There are no ordinary pleasures.
Every good thing, no matter how trivial, can elicit delight. And delight is potent. Something of little significance provokes glee, and the spirit leaps. If you pay attentionand if you count all good things as coming from Godthen the mundane can help you glimpse the maker of all delight.
Momentous thrillsa wedding day, the birth of a child, reconciliation between hardened enemies, and a stunning answer to prayer when you're low on hopepoint to God more noticeably. So do tragedies, mistakes, and sins. But I'm talking about delights that we encounter more frequently, those we have at our disposal and to which we have become accustomedthe terrain of the trivial, the minor, the normal, the everyday, the routine, even the boring. They, too, reside in the realm of providence.
People shudder, rightly, at what political theorist Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. As she pointed out, malevolence is good corrupted. If we don't relish the uncorrupted goodness around us, then evilwhich is but a dreadful reverie that will never fully come trueis likely to overwhelm us.
So let us give praise for the consoling banality of good.
Ask the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with nard oil and the widow who offered her two mites, and they'd tell you: God takes pleasure in the seemingly insignificant. Ask the hemorrhaging woman who touched Christ's robe amid a pressing crowd, and she'd tell you: The barely noticeable matters to him. Ask the wedding guests in Cana, and they'd tell you: God pays attention to details like wine chemistry, even when it doesn't seem to matter to anyone else.
Finally, consult your body, and it will tell you (chances are, it already has, many times): God wants us to partake in all kinds of pleasures.
"Love, and do as you please," said Augustine in a sermon on 1 John 7, 8. Folded into this advice is an implicit warning against addiction: You are not free to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind when you're owned by pleasure. But when you experience enjoyment within the constraint of loving God, it can only be good.
Besides being enjoyable, everyday pleasures can be useful. During those darker times when I cannot bring myself to face God, I still cannot turn off delight. I am stuck with goodness. Sometimes, it seems as though all I have to hold on to is one small enjoyment. Something feels good, and no one can take it from mesun rays on my face, a toddler's hand in mine, managing to tell the truth, a shower, a day without a headache, the five minutes I spend reading an article in The Economist that makes my world both stranger and easier to grasp.
On those unguarded occasions when I can taste, see, feel, smell, and know that, in Gerard Manley Hopkins's words, "the world is charged with the grandeur of God," I revel a little. I notice. Something must have propelled the sun from behind the clouds. Some power must have suspended it in just the right spot.
Suddenly, without putting much thought into it, I find myself saying thank you. A lungful of marvel becomes a prayer of gratitude. Supposedly ordinary acts turn sacramental, with no effort on my part.
This, too, is worship: to receive all good things and to bow our heads in the knowledge that they come from God. To take whatever is lovely, splendid, pure, noble, and trueand to follow where it leads. To taste and see that the Lord is good.
In her Pulitzer-winning study of nature's microcosm in a Blue Ridge Mountains valley, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard cautions against "taking leave of our senses," by which she means ceasing to marvel at the world around us. Our curiosity must be like that of children, she says, whose senses work overtime.
"Only children can hear the song of the male house mouse," she writes. "Only children keep their eyes open. The only thing they have got is sense; they have highly developed 'input systems,' admitting all data indiscriminately." If we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven, then something tells me that commonplace revelry is part of the package.
I know this for sure: Goodness is prelapsarian. Before things turned bad, they were unqualifiedly good. Pleasure helps us see discontent as aberrant. And discontent cannot help but witness to goodness, even if backhandedly: It reminds us that something's amiss from the way things ought to be.
When a fleeting delight promises a lasting one, we glimpse the goodness of God.
Anything that does that is not ordinary.
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Agnieszka Tennant's other Taste and See columns include:
Dating Jesus | When 'lover of my soul' language goes too far. (December 6, 2006)
To Russia with Fury | Sometimes charity means anger. (October 9, 2006)
What (Not All) Women Want | The finicky femininity of 'Captivating' by John and Stasi Eldredge. (August 6, 2006)
A Velveteen Apologetic | How two creatures dig a rabbit hole in my disbelief. (April 1, 2006)
What Would Jesus Buy? | Saving the world one cashmere sweater at a time. (February 1, 2006)
Hannah Arendt's theory on the banality of evil was based on her interpretation of Nazi behavior.
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