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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Values for Advent 2: Contentment

I am offering a series of reflections in Advent in which I am suggesting some spiritual values we might cultivate during this precious but demanding season.  Last week I spoke about Advent as a time to of longing and desire.  Today I want to explore the value of contentment.  

At first sight, contentment seems to be incompatible with longing; after all, if we desire because we do not yet possess, it follows that we must be discontented in some way because of something we lack.  There is certainly a paradox here, for we know that we should be content with what we have and are, yet we hear the gospel promising us something that in St Paul’s words is ‘even better’.  We know that everything in this life is provisional, here only for a time.  At the Lord’s coming, it will be changed and we with it. It will become God’s new world; and we are taught to long for that day and to pray for it.  This is the focus of all God-given desire.  And because our condition falls so far short of what God would it to be, there should indeed be a divine discontent in us that throws us back on his mercy and recalls us to depend completely on his help and grace.  

At the same time, we are taught to recognise the goodness of things and to see in them God’s generosity and kindness.  We know we must learn how not to crave what we do not really need, nor to invest more than we should in what we are given.  Immanuel Kant’s insight helps here: ‘we are not rich because of what we possess but because of what we can do without’.  And by riches I don’t simply mean material things.  I mean any gift that promotes wellbeing and gives us pleasure or fulfilment, whether in the body, the intellect, the emotions or in our faculty for spiritual awareness that we call the soul.  Perhaps we can’t be content unless we could renounce even the best that God has given us.  

We need to lay alongside each other these two strands that run through the Bible.  This means learning how to desire God himself in all things and above all things.  We know that nothing less can ever ultimately satisfy.  So contentment and longing are held together when we see how it’s as much about appreciating the Giver as the gift, and that being content is to glimpse how every gift is a kind of sacrament of God’s loving generosity, not an end in itself but another means to knowing and loving him.  To turn it round, as St Paul does in the early chapters of his Letter to the Romans, the cravings and sins that lead human beings into depravity and destructiveness have the effect precisely of making the creature the ultimate end of our concern rather than the Creator.  The Bible consistently calls this idolatry.  Augustine describes sin as being ‘curved in upon oneself’, the ‘worth-ship’ that properly belongs to God our ultimate Source and End being deflected instead into the penultimate, the created, the transient.  Perhaps idolatry is surrender to a perverted kind of discontent that can never rest in the goodness and worth-ship of another.  And when we give our lives to these ends, we are, says St Paul, as good as dead already.   In an image of St Francis de Sales, we are like a bride who pays so much attention to her wedding-ring that she never even notices the bridegroom who gave it to her. 

What is the secret of contentment?  How do we achieve it in our western society that is so hungry to possess, whose besetting sins are so blatantly laid bare and played upon in this run-up to Christmas, the sins of avarice and its close relative, envy?  

St Paul has a key passage about this in his Letter to the Philippians.  It comes just after the well-known Advent exhortation to ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’.  He has spoken of his joy in the Christ whose coming is near and then says: ‘I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed, and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need’ (Philippians 4:11-12).  This owes more than a little to the Stoic philosophers whose ideal was to reach an inward contemplative stability by becoming more and more indifferent to outward circumstances.  The soul’s health, they said, did not depend either on prosperity or adversity, and to allow good fortune or bad to influence it would be to regress to a childish, even infantile state.  St Paul gives Christian meaning to this by saying that Christian stability is found not within but beyond himself.  ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’ he says.  ‘My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4.14, 19).  Like everything else, it is given.  We cannot achieve it on our own.

We can, however, cultivate a mentality that makes it more possible.  The clue, I believe, is thankfulness.  This means more than merely saying thank-you, though the words are important.  It is about being thankful at the core of ourselves, as when the psalmist begins his praises by saying ‘I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth’ (Psalm 34.1).  This is a worshipper for whom thankfulness and praise are a habit.  For him it is as natural to bless God as it is to sleep, eat and breathe.  This is fundamental to Jewish spirituality.  Everything in life is made holy, not by blessing it but by blessing God for it: ‘Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the Universe: you make this new day to dawn.  Blessed are you for the sleep I have enjoyed; for this food and drink, for the sabbath, for our homes and those who love us, for our lives and the hope that sustains us’.  

This is what Jesus did at the Last Supper.  He blessed God for the bread and the wine and commanded us to do this in memory of him.  His command was much more than an instruction to celebrate the eucharist.  It was a summons to be eucharistic in our own selves, to develop the habitus of always and everywhere blessing God for the goodness and mercy shown to us and to all living things.  The word eucharistia simply means thanksgiving.  It defines the man or woman or faith.  To be eucharistic people, men and women for whom thankfulness is a way of life, is to be on the path of true contentment.  

I have met a few people in whom I have glimpsed this.  When I became an incumbent in the early 1980s, I followed a priest who had died of a brain tumour without warning.  He was not even the age I am now, and had only been in the parish for a few months, yet in that short time he had earned a good deal of respect and affection.  When my wife and I went to the vicarage to measure up for carpets and curtains, we met his widow who was on the point of moving out.  We stumbled around as you do, trying to say something appropriate, but the words wouldn’t come.  But she said to us: ‘when John was alive, he taught me that the only real way of living well is to be thankful for everything.  And when we are, we find that sense of gratitude sustaining us even in the darkest of times.  I have so much to be thankful for in a lifetime of memories together.  It doesn’t take away the pain or the loss, but it does carry me through it.’  I have never forgotten it.  

As the General Thanksgiving says in its incomparable poetry, we are to bless God ‘for our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life, and above all for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory’.  We could hardly do better than to pray that prayer every day in Advent, as retailers try to ratchet up our hungers.  It will help us keep Christmas with integrity, for we shall have begun to learn both the virtue of contentment, and with what gratitude to receive the greatest of all gifts when he comes. 

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