Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Sin and Pleasure

Refining our palate As Lent is winding down, and Easter is on the horizon, I thought a reflection on asceticism (self denial) might be timely. I finished C.S. Lewis' God in the Dock the other day and am turning again to Thomas Merton, who is a somewhat unusual writer. His book has chapters on a given subject and within each chapter there are numbered sections that might be as short as a paragraph or as long as a couple of pages. Each section is like a meditation; cumulatively they add up to a chapter. He writes simply, without jargon, and circles around his subject, always suggesting something ineffable. His prose is very crisp and good. This passage grabbed me last night, as it struck at a common conception that religious ideas and religious life are killjoys, that the devil has all the fun.
Our asceticism is not supposed to make us weary of a life that is vile. It is not supposed to make our bodies, which are good, appear evil. It is not supposed to make us odious to ourselves. An asceticism that makes all pleasure seem gross and disgusting and all the activities of the flesh abominable is a perversion of the nature which God made good and which even sin has not succeeded in rendering totally vile. The real purpose of asceticism is to disclose the difference between the evil use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue. It is true that our self denial teaches us to realize that sin, which appears to be good from a certain point of view, is really evil. But self denial should not make us forget the essential distinction between sin, which is a negation, and pleasure, which is a good. True asceticism shows us that there is no necessary connection between sin and pleasure: that there can be sins that seek no pleasure, and other sins that find none. Pleasure, which is good, has more to do with virtue than it has with sin. The virtue that is sufficiently resolute to pay the price of self denial will eventually taste greater pleasure in the things it has renounced than could ever be enjoyed by the sinner who clings to those same things as if they were his God. We must, therefore, gain possession of ourselves, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God. No inspiration of the Spirit of God will ever move us to cast off the body as if it were evil, or to destroy its faculties as if they were implacable enemies of God and could never be made to obey His grace. He who made our flesh and gave it to our spirit will not be pleased by a sacrifice in which flesh is murdered by the spirit and returned to Him in ruin.
As I am getting older, and, I certainly hope, wiser, I am beginning to see value in the idea that sin can be a lesser pleasure that gets in the way of one that is greater but longer and more subtle in coming. Small doses of asceticism, then, are like a swig of lemony water before the next course. We don't want to fill up on plain bread because we fear nothing else will be coming, or eat courses so quickly that there is no pleasure in them. We hardly taste them at all or the tastes are all blended together in ways no one would choose. I hope everyone caught Micheal Coren's article in today's National Post about C.S. Lewis. I'm considering it for a short post here, but as I forgot it at work, that won't be happening today

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