When God gives you the desires of your heart, it’s not kosher to complain that the food was slightly less good than anticipated, or that the view from your hotel room could have been better. You don’t complain that the kids seem to be doing TOO well without you, or that living in the lap of luxury, with no commitments other than lounging on the beach of the Atlantic in perfect weather, makes you feel restless rather than restful.
These things are not done. So I will say that the “bleisure” trip (business+leisure), on which I accompanied my husband, was just the right length of time being away (three days), and when I got restless, I walked, all over the island, from the top to the bottom, in search of good coffee and french toast, but I couldn’t find a Starbucks or a greasy spoon until the afternoon before we left.
These are not problems of course. They are mentalities affected by receiving far too much in the way of material satisfaction by doing far too little, and I suppose anyone is susceptible to them, particularly anyone who is on vacation from prayer among other disciplines.
Add to the situation the knowledge that someone (though not you) has paid dearly for access to all of these amenities, and yet simple amenities, like complimentary coffee, are hard to come by, unless you have a rolled up wad of twenty dollar bills in your pocket with which to ask questions and receive answers, or to acknowledge the privilege of having someone hold a door for you, carry a bag or fetch a car.
Charging a single drink to your room is shown to cost $25, and it occurs to you to ask of the world at large–Who are these people? Who considers this luxury commendable, and its price tag a worthy cost? Who likes finding in their room a stack of catalogs suggesting the most desirable way to dress at this hotel, from the silk tunics and $500 sunglasses down to the La Perla thongs? While I love luxury in theory, and long for it, I remain conflicted about how to enjoy it when it comes.
Except for the unpleasant act of tallying your bills, walls have been built around every unpleasant aspect of life. You may remain blissfully unaware of service entrances, trash receptacles, or the existence of mini-vans (they always park the Maserati by the front door). It is impossible even to stand sentry in your room long enough to resist the turndown service, to say to the invisible witness of your shameful indulgence– that shadow who enters your room only when you are absent– that you are capable, indeed find it preferable, to crawl into bed unassisted, and kick your own underwear out of the center of the room.
It’s one of my least admirable qualities–the one I most hate in myself– that I can find fault with anything. On being handed the world, I’m likely to find it cheap, and the people who desire it, too easily satisfied. It’s not that I wanted to be anywhere else or doing something else; it’s that all the conditions were favorable for happiness, and happiness still proved to be the most rare commodity.
I felt caught between the contradictory dispositions of thinking I’ve done my time; I’ve earned my reward and the sense that I could never in a million years earn nor deserve a paradise that excludes all suffering.
Every kindness is paid for, every indulgence or beauty comes with the quality of having been earned and therefore deserved. When everyone seems to lack visible hardship or want, there’s no need to offer help or generosity. It’s an environment that has no need of God, and indeed one fears God would spit its inhabitants out of his mouth.
Plus, I had too much wine at the corporate dinner and said a bunch of stupid things to my husband’s coworkers.
I was walking and hashing over all of these thoughts on the phone with Pedge, and reliving what memories would come from the night before, like you do with a good friend who will not disown you in your horribleness. I was telling her about how irritating I am to myself that I always “make a hell of heaven and a heaven of hell,” and how much I long to accept charity with graciousness when it’s offered to me, to resist the tendency to despise my gifts due to the ever prevalent knowledge of my unworthiness.
“Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do no be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10-12).
But I had forgotten that rejoicing in the Lord was my strength, and somehow it surprised me as I was walking, to see the Lutheran, Episcopal and Catholic Churches clustered on three corners of an intersection, a residential crossroads in a neighborhood of waterfront mansions.
What’s this? I thought smugly. Do the people who dwell already in Paradise need God after all?
Of course they did. Of course Christ would be present here in a Blessed Sacrament chapel in an environment where every need has been met except that which is most needful. One cannot purchase freedom from sin. Increased purchasing power is almost certain to afford an increased bondage to sin, an increased tendency to ingratitude, increased confusion over how to manage material gifts in the light of faith, increased suspicion towards fellow man, and perhaps even increased discord in marriage over the the unequal yokes of ambition and holy longing.
I hung up the phone with Pedge, having made my confession to her, then went into the Adoration chapel to do the same before God. The chapel was full of women, as chapels often are in the middle of the day–women dressed in the best clothing adorned with glossy pearls and diamonds, as well as women who possibly rode the bus in from Miami to work in service positions and pray at lunch break beside their employers.
Here in front of the Blessed Sacrament, we were all equal in poverty, sharing in our captivity to ambition and unquenched desires, our persistent misassumptions that goodness can come from fine foods, hotels, wealth or being the wittiest drunk at the dinner table.
It is from Christ, and Christ alone that every good thing comes. All life, all meaning radiates forth from him, and if he wants to sanctify luxury, food or drink, he can do so, even though luxury can sanctify no one.
It is through him that even my friendship with Pedge becomes something more than likeminded people enjoying one another’s companionship. I never wanted friends who were only drinking buddies, but rather spiritual friends on fellow pilgrimage, signs of the Incarnation, God With Us in human relationship.
And it strikes me even more clearly how God is with us and guides us in each of our small journeys through perdition and back. Why did I go out walking? Why did I turn on this street and not another? Why did the Blessed Sacrament Chapel appear at just the moment when I had told Pedge that Christ seems to be absent on this island, and yet while there was still time to feel gratitude, and to face my husband’s co-workers again in humility over the past night’s blunders?
God really does give us the desires of our heart, and then mercifully, he shows us how those desires were not what we really wanted at all, and how our desires pale in comparison to his true gifts. He gives and gives and gives–and in our humanity, we receive imperfectly and with only partial understanding.