternoon session was about God’s heartbreaking desire for us, a story of a God who is a diver, disappearing with a splash in the murkiness of the water to retrieve what he loves there at the bottom. It is a story of a God who enters our hearts thus before we can ever have been aware of it, looking in us for something he lost once in a garden. It is a story in which God moves before we could even have imagined it. And it is a story to comfort the hopeless.
Much as I appreciated the morning session, the part of me that knows sadness and darkness and apathy wondered if it was not a kind of mockery: normal people with normal experiences have normal longings that correlate to heaven. But me? What have I to do with this longing? What can I do but be ashamed beside its glowing splendour? Perhaps for others, but this burden of beauty too heavy to bear? I know myself, and I cannot bear it.
But this was the point. Christ is the one who bears this beauty through us, for us, and in us. He lifts where we cannot lift, supports where we cannot support — and indeed is with us in the dirt when we fall.
In the afternoon we visited the stations of the cross, with Guite reading a poem he had written particularly for each, with a 15th for the resurrection. I was caught particularly by the poem at station nine, where Christ falls a third time — the station where we recall that the stumbling and suffering we all experience is not a mere distraction from the gospel, but rather the heart of it. We need not first achieve improvement, energy and ease; rather, he is Immanuel — God with us, and we with him; we sharing in his suffering, and he joining us and bearing us in ours. And Guite gets this:
Twice you survived; this third will surely kill,
And you could almost wish for that defeat
Except that in the cold hell where you freeze
You find your God beside you on his knees.
(From the poetic sequence “Stations” in Sounding the Seasons, Canterbury Press, 2012; used by permission of the author.)
The poem conveys the other side of desire, a disappointment resulting in near-suicidal cynicism. Yet here, where things are bleakest, is where Christ joins us. Are you broken? His body and blood are on the table. Are you suffering? Let your suffering be taken up into his body, the church. Are you sinful? Let his sacrament of reconciliation cleanse you. Taste, touch, and see — for he is beside you on your knees.
We concluded with a sonnet on Mary Magdalene’s beautiful, broken longing turned suddenly into joy upon seeing her resurrected Lord — and we fittingly read it among the sisters’ gravestones circled by the stations. It reminded me of why we have relics in our altars, of stories of early Christians in the catacombs celebrating mass on the coffins of dead saints.
Together we were gathered, the quick and the dead, to heed with Mary that heartbreaking longing that is the fullness of the communion of the saints; together we were, as the creed puts it, looking for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Together we were with God — and it was good.
Persson is a poet, writer, and scholar of medieval literature and theology; he is a professor in the Language Department at Signum University (online) and a teaching assistant for the Ecclesial University project (www.ecclesialuniversity.ca). He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Meg, and his son, Andrew, and is a parishioner at Holy Cross in the Archdiocese of St. Boniface.