At one point in Goethe’s great philosophical play Faust, the title character is so smitten with a particular moment that he begs it not to leave: Verweile doch, he implores, du bist so schön. “Please stay. You are so beautiful.”
It’s one of the most famous lines in all of German literature, and I think I know why:
There are moments, scenes, happenings, that are so wonderful that we want to keep them, to make them ours in a way that they sadly cannot be. We want to rise above a world of being and becoming, of change and decay, of generation and corruption, into a world where the truly valuable, the truly beautiful and good, is permanent, never to be lost. This is, I suspect, one of the motivations behind Plato’s doctrine of the world of ideal forms, which has always seemed to me as much religious, as much a matter of yearning and mysticism, as philosophical.
And yet flowers dry up and blow away. Moments of happiness will be followed by moments of sorrow. Gain by loss. Beautiful people age and decay and die. (This is a recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s sonnets, which have been on my mind of late.) Grand buildings collapse. Works of art darken, and their colors grow dim. Illustrious reputations are forgotten and dwindle into obscurity. Relationships end. As a somewhat overwrought song from my early teenage years put it, “We are but a moment’s sunlight, fading in the grass.”
Kullu nafsin dha’iqat al-mawt, says the Qur’an. “Every soul shall taste of death.” And, in another passage, Kullu shay’in haalikun illa wajhahu. “Everything perishes except His face.”
For some reason, I’ve always been acutely, painfully, aware of this. Beautiful flower gardens remind me that their blooms will last for only a few weeks. Touring historic palaces reminds me that their occupants lived in them—as vividly as you and I — for only a few years, and have now been gone for centuries. Even my beloved Alps, while their achingly beautiful landscapes inspire me and exalt me, tell me how small I am, how short a time I have here, and remind me that all I can do is look on them for a little while before I, too, am gone. And I’m not referring only to the trivial fact that we leave Maria Alm on Saturday morning.
Of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews says “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. . . . But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly.”
I also understand them. In the transient, I sense glimpses of the permanent. I’ve seen it afar off, and am persuaded of it.
C. S. Lewis argued from the existence of a desire for permanent joy to the existence of something and/or Someone that can fulfill that desire. Inhaling implies the existence of air. Hunger and thirst entail the existence of food and drink. Sexual desire points to the existence of sexual fulfillment. Just so, he maintained, the desire for something real and permanent and ultimate and infinitely good and perfectly joyful—something that this world, for all our pathetic efforts, plainly doesn’t contain—indicates that ultimate satisfaction really does exist. Somewhere.
I believe he’s right.
Maria Alm, Austria