Tuesday, October 4, 2011

In Honor of St. Francis

MOST high, almighty, and good Lord: Grant thy people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world, that, after the example of blessed Francis, we may for love of thee delight in all thy creatures, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
So goes the traditional Anglican and Episcopal prayer for today, October 4, the Feast of St. Francis. As I read those words this morning, I enjoyed noticing the resonance between the prayer and what I've read in several books this year, even just yesterday in Augustine's City of God.

How can we both renounce the world's vanities and still delight in creation with perfect joy? It's what Francis did, and it's what the prayer asks God to do for us. But it's easy to miss the mark. Some Christians have renounced the world so completely, they despise the creation. Looking solely to the unseen world sounds spiritual enough, but how can someone who does it also think about "whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise"? It's even easier to fall off the other side of the balancing wire: many Christians revel in the creation at the expense of worshiping the Creator.

I read last year in City of God a part of Augustine's answer to the problem. We tend to judge created things, he says, according to their utility for us and our comfort. Because a desert is inhospitable to us, for instance, and a wild animal is dangerous to us, we are tempted to think of these things as absolutely bad. But God called all that He created good, so any existing thing is good in that it was created and has its existence from God. On the other hand, wealth makes life pleasant, so we tend to think of wealth as absolutely good. But making any created thing the goal of life is evil, not because the thing is evil, but because by it we have turned away from God, Who is the proper end of our life. We should learn to look at all things, Augustine says, according to their created purpose.

Yesterday, I found the keystone of Augustine's view. All created things are good, he says, but they are ordered in a hierarchy. We should always prefer the higher goods and seek the lower goods only as means to the higher. The City of Man seeks peace to enjoy earthly pleasures. "These things . . . are good things, and without doubt the gifts of God." But anyone who believes them the only desirable things and neglects heavenly goods will end up miserable. Of course, most people don't entirely neglect God; most pay attention to Him only long enough to ask Him for earthly goods. Good people, Augustine says, use the world that they may enjoy God; the wicked use God that they may enjoy the world.

Last week I read C. S. Lewis saying almost the same thing about his childhood view of God. The young Lewis prayed to God for things, and then, to be honest, hoped that He would leave him alone. He had no thought of God as Savior or Judge, only as magician. The week before that, I read about Francis in Durant's Age of Faith. Francis saw a Church enamored of earthly possessions, so he determined to be poor and to go about preaching. But while he gave up the things of the world, he didn't live in a cave, either. He went out into the world and famously taught people to thank God for the rich blessings of the sun and the moon.

Even earlier this year, I read a passage in Calvin's Institutes that called for a dour (surprise!) view of the world: renouncing the vanities of the world means guarding against taking joy in anything but God. In the margin of this passage, I wrote a note about what I thought would serve as a good rebuttal to this severe outlook: "The Flag of the World," a chapter in Chesterton's great book Orthodoxy. In that chapter, Chesterton says the proper attitude towards the world is something like a healthy patriotism. A man who truly loves his country must love it despite its problems, and he must want to correct the problems without changing what he loves about his country. We should have the same attitude about the world, he says. We must recognize its brokenness and long to see it restored, but we love it as the home God gave us.

Augustine again:
Beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good. When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love: it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately. So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love.
"All things should be done decently and in order" -- even love. The prayer for today doesn't say we should renounce the world, but the vanities of the world. When we throw out that bathwater, the baby that remains is an ordinate love for the world. And to love all things ordinately is "to delight in all thy creatures, with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord." Amen.

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