Czechoslovakian novelist, Ivan Klima, ends his book, My First Loves, with the following lines:
“Suppose I spent my whole life just waiting, waiting for the moment when at last I saw that starry face? It would turn its glance on me and say: ‘You’ve been incapable of accepting life, dear friend, so you’d better come with me!’ Or, on the other hand, it might say: ‘You’ve done well because you knew how to bear your solitude at a great height, because you were able to do without consolation in order not to do without hope!’ What would it really say? At that moment I could not tell.”
What Klima is saying as he ends this book is that it is not easy to distinguish virtue from timidity, high eros from sterility, and genuine patience from lack of nerve. He was a young man when he wrote this and, at that point, he wasn’t sure.
At this point in my own life, on any given day, making any given decision, I also am not always sure what is virtue and what is timidity? However, more recently, I am becoming somewhat steadier in the conviction that what must now be defended (both in secular and religious circles) is the value of bearing one’s solitude at a great height, the value of living without certain consolations so as to live in a certain hope.
Why do I say this? Because today the dominant philosophies in our world and the dominant spiritualities in our churches militate against reserve, repression, sublimation, and chastity. This is novel. In the more recent past we saw quite a different emphasis.
We are coming out of a culture of poverty which, of necessity, demanded that we repress many of our needs. Goods were simply absent for most of us and patience, doing without, and repression were a matter of necessity. There wasn’t a choice. As well, for this reason, among others, Christian spiritualities of the recent past stressed the same things, namely, doing without, patience, reserve, chastity, repression. The attainment of life’s pleasures were not seen as all that important since, in this life, “we mourn and weep in this valley of tears”.
In this kind of situation, in a culture of poverty and in churches which stressed life after death (often to the detriment of life after birth) renunciation, doing without, and all forms of chastity were almost automatically identified with virtue. Virtue’s task was to sweat blood in the garden. Conversely, of course, anything that went against this was, without much discrimination, seen to be self-indulgence and sin.
Affluence, new philosophies, new spiritualities, and a reaction against the past, have, today, reversed these equations. Reserve, repression, sublimation, and chastity, once so exalted on the totem of virtue, are now more identified with being uptight and missing out on life. For good and for bad, we are invited to push beyond reserve, chastity, repression, and sublimation to taste life more deeply and more really and not just write high philosophies and spiritualities about it! The spirit of our age nauseates when there is talk about “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”. Instead it invites us to taste life more deeply, in name of God and religion and virtue. It tells us that we’ve only the one life and so we must live it well, fully, without timidity, with a certain courageous selfishness.
The results have been mixed. On the one hand, it has made us less uptight, less timid, more honest about our needs, and more appreciative of the goodness of God and creation. As well, it has made us more aware of the fact that Christ’s promise to give us life applies to life after birth as well as to life after death.
On the other hand, however, it has also made us more restless, more frustrated, more dissatisfied, and, at times, more irresponsible and less respectful. Once the lid is blown off reserve, chastity, repression, and sublimation, we all simply put up with less frustration in our relationships, marriages, jobs, vocations, and in our churches. A new struggle begins vis-à-vis fidelity, respect, and patience.
Moreover a new struggle also begins regarding virtue and timidity. Klima’s dilemma becomes our own: In renouncing something, am I being virtuous or do I simply lack nerve? Is this a higher respect, or am I simply uptight? Am I living a life of chastity or am I insulting the goodness of creation? Have I got sterility confused with an higher eros? If God called me home now would he scold me for not living life fully or would he congratulate me for bearing my solitude at a great height?
Nikos Kazantzakis once stated that “virtue sits completely alone on top of a desolate ledge. Through her mind pass all the forbidden pleasures which she has never tasted and she weeps.”
Virtue does weep for what it has to renounce. Morality does envy immorality … but only for a while. Persevered in chastity, sublimation, patience, and sweating blood in the garden, spawn something far other than envy. Their fruit is gratitude for the sublime only comes as a result of sublimation, first best only comes when 2nd best is renounced, and great love is the result of great patience and great respect.
Like Ivan Klima, there are many times in my life when I am not sure am I incapable of accepting life or am I bearing my solitude at a great height? But there are also some moments when I am sure – sure that God and great love can only be born in my life when I have learned how to wait properly.