Grateful for Finitude
It is 6:00am on a Friday morning. Awake, I am determined to use the day to “produce.” I will chip away at writing a sermon on the Transfiguration of Christ, and will put some research and writing time into a monograph on the beatific vision. But first, coffee and prayer. I shut the door to the kitchen so as to avoid waking my family with the sound of the grinder. “Production” will come soon enough; for now, there is only the privileged delight in the sights and scents of a quiet morning: steaming water poured with razor-like precision onto dry grounds; brown stains slowly climbing up wet, white filter paper as water and coffee blooms and subsides to the soundless metronome of my iPhone stopwatch app; the aromatic trickle of what was once water (now having been transfigured), into one mug, and then another (for my wife, when she wakes).For us, timeless eternity is an apophatic mystery; we are bound by time and space. Click To Tweet
Coffee in hand, I sit outside on our patio. Moister quickly develops on my legs and forehead as I look off toward the distant ocean; it is a hot and humid morning in Abu Dhabi. With thoughts of “production” still on my mind, I resolve to avoid rushing communion with Christ, so I open the Bible and prayerfully and slowly read. Too soon, I hear the latch of the door and the familiar pitter-patter of tiny feet approaching. My time of productive communion is cut short. I spend some delightfully inefficient moments watching my two-year-old swing his legs at the edge of the patio chair he sits on next to me. This is acceptable; I still have time to “produce.”
Still resolved to commune, I prayerfully listen to the voice of an East African man named “Felix” read the Scriptures into my AirPods while I drive to my office (I am using the “Dwell” app). Occasionally, I repeat a segment of verses that passed me by somehow (seeing and savoring Christ in the Word is made more difficult when it requires “pushing pause,” as opposed to staring at a word or closing one’s eyes). It’s not quite the same without the quiet and the coffee and the stillness.
Seated now in my office, I pray for help in my efforts to “produce.” And then, I begin. I’m off to a great start. I read, I write, I read some more, I write some more. Hours masquerading as minutes, however, are a nuisance: they tyrannically force me to put books down and step away from the computer screen to relieve myself, or to give my eyes a rest, or to respond to the nagging growl of my stomach. Still, today is more “productive” than most. I work without rest for hours on the day’s projects and come to a clear and natural breaking point. I am mentally exhausted and feel satisfied with the amount of work I have accomplished. I pack my things, drive home, and begin the evening routine with my family.Lamentation over finitude is foolish because my finitude is what makes it possible for me to find everlasting enjoyment of the Infinite. Click To Tweet
A loud and messy dinner that tries my patience. A brief wrestle session with the boys to the melody of ninja-sounds and toddler laughter. Repeated instructions to my sons to tidy their bedroom and dress in pajamas. The brushing of three sets of tiny teeth (one set missing a couple, as of late). A chapter of a bedtime book (S.D. Smith’s The Green Ember, for those curious). Prayers said aloud for each son in progression of their birth order. First Jonah, and then Henry, and then Lewis. The Doxology sung in unison. I pronounce my blessing over my sons, turn out the lights, and exit their room.
My wife says she needs to shower, and I decide to get a quick workout in while she does so. And now, well into the night, while the boys are asleep and my wife is in the shower—while I am sweating and my muscles are contracting and I am definitely not at my desk and am therefore unable to do anything about it—unbidden mental connections on my previously worked on projects flood my thought-life. Hours earlier, when I closed my computer, my body was at ease and my mind was exhausted; now they seem to have traded places. I am now motivated to sit down and produce perhaps twice as much. I could finish the sermon and make significant headway in my book. Things I should have written harass my psyche mid-burpee. Ideas I should have explored taunt me with my present distance from my desk as I pant with my hands on my knees.
I finish my workout and begin cleaning the kitchen and the dinner table, mind still heavy with ideas—like an absurdly sagging water balloon about to burst—it is full of ideas I can now do nothing about, except perhaps make small notation of (in hopes that I remember what they meant tomorrow morning by the time I return to my desk). The thought occurs to me, “In another life; I could have probably been fine as a monk.” There is a kind of lamentation to the thought. Lament for moments like this one. I am unable, just now, to do the hard rewarding intellectual and spiritual work of deep contemplation. Instead, I live days that have to be broken up by non-contemplative activities.
No quicker do I name this lamentation, though, do I call myself on my bluff. No, that is not what I am lamenting. I am rather lamenting my finitude. A monastic life does not and cannot transcend finitude (what a silly thought!), but even if it could, no number of uninterrupted hours of contemplation in a monastery could have produced the mental connections I now dwell on—the ones I regret being unable to translate into “production” right now. Did I not exhaust my mental productivity hours earlier? Had I sat there at the same desk for another night and a day, I would not have made the mental connections I now consider, miles away from my desk. Those connections are the fruit of all this glorious and inefficient interruption. They are the harvest of seeds planted earlier, having been watered by a drive home listening to a podcast, a loud and messy patience-trying dinner, a wrestle-session, a bedtime routine, and a workout. What I am living in this very moment is the status quo for creatures. For us, timeless eternity is an apophatic mystery; we are bound by time and space.
Could I have been fine as a monk in another life? Certainly not. No occasional interruption in my morning communion with Christ from the pitter patter of toddler feet? No loud and messy dinners? No wrestle-sessions with my growing sons? No kitchen to clean while my wife showers? No wife to share these thoughts with over a glass of wine before a documentary? Not only would I be impoverished of all those wonderful gifts, I would be impoverished of what “production” I have made, since all that “production” is the fruit of finite contemplation. Finite contemplation. Contemplation, that is, hemmed in and surrounded by, and imposed upon by, other responsibilities.What makes the beatific vision so spectacular is, in part, that it capitalizes on the boundedness I now experience as both joyful and frustrating. Click To Tweet
Lamentation over finitude is foolish. Not only because the things I wish I could have if only I could transcend my finitude in some area would be lost the moment I reached that transcendence, but also because my finitude is what makes it possible for me to find everlasting enjoyment of the Infinite. My inability to experience everything all at once is what makes it possible for the beatific vision (and indeed, for the Christian life here and now) to be ever moving in one direction: further up and further in. This, after all, is the telos of all my contemplation and “production” and life here and now. What do I wish to study and write for if not this? All the joy that accompanies intellectual labors and spiritual piety and mundane work and leisurely time with my kids and fellowship with my wife are shafts of light proceeding from, and leading back to, the divine Sun that is God. All joy is from and through and to Him. The beatific vision is the consummation of all the joy I experience now—it all serves as a means to this end, with every joyful moment being sanctified and purified in the furnace of divine holiness, where those selfish and sinful bits that taint my best moments in this life are melted away, and where the pure holiness of God-given joy remain, being transposed to a higher and richer key.
What makes the beatific vision so spectacular is, in part, that it capitalizes on the boundedness I now experience as both joyful and frustrating. My inability to take everything in at once means that the journey of my soul in the enjoyment of the sight of God is evergreen; every new peak of joy is the foot of another mountain I shall scale forever. There is therefore joy to be had within the confines of my finitude. Joy to be had because I am finite. And I will experience this joy one moment after another.