Delight

The first installment of guest essays on the Convivium Principles is by The Revd Dr Jordan Hillebert, Tutor in Theology / Residential Tutor at St Padarn’s Institute in Cardiff. 

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used… Those which are to be enjoyed make us happy; those which are to be used assist us and give us a boost, so to speak, as we press on towards our happiness, so that we may reach and hold fast to the things which make us happy (Augustine, On Christian Teaching I.3).

As a simple depiction of how we navigate the world around us, Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment is as elegant as it’s perhaps obvious. We’re constantly weighing the barrage of stuff that we encounter every day in terms of either their usefulness or their sheer delightfulness. A spoon is rarely an object of delight. It’s useful when it successfully connects me to the thing I desire – another mouthful of sticky toffee pudding. It’s useless if it bends under the weight of all that caramel. The pudding, meanwhile, is there to be enjoyed. However useful the pudding may or may not be for nourishing my body or satisfying my hunger, I’m mostly interested in its capacity to make me happy.

The nearly instinctual set of judgments that go into something as simple as eating a dessert are repeated endlessly throughout the course of our lives. We pursue things that make us happy. We avoid things that make us unhappy. We make use of things that assist us in our pursuit of happiness. We disregard other things as useless to this pursuit. This is all just part and parcel of how we make our way through the world.

But of course, Augustine is not simply interested in the kinds of desires and decisions that propel us through the world. He’s interested in the world itself as created by God. The universe is not just some raw material that I can manipulate for my own use and enjoyment. It has a purpose, is shot-through with meaning. All things are loved into existence by God, and all things find their raison d’être in God. It’s necessary therefore that we use and enjoy things in the right way. It’s vital, in other words, that our use and enjoyment correspond to the true order of God’s good creation. This is what distinguishes use from abuse.

For Augustine (as indeed for most Christians throughout history), God is the supreme object of our enjoyment – the source and summit of humanity’s greatest joy. We don’t use God in order to gain something better. God is the happiness that we seek. We’re thus liberated from the pain and disappointment of seeking our ultimate joy in something else – something infinitely incapable of satisfying our deepest desire. Other people will let us down. Our possessions rarely hold our attention, let alone our affections. Too much sticky toffee pudding will inevitably rot our teeth. But the steadfast love of God endures forever (Ps. 136:1).

In locating our true enjoyment in God, we begin to learn what it means to use and delight in the world around us aright, that is, for God’s sake. If God is the supreme object of our enjoyment, then everything else is useful insofar as it puts us in relation to him. The things we buy, and eat, and wear, and use all have the capacity to make us thankful, to spur us toward acts of generosity, and to deepen our sense of dependence upon our creator. In the Eucharist we become especially aware of the real depth of creation’s holy usefulness. We make use of the fruits of creation, wheat and grape, to make bread and wine; we make use of bread and wine as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; God in turn makes use of our handiwork to feed us with himself.

Far from emptying the world of delight, the recognition that God is the supreme object of our enjoyment fills us with wonder at creation’s transparency to the love and goodness of God. ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork’ (Ps. 19:1). Upon receiving a vision of the world as ‘a little thing, the size of a hazelnut nut’ in the palm of her hand, Julian of Norwich wonders to herself how such a thing could last, ‘for it seemed to me so small that it might have disintegrated suddenly into nothingness.’ The answer, she famously discovers, is that it lasts, ‘and always will, because God loves it; and in the same way everything has its being through the love of God’ (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, 7). To enjoy the world aright is to love what God loves because God loves it – to delight in God’s delight for his creation.

We are therefore, as a fellow American expat living in Wales nicely puts it, ‘stewards of God’s delight.’ We use things aright when we use them for the love of God. We enjoy things aright when we come to see them as objects of God’s love. In this way, by the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), the desires and decisions that propel us through the world come to reflect the true order of God’s good creation.

 

 

[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 7.

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