Wrestling with Angels
Worship con Queso
There is a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston I have visited on three occasions. Each meal has begun with chile con queso. The cheese at this particular restaurant is the most delicious food I have ever tasted.
With every bite, I have been overcome with gratitude to God for creating taste buds, cows, and human ingenuity. And that gratitude has led to praise.
Some folks understand this. Some think I'm kidding. And others are skeptical that such a carnal thing as a Tex-Mex appetizer could provoke genuine worship.
We Christians have a long history of mixed and sometimes openly hostile attitudes toward sensual pleasure. Saint Augustine is the fourth-century poster boy for our dilemma, struggling in Book X of his Confessions to rein in each of his five senses. He attempts, for example, to "take food at mealtimes as though it were medicine" and to "fight against the pleasure in order not to be captivated by it."
Augustine is ever-vigilant that pleasure in created things never replace our desire for the Creator. His caution is well taken. But lately I've been discovering an emphatically propleasure voice in the writings of another Christian guide.
C. S. Lewis is known, of course, as a literary scholar, novelist, and apologist. He is also, consistently, a curator of pleasure. Where there is beauty to be received, music to be heard, laughter to be welcomed, and (especially) food to be eaten, Lewis attends, celebrates, scrutinizes, describes, and partakes.
In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis argues that the pleasures derived from forest moss and sunlight, bird song, morning air, and the comfort of soft slippers are "shafts of [God's] glory as it strikes our sensibility." Our task is not to guard against sensual enjoyment, but to allow our minds to run "back up the sunbeam to the sun"—to see every pleasure as a "channel of adoration."
Lewis even argues that there is no such thing as a "bad" pleasure—only pleasures "snatched by unlawful acts." But he is not blind to the "concupiscence" (lustfulness) that so haunts Augustine. When our response to pleasure is greed instead of adoration—when we seek to grasp and possess rather than receive—our healthy cry of "This also is Thou" distorts into "the fatal word: Encore."
In his introduction to The Four Loves, Lewis distinguishes between "Need-pleasures" and "Pleasures of Appreciation." The enjoyment we feel upon receiving a Need-pleasure—water to quench thirst, for example, or the scratching of an itch—is intense but short-lived. But with Appreciation-pleasures—nonessential things that awaken us to delight, like delicious smells and tastes and scenes of beauty—the sensation intensifies over time. Greed—the repeated cry of "Encore!" to, say, rich black coffee or extra-creamy queso—may transform a Pleasure of Appreciation into a Pleasure of Need, draining out of it all the lasting enjoyment.
The answer, Lewis contends, is not to avoid pleasure but to "have" and "read" it properly: to receive it, openhanded, as both a gift and a message. "We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany"—the small sign of God's presence—"is itself to adore."
Wrestling with Angels
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