Sunday, February 10, 2013

Some Uncomfortable Reading

I have been reading Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermons, a book I started reading several times before but found rather unappetizing. Newman's often- gloomy tone is worlds away from Chesterton's jolly moralizing . And yet, this time around I have found the volume much more compelling.

I found this passage, topically enough from a Lenten sermon, especially interesting:

Such advice is especially suitable to an age like this, when there is an effort on all hands to multiply comforts, and to get rid of the daily inconveniences and distresses of life. Alas! my brethren, how do you know, if you avail yourselves of the luxuries of this world without restraint, but that you are only postponing, and increasing by postponing, an inevitable chastisement? How do you know, but that, if you will not satisfy the debt of daily sin now, it will hereafter come upon you with interest? See whether this is not a thought which would spoil that enjoyment which even religious persons are apt to take in this world's goods, if they would but admit it. It is said that we ought to enjoy this life as the gift of God. Easy circumstances are generally thought a special happiness; it is thought a great point to get rid of annoyance or discomfort of mind and body; it is thought allowable and suitable to make use of all means available for making life pleasant. We desire, and confess we desire, to make time pass agreeably, and to live in the sunshine. All things harsh and austere are carefully put aside. We shrink from the rude lap of earth, and the embrace of the elements, and we build ourselves houses in which the flesh may enjoy its lust, and the eye its pride. We aim at having all things at our will. Cold, and hunger, and hard lodging, and ill usage, and humble offices, and mean appearance, are all considered serious evils. And thus year follows year, tomorrow as today, till we think that this, our artificial life, is our natural state, and must and ever will be. But, O ye sons and daughters of men, what if this fair weather but ensure the storm afterwards? what if it be, that the nearer you attain to making yourselves as gods on earth now, the greater pain lies before you in time to come, or even (if it must be said), the more certain becomes your ruin when time is at an end? Come down, then, from your high chambers at this season to avert what else may be. Sinners as ye are, act at least like the prosperous heathen, who threw his choicest trinket into the water, that he might propitiate fortune. Let not the year go round and round, without a break and interruption in its circle of pleasures. Give back some of God's gifts to God, that you may safely enjoy the rest. Fast, or watch, or abound in alms, or be instant in prayer, or deny yourselves society, or pleasant books, or easy clothing, or take on you some irksome task or employment; do one or other, or some, or all of these, unless you say that you have never sinned, and may go like Esau with a light heart to take your crown.

I find this so interesting because it is such a strange and novel idea to me that self-denial of things that are good in themselves might be a noble thing, and that a love of comforts and simple pleasure might be a bad thing. The logic of utilitarianism has bitten so deeply into us-- into all of us-- that it has hard to see anything wrong with something that does nobody any harm, and equally hard to see anything meritorious in something that confers no obvious benefit.

And yet-- this idea isn't so strange, after all. All my life I have felt (along with most people, I suppose) an admiration for those who live a more arduous and constrained existence; the Amish, or peasants in less developed countries, or our own predecessors of several generations ago.

As I was writing the above lines, I had a memory of my mother getting me ready for school, when I was a little boy, and of how I would flinch from washing my face in cold water. "How would you get by in the army?", my mother would ask, which seemed like an irrefutable argument to me.

I remember another time, when I was reading Little House on the Prairie, walking to school with my older sisters and wishing we were barefooted.

Then there is the alarm that so many of us feel about technology and consumerism, and the spectacular gains in convenience and self-indulgence this allows. Somehow, it isn't just the fact that this new lifestyle might make us fatter or shorten our attention spans that bothers us. There seems something decadent about it in itself.

I don't want to sound like St. Simon Stylites. I am very far from being ascetical. Very far. Few people are more enthusiastic about food, drink, bed, and cosiness than I am. (Once, in college, I bought five cream cakes for a pound and ate them all then and there, on the street.) But perhaps that is why the ascetical ideal seems so fascinating to me.

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