Saturday, March 01, 2008

take the dimness of my soul away

This morning, I alluded to Cowper’s use of the “theology of contentment.” That’s a somewhat loaded phrase, and I wanted to clarify what I meant by it, and why I claimed to find it in Cowper’s writing. One place in the Bible where this topic is discussed is in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, where he thanks them for being concerned about his well-being. He is truly grateful, but he takes the opportunity to teach them about the sufficiency of God:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Kierkegaard stretches out the description a bit further, describing his “knight of faith” in Fear and Trembling:
He takes delight in everything, and whenever one sees him taking part in a particular pleasure, he does it with the persistence which is the mark of the earthly man whose soul is absorbed in such things. He tends to his work. So when one looks at him one might suppose that he was a clerk who had lost his soul in an intricate system of book-keeping, so precise is he. He takes a holiday on Sunday. He goes to church. … He lives as carefree as a ne’er-do-well, and yet he buys up the acceptable time at the dearest price, for he does not do the least thing except by virtue of the absurd.
So this same character is recognizable in “The Task” when Cowper writes:
He is the happy man, whose life even now
Shows somewhat of that happier life to come;
Who, doomed to an obscure but tranquil state,
Is pleased with it, and, were he free to choose,
Would make his fate his choice; whom peace, the fruit
Of virtue, and whom virtue, fruit of faith,
Prepare for happiness; bespeak him one
Content indeed to sojourn while he must
Below the skies, but having there his home.

These examples have many other parallels in Christian literature, particularly within monastic writings. (One is also reminded of the folktale—told and retold, from what I can tell, in cultures all over the world—of the melancholy king, who is told that the cure for his sorrow is to find the happiest man in the world and to wear his shirt; when he finds the man, he has no shirt, and the king learns that he will never find contentment in riches or power.) Often, however, the additional point is made that contentment should not be confused with complacency or slothfulness. Cowper in particular says:
He serves his country; recompenses well
The state beneath the shadow of whose vine
He sits secure, and in the scale of life
Holds no ignoble, though a slighted place.
The man whose virtues are more felt than seen,
Must drop, indeed, the hope of public praise;
But he may boast, what few that win it can,
That if his country stand not by his skill,
At least his follies have not wrought her fall.
Paul says often that each member of a community should contribute as they can and as they have ability.

I do not have much to add to these writings; right now I mostly find it useful to have them collected. Even as we work to praise God and to serve our fellow creatures, we should be mindful that every aspect of our lives comes by God’s grace, and indeed God alone is sufficient for us to find peace in the world.

No comments: