October 19, 2017

Simcha Fisher: Chasing pleasure and chasing God

PHOTO: Julia Caesar

Last Sunday, poor Peter was again remembered for being a little silly. It was the feast of the Transfiguration, and it’s hard to know what to say about Christ and about God the Father all in white, so instead we talk about Peter. “Let’s build tents!” he babbles. “I’ll make three tents, you’ll see, it’ll be great, we can even have a campfire, I’ll set it up right away and even bring bug spray, just don’t go anywhere!”

I’m paraphrasing, of course, but there’s a reason this passage is the favorite of so many. We all understand what it’s like to blurt out dumb things when we’re overawed; and we all understand what it’s like to have something good and not to want to let go of it. To want more, to want it forever.

I remembered a scene in C S Lewis’ space novel Perelandra. The hero, Ransom, has been sent to Venus, which he gradually realizes is an unfallen world. As he reconnoiters, he discovers one spectacular wonder after another: a golden, domed sky that arches over vast floating islands, shimmering bubble trees that quench his thirst and refresh him, intoxicating fruits, and sturdy, nourishing berries with a bread-like taste.

Every now and then one struck a berry which had a bright red centre: and these were so savoury, so memorable among a thousand tastes, that he would have begun to look for them and to feed on them only, but that he was once more forbidden by that same inner adviser which had already spoken to him twice since he came to Perelandra.

Previously, he tastes something so delicious it’s “like the discovery of a totally new genus of pleasures . . .” but

As he let the empty gourd fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. And yet to repeat a pleasure so intense and almost so spiritual seemed an obvious thing to do.

 . . . But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity—like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

It is an obvious thing to want to prolong a pleasure. God Himself has no use for earthly pleasures, but He made them specifically for our enjoyment, and also as signs to remind us of our true home, and to lead us toward it. Thus, all licit pleasures in creation are to be enjoyed in their proper measures, but not to be gorged upon, because they are not ends in themselves. It is a good thing to fulfil a licit desire; it is a very bad thing to keep on consuming — as Ranson thinks to himself “not through desire, but in the teeth of desire and in obedience to a spurious rationalism.”

However. This impulse to prolong a desire is not what Peter experienced at the Transfiguration. The joy he felt, and wished to prolong, was not a mere earthly pleasure, but the true end of all pleasures, which is the presence of God. Peter’s bid to keep Christ and Moses and Elijah there on the mountain top — to stay with Him forever, to build tents to keep them in place — was not the bid of a sensualist looking to gorge himself on spiritual pleasure.

I always thought that Peter sounded like he didn’t even know what he was saying. If you asked him later, he’d scoff at the idea of putting up a tent for the Lord. His brain was simply overloaded, and he reverted to a kind of babble, because he didn’t have the words to express his intense joy at being present for something infinitely good, infinitely true, infinitely beautiful in the person of the transfigured Christ. He may have missed the mark in how he expressed himself, but what he was experiencing was right on: This. This is what I want. I want Him with me forever.

And here is a distinction that we are all called to make in our lives as we reconnoiter in our fallen world, trying to survive, sussing out our mission on this planet, encountering pleasures, and learning which to take, and how much is enough but not too much. We must learn to make the distinction between the goods which can help us come closer to God, and the Goods which are the actual presence of God.

All licit pleasures can lead us to God. All licit pleasures can prepare us to enjoy the eternal presence of God. That is what pleasure is for: to teach us, to form us, to remind us of what we once knew before our forefather Adam brought darkness and distance and forgetfulness between us and our creator. It is perverse to try to prolong pleasure past its purpose. It is profound to try to submerge ourselves in the source of all pleasure.

In the Gospel reading, no one answers Peter as he babbles in throes of a spiritual ecstasy. Instead, a voice comes from a cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

We can’t stay with Him now. We can’t lose ourselves in an endless well of joy. We can’t make Jesus set up camp with us in our cramped little world; and we certainly can’t find him by chasing after the things which are only intended to point to the joy of heaven.

But we can listen to Him. Over and over again, I hear God calling me to listen to Him — to read the scripture, to return to the Psalms, to both form and satisfy my desires by immersing myself in His word. Thanks be to God for giving us a thirst for Him, and thanks be to Him for quenching it.

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