A student confesses to struggle with wanting more, and the professor's response? In the spirit of Advent, perhaps he should find himself wanting even more.
When I heard the two-fisted knock at my office door, I called out, "Is that you, Peter?"
He entered and sat down. "How'd you know? Your back was to the hallway."
"I can't answer that question. It's against union rules."
"No, really," he pleaded, "tell me."
I laughed. "The first clue is that double knock of yours; it's like a signature."
"Maybe so. But you call that the first clue. Is there another?"
"Yes. This is No Class Week, the week before final exams."
"Sure, but what's that got to do with it?"
"Except for you, Peter, nobody drops in during No Class Week. Everyone is busy studying, or pretending to. But you do. That's been your pattern ever since that time several years ago when you were depressed about going home for Christmas."
"I guess you're right."
Ruefully, I shook my head. "I shouldn't be giving away these professional secrets."
"Don't worry, I won't tell."
"So what does bring you here?"
"Out with it."
"Really. Nothing." He gave a heavy sigh.
"Listen to you," I laughed. "That doesn't sound like 'Really. Nothing.' It sounds more like 'Woe is me.'"
"No, really, I'm fine," he repeated. "In fact I think I'm making progress."
"What kind of progress?"
"Spiritual progress. I'm getting more mature as a Christian." He sighed again, as heavily as before.
I lifted an eyebrow. "I see how joyful you are about it."
"Sorry. It must be a high-smog day or something."
"Or something. Do you want to tell me about this new maturity?"
"The main thing is that I'm scaling back my expectations," he replied.
"What do you mean?"
"I was always wanting. Do you follow me?"
"No. Do you mean that you were always wanting more 'stuff,' more material things?"
"More stuff, no. More something, yes. No, not more something; I was always yearning for things to be something more. I can't explain. They just weren't enough."
"Things like what?"
"Everything. Myself, my family, my friendships, my studies, my girlfriend, my church, even my senior project."
"Do you mean that you wanted everyone to be perfect?"
"Not that. We're supposed to practice mercy, right? Charity, lovingkindness, all that good stuff? So it couldn't be right for me to look harshly down on others. I'm far from perfect, and people put up with me."
"What did you want, then?"
"I guess I wanted all these things to satisfy. And they never did. I was asking more from things than they can give. That was immature."
He paused. I said nothing. In a few moments he continued. "Actually, I think that was my problem a few years ago — when I was so depressed about my family's Christmas."
"I told you then that the problem was that Christ wasn't in it. Well, that was true enough. He wasn't, much. By the way, that's better now. But there was another problem, and that one hasn't changed. The problem wasn't just Christmas. I had wanted Christmas to be more than it can be, because I wanted everything to be more than it can be."
"I'm getting more mature. I've scaled back my expectations. I'm not expecting more from things than they can give any more. Not Christmas, not family, not friendships, not even myself — nothing."
Again I was silent.
He said, "Just now I sighed again, didn't I?"
"Sure sounded like it," I said.
There was a another pause. "I think that's because I'm not there yet," he said.
"Not where yet?"
"If only I could expect nothing, I'd know that I'd got there. If only I could let everything be only what it is. Then I wouldn't have any more of these immature disappointments." He looked out the window. "Maybe there would even be a kind of satisfaction in not expecting to be satisfied."
"Would there be?"
"I don't know. But I'm tired of being such a baby Christian."
"Why do you call this despondency 'Christian'?"
"Isn't that what it is?"
"It sounds more like Buddhism."
"I've never even studied Buddhism. Why do you say that?"
"Buddhists think suffering comes from desire. The eightfold way mentions 'right desire,' but their ultimate goal is to have no desire at all — no longing, no yearning, no aspiration. When that happens, they believe, they will no longer suffer disappointment, because they won't be. The illusion of individual existence will have been annihilated."
"I don't know about that annihilation stuff. But the killing of desire — isn't that biblical?"
"What makes you think so?"
"It's in the Bible. The other day I was reading it in Ecclesiastes. 'All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it.'"
"Peter, Ecclesiastes was written before Christ. The author is baffled by the mysteries of death and futility. In his generation God hasn't yet fully revealed the basis of Christian hope"
"Then why is it in the Bible?"
"Because if you aren't acquainted with the hope that Christ brought — if you know nothing about the lifting of fallen things, the binding of broken things, the resurrection of the dead — then the view that it expresses is reasonable. For us who come after Him, everything is different, everything is changed. Paul says that what was written in former days was written so that we might have hope, not despair."
"But if Christian hope hasn't been fulfilled yet, then for all practical purposes it makes no difference, right? I'm happy that Christ came and all that. But it's still true that nothing fully satisfies."
"In the Christian view, the task isn't to scale back our expectations. It's to ratchet them up even higher."
"You've got to be kidding."
"I've never been more serious."
"But if nothing fully satisfies —"
"Nothing but Christ Himself."
"That thought shouldn't kill our yearning. It should make us yearn even more."
"For Him, you mean."
"Yes, for Him. Paul says that the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God — for us, redeemed. The author of Ecclesiastes — whoever He was — could only see that everything is subjected to futility. Paul goes further. He says everything is subjected to futility in hope."
"Is that where he talks about creation groaning like a woman in labor?"
"Yes, groaning for the sake of what is coming. A bit like the way you've been groaning with those heavy sighs. By the way, Paul has something to say about your sighing, too."
"I suppose he says I shouldn't do it."
"Just the opposite. He'd say that you need to sigh more."
"More than I do already?"
"You didn't let me finish. I was going to add, 'But not in the same way.'"
"There's a wrong way?"
"Sure. You've been sighing in something close to hopelessness. Paul wants you to sigh in hope. According to him, we don't even know our hearts well enough to pray the right way. But the Holy Spirit knows them, and He helps out our prayers by adding His own sighs, too deep for words."
"But if nothing satisfies except Him — like we've been saying — then all those other things I mentioned — friends, family, girlfriend, church, studies —"
"What about them?"
"Doesn't that make them worthless?"
"Just because they aren't God."
"Not at all. Didn't He create them? They reflect Him, don't they?"
"Well — yes, I suppose."
"Then accept them as glimpses! Rejoice in them for that!"
"But they only sharpen that craving I've been trying to scale back. They just make me want more."
"Peter, that's just what they were meant to do to you. Don't long for more from them — but by all means long for more! Let every created mirror of God's uncreated glory sharpen your craving for God Himself, in person."
"Prof, you're killing me, talking this way. All those weird longings I was trying to stifle — they're coming up again inside me."
"They should come up again, Peter. Besides, it's Advent. Isn't that what the season is for?"
"What has Advent got to do with it? Isn't it just the season before Christmas? When we begin to celebrate?"
I laughed. "That's what department stores think. No, Christmas is the season of celebration. Advent is the season of yearning and anticipation."
"But how can we — if He already came —"
"He came, and He will come again."
"We're yearning for two things?"
"We re-enact the yearning of Mary and Joseph for Jesus. Just like a spiritual time machine. At the same time, we sharpen our yearning for His return."
"How do we do that?"
"Peter, Peter, you know the answer to that question, don't you?"
Peter hesitated. Then he nodded. "We do it the way they did."
"How is that?"
I smiled. A student group was caroling on the quad. The strains of an Advent hymn came faintly through the window.
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom ...
"You see," I said to him, "you were right to want something more."
Copyright 2005 J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved.