Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Aelred of Rievaulx and C.S. Lewis

From the Mirror of Charity, by Aelred of Rievaulx (1109-1166):

What are you doing, O human soul, what are you doing? Why are you seized by so many distractions? One thing alone is necessary. Why so many? Whatever you seek in the many exists in the one. If you long for excellence, knowledge, delight, abundance, all is there, there to perfection and nowhere else but there. Can real excellence exist in this swamp of misery and miry bog? Or perfect knowledge in this realm of the shadow of death? Or real delight in this place of horror and vast solitude or genuine abundance amid so many hardships? Again, in this world, what excellence exists which fear does not overthrow? How great is man's knowledge when he does not even grasp himself? If you delight in the flesh, so do the horse and the mule which have no understanding. If you delight in glory or wealth, you will not take it all with you when you die, nor will your glory go with you. Real excellence exists where there is nothing higher to strive for, real knowledge exists where nothing remains unknown. That delight is real which is not lessened by boredom and that abundance is real which is never exhausted. Woe to us, Lord, because we have withdrawn from you! Alas for me, that my stay has been prolonged. When shall I come and appear before your face? Who will give me the wings of a dove that I may fly away and be at rest?

Chapter 22. A rational creature rests only once he attains happiness; he hopes for happiness, but unhappily avoids the path by which he may arrive at it.

62. This privilege of rising above the physical senses to strive for higher things is reserved for you, O rational soul, in preference to other living things. You will never satisfy your desire until by a felicitous curiosity you reach what is highest and best, what nothing surpasses and nothing excels. Wherever you stand below that, however high or great or pleasant it may be adjudged, you will doubtlessly remain miserable. Miserable, because needy. Needy, because ahead lies what you seek; ahead lies what you are panting for; ahead lies that happiness towards the achievement of which a natural force drives the rational soul. Wherefore, since the conscience of each and every individual testifies that all humans want to be happy and since this will can in no way be destroyed, obviously a rational creature can attain the rest desired by all humans only by attaining happiness.

63. Moreover, the blind perversity of miserable man is lamentable enough. Although he desires happiness ardently, not only does he not do those things by which he may obtain his desire but rather, with contrary disaffection, takes steps to add to his misery. In my opinion, he would never do this, if a false image of happiness were not deceiving him, or a semblance of real misery frightening him off from happiness. Does anyone not see that poverty, grief, hunger, and thirst are no slight part of misery? Yet through them real misery is frequently averted and eternal happiness pursued. Blessed are you poor, said Jesus, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who weep, for you shall be comforted. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Poverty, then, is rewarded with eternal riches, grief is changed to eternal joy, for the hungry eternal satisfaction is in store. No one doubts that all these, riches, joy, and satisfaction, are not lacking in happiness. But because an appearance of joy deludes any wicked person by some attachment to his will, his false delight disappears with the satisfaction of his desires, while in his misery he does not know what consolation there is for the elect even in oppression and what rejoicing in hope.

64. The wicked [man] like a sick person who earnestly hopes to recover but because of the immediate pain shuns an amputation or dreads cauterization. Lured by immediate relief he demands the fomentations of an oil poultice, though his disease is a kind that rages more on this gentle treatment and does not abate without the pain of cautery or amputation. So man is miserable, or deceived, as long as he thinks that happiness is something it is not, or allured by agreeableness of present things that fool him. He gets used to misery, and indeed never loses his longing for happiness; and, as if struggling unhappily in this circle, never rests. Now since God alone is superior, and an angel equal, to a rational soul, and all other things are considered inferior, what is closer to madness than to abandon the superior and to pine for rest in beings inferior to oneself?

As I picked up this book this evening, thumbing through pages that I marked with Post-It Notes many months ago, I didn't know how valuable it would be for me to read. One of my favorite passages from one of my favorite authors, Clement of Alexandria, says this: “The best means towards understanding of the truth and the performance of the commandments is to follow those others who have already been through the test with flying colors.” Aelred of Rievaulx was a man who, like Augustine, passed the test with flying colors after a life that began by seeking happiness in ways, and in places, where it couldn't be found. I needed to hear these words of Aelred tonight. As I read the passage above, it seems to me that it sums up the fallen nature of man as accurately as any piece of writing ever has. We seek happiness where it can't be found, and we need the pain of surgery to fix it. It made me think of Eustace as a dragon in C.S. Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the passage below:

"Then the lion said - but I don't know if it spoke - 'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know - if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away.

Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off - just as I thought I'd done it myself the other three times, only they hadn't hurt - and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me - I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on - and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I'd turned into a boy again. You'd think me simply phoney if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they've no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian's, but I was so glad to see them.

After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me - (with his paws?) - Well, I don't exactly remember that bit. But he did somehow or other: in new clothes - the same I've got on now, as a matter of fact. And then suddenly I was back here. Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream."

It's no accident that the truth of our need for God's grace in our lives resonates in the exact same manner with a monk living in the 11th century, an English don in the 20th century, and a trombone playing bachelor in the 21st century. I think the difference between them and me, however, is that I haven't yet fully submitted to the surgery. May God help me, for how I'd like to be able to see my reptilian skin lying on the grass next to me, and feel as smooth and clean as a peeled switch. Alas! I still cling to things that my rational mind knows will lead only to misery, and yet that a part of me falsely believes will bring me happiness. I am deceived by the "agreeableness of present things that fool" me on a daily basis, and sometimes it's harder than at other times to see the truth.

May God give me the grace, and us all, to see things as they really are. Only by the grace of God will it be so.

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