Wednesday, October 29, 2008


'The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.' -- C.S. Lewis

Just when I start to think I've finally found a C.S. Lewis book that did nothing for me, there, in the last chapter of The Four Loves, I stumble across this, which I've been pondering since Sunday:

There is one method of dissuading us from inordinate love of a fellow-creature which I find myself forced to reject at the very outset. I do so with trembling, for it met me in the pages of a great saint and a great thinker to whom my own glad debts are incalculable.

In words which can still bring tears to my eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation in which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him (
Confession IV, 10
). Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one's heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Or course, this is excellent sense. Don't put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don't spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I do to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as "Careful! This might lead you to suffering."

To my nature, my temperment, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground -- because the security (so to speak) is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a Friend -- if it comes to that, would you choose a dog -- in this spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves, before one thus calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love himself than this.

I think that this passage in the
Confessions is less a part of Augustine's Christendom than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic "apathy" or neo-Platonic mysticism than to charity. We follow one who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he "loved." St. Paul has a higher authority with us than Augustine -- St. Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that he ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died (Phil. II, 27).

Even if it were granted that insurances against heartbreak were our highest wisdom, does God Himself offer them? Apparantly not. Christ comes at last to say "Why hast thou forsaken me?"

There is no escape along the lines St. Augustine suggests. Nor along any other lines. There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, inpenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

--C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harvest Books, 1988; reprint, 1960).

Wow. Discuss, if you like, these ideas.


Anyone who has ever loved and lost; anyone who has ever lost a family member or dear friend; anyone who has ever sat and watched out the back window of an automobile and watched people wave goodbye, people one will never see again - the pain and risk involved in human relationships should be abundantly clear. Lewis is quite right to amend Augustine in the way he does. We cannot escape the dangers inherent in relating to others in this life, because the overflowing grace of God, embodied in love in all its various forms, spreads through our lives whether we know it or not, recognize it for what it is, or accept it or not.

We love because God first loved us. The greatest of these is love. We get confused by terms and words, yet I would argue that while the Greek is far more specific than the English equivalent, the deeper truth lies in the equivocal English understanding. All love is of God and is not and cannot be wrong.

Metropolitan Memorial UMC, the church I attended while in seminary, had a tag line for a benediction that began, "To live is to risk". Indeed it is - it is to risk not only loss and pain and suffering. To live is to risk joy, and freedom, and happiness, and peace, all of which flow from love. I have learned, the hard way, that risk-aversion in human relationships leaves us less than human in some ways. Far better to accept the reality that pain comes with the package. To feel pain in loss is to be alive to the possibilities inherent in love. It, too, is a gift from God.
Never a fan of Augustinian wisdom, I would note that he is rejecting the first commandment of Christ, love thy neighbor as thy self.
Well, what does that say about his love for himself? Tricky stuff, this. It's why misconceptions of "total depravity" leave me preferring people would concentrate on God's overwhelming love for us, not the fact that none of us deserve it. True, none of us deserve it -- but taking it to the extreme of self-loathing -- not saying Augustine did that, but lots of people do -- is, well, I dare say, demonic.
Your post seems to fit into something that God is wanting me to look at within myself - and
here is a video made by the young parents of a baby son with trisomy 18 (usually aborted), who allowed themselves to love him,knew he was going to die and celebrated every day they had with him.

Or have you already seen it?
Karen, thanks for starting my day with a good self-cleaning of my contact lenses. That's beautiful.

" 'Let me tell you something, mother,' the Elder said. 'Once upon a time, a great saint of antiquity saw in the temple one such as you, a mother who was also weeping for her infant, her only child, whom the Lord also had summoned. "Do you not know," the saint said to her, "how daring such infants are before the throne of God? There are none more daring than they in all the kingdom of Heaven: 'You gave us life, O Lord,' they say to God, 'yet no sooner had we beheld it than You took it away from us again.' And with such daring do they ask and demand that the Lord immediately accords them the rank of angels. And therefore," said the holy man, "do you too rejoice, O woman, and weep not, for your infant is now with the Lord in the assembly of His angels." Thus did the holy saint address the weeping woman in those ancient days. For he was a great saint and could not impart a falsehood unto her. Therefore, let me to you also, mother, that your infant too of a certainty now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and merry, and saying his prayers for you. So weep, though, also, but rejoice.' "

-- the Elder, "The Brothers Karamazov."
I've got to read that book again! But I will remember that excerpt now.
(Anyone been reading Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read?)
Hadn't heard of it.

Wouldn't it be fun to be able to talk about a book about how to talk about books you hadn't read if you hadn't read it?

Whoa. Made myself dizzy.
BTW, the citation for that excerpt is page 69 of the edition after WHAT I'M READING in my sidebar.
Bayard's book is so funny, as he's a professor of lit in France. He talks about how our reading repertoire, if we're honest, is made up of books we've read and remember in fragments, books we've read and have forgotten, books we've heard others talk about and then cite as if we've read them ourselves. He has these codes for all of the above, and then talks about different books, using the codes, all in a very literary fashion. It makes you see others and yourself in a different (funnier) light, and serious discussion of literature can never be the same!
I put him in my biblio for the thesis, (a little bit of humour), and hope someone asks me why it's there!
Oh, this is rich! "I put him in my biblio for the thesis, (a little bit of humour), and hope someone asks me why it's there!" Hee hee. Brilliant -- and deliciously subversive, lit-crit-wise!
Personally, I think we all take ourselves much too seriously in academia!
In defense of St. Augustine, I believe the passage in Confessions Lewis has in mind (at least the best one I could find that supports this interpretation) is this:

“…they [i.e. creatures] go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide. They pass, and who can follow them with any bodily sense? Or who can grasp them firm even while they are still here?” (IV.10, trans. Sheed)

The question is whether Augustine here is really recommending NOT loving creatures (putting aside the deeper question of whether Augustine’s primary concern is a strategy of sorrow-avoidance, rather than, say, a description of true happiness). Here I think the answer is clearly no. Consider that when Augustine introduces the story of the loss of his friend, he says: “…there is no true friendship unless You weld it between souls that cleave together through that charity which is shed in our hearts by the Holy Ghost who is given to us…” (IV.4)

In several other places, the closest Augustine gets to a “Stoic” attitude toward sorrow is to say that love of friends WITHOUT love of God will lead to sorrow. But he never sets love of friends in OPPOSITION to love of God. For instance: “Blessed is the man that loves Thee, O God, AND HIS FRIEND in Thee, and his enemy for Thee. For he alone loses no one that is dear to him, if ALL are dear in God, who is never lost.” (IV.9) Again ,the idea that creatures are valuable (and worth loving) insofar as they are related to God is affirmed here: “Wherever the soul of man turns, unless towards God, it cleaves to sorrow, even though the things outside God and outside itself to which it cleaves may be things of beauty. For these lovely things would be nothing at all unless they were from Him.” This last quotation is from IV.10, right before the first passage I quoted above to which Lewis was apparently alluding.

Augustine clearly espouses the same reasonable view that Lewis himself wants to recommend: not love of God vs. love of creatures, but love of creatures ordered to love of God.
Thanks for the insight, Anon.
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