In the deepest part of me, in the part that is really me, there is nothing I want more than to have my mind to be fixed on Jesus—set on him, riveted and nailed to him, screwed fast to him, welded to him, roped and tied and chained and shackled to him. I want my thoughts to rest on him, on his beauty, on his love, on his perfection, his wisdom, his kingdom, his coming again in glory, his unity with the Father, and the worship of Father, Son, and Spirit in heaven. I want my soul to find its most certain satisfaction in thoughts of God, and even to be unable to survive without thoughts of him. In a word, I want what he has promised me:
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. [Romans 8:6]
From Augustine, The Confessions:
For my own part I was reflecting with anxiety and some perplexity how much time had elapsed since my nineteenth year, when I had first been fired with passion for the pursuit of wisdom, resolving that once I found it I would leave behind all empty hopes and vain desires and the follies that deluded me. Yet here I was in my thirtieth year sticking fast in the same muddy bog through my craving to enjoy the good things of the present moment, which eluded and dissipated me. “Tomorrow,” I had been saying to myself, “tomorrow I will find it; it will appear plainly and I will grasp it …”
I’ve read Gilead again. I thought you should know that.
The other day I was talking to my friend about it–a friend who shares my enthusiasm for the book–and we were trying to put our fingers on why we love this book and what it does to us. And a comparison came to me: since I’m also reading something by Edith Schaeffer, I realized that I respond differently to her work–she is personal, biographical, and has led such an interesting life and tells it in such a compelling way that it makes me want to know her, to sit down to coffee with her and listen to her stories.
But when I read Gilead I never think of Marilynne Robinson–not for a second. I become absorbed in the mind of John Ames–and, perhaps more than with any other work, I so completely identify with him and his thoughts, his regrets, his resignation, his hopes for his son, his laughter at himself–that I feel like I’m reading my own words, my own story. Of course, it isn’t my story–not literally. In fact, it’s a novel, so in the strict, historical sense it’s no one’s story. And yet (like all great literature) it comprehends the great universals in the tiny particulars of an imagined life in such a way that I (we) own them.
I also commented to my friend that when I read Gilead my mind never, ever wanders. I am so transfixed by the narrator’ thoughts that I can’t escape them.
It’s a wonderful thing to behold. And now to read Home.
All you need to know is that you should read this article. It reports the results of studies of couples, and makes conclusions about why some couples stay together and some don’t.
The overall thesis is predictable: kindness is good, contempt is bad. But the fascinating thing about this article is all the practical and profound insights into what constitutes kindness and contempt, as well as respect and affection and so on. Truly helpful stuff. And not just for marriages: this applies to all human relationships (though you probably shouldn’t be giving back rubs to coworkers).
My response to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last leading role and the film was tepid. The best I can say about A Most Wanted Man is that it wasn’t completely uninteresting. I didn’t fall asleep. But it’s a humorless and plodding story with only a modicum of tension and an Aesop’s Fable sort of moral at the end. And I had trouble identifying with or caring about any of the characters. In fact, perhaps the best recommendation of the film is that it was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last leading role. I suppose that’s reason enough to watch it, if you like his work.
From “The Deluge at Norderney”:
“When, as a boy, I stayed for some time at Coblentz, at the court of the emigrant Duke of Chartres,” the Cardinal said, after a little pause, pensively, “I knew the great painter Abildgaard, and used to spend my mornings in his studio. When the ladies of the court came to him to have their portraits painted—for he was much sought by such fair women who wanted their beauty immortalized—how many times have I not heard him tell them: ‘Wash your faces, Mesdames. Take the powder, rouge, and kohl off them. For if you will paint your faces yourselves I cannot paint you.’ Often, in the course of my life, have I thought of his words. It has seemed to me that this is what the Lord is continually telling the too weak and vain mortals: ‘Wash your faces. For if you will do the painting of them yourselves, laying on humility and renunciation, charity and chastity one inch thick, I can do nothing about them.’ Tonight, indeed,” the old man went on, smiling, as a deep movement of the sea seemed to shake the building, “the Lord is doing the washing for us with his own hands, and he is using a great deal of water for it. But we will seek comfort in the thought that there is no higher honor or happiness for us than this: to have our portraits painted by the hand of the Lord. That alone is what we have ever longed for and named immortality.”
If you have any taste for reading or rereading Augustine’s The Confessions (and you should, at least at some point in your life), I highly recommend Maria Boulding’s translation. As we were driving to Budapest last week, our friend the classicist was reading my copy in the back seat, laughing all the way with delight. When I asked her why she was laughing, she just said “This is how the Latin reads.” I guess that’s all it takes to make a classicist happy.
Here’s a sample that features not only the masterful translation, but Augustine’s profound (and disturbing) insight into fallen human nature:
But I was quite reckless; I rushed on headlong in such blindness that when I heard youths of my own age bragging about their immoralities I was ashamed to be less depraved than they. The more disgraceful their deeds, the more credit they claimed; and so I too became as lustful for the plaudits as for the lechery itself. What is more to be reviled than vile debauchery? Afraid of being reviled I grew viler, and when I had no indecent acts to admit that could put me on a level with these abandoned youths, I pretended to obscenities I had not committed, lest I might be thought less courageous for being more innocent, and be accounted cheaper for being more chaste. [II.3.7]
I think the word I was looking for might be meta-escapism.
Yes, I coined it myself.