The Myth of Niceness

I was driving the other day behind a car when I noticed a bumper sticker on the back that simply read, “Be nice.”How reflective this is of a powerful cultural trend that is more reminiscent of a teacher’s words on a playground of toddlers than the transcendent words of the Decalogue thundering forth from Sinai. Whereas the culture asks everyone to be nice, God has required us to be kind: and these are two very different things.

“Nice” means pleasant, easy to swallow, in accordance with one’s fancy. And it’s a perfectly good word in reference to the niceties of the natural world. A cup of tea on a cold evening is nice. A beautiful sunset set against the ocean horizon is nice. But when we speak of human beings as “nice” what we mean is that they don’t make anyone uncomfortable. In other words: they are people-pleasers.

What makes niceness so good in nature is precisely what makes niceness so evil in human relationships: precisely because humans can have relationships and nature cannot. Being inanimate, nature merely presents itself as it is with no regard for how it will be received or for what is expected of it. Thus, in nature we find the most pleasant of niceties and the most terrifying of calamities. And in either case, nature didn’t present itself within the context of relationship.

The moment we enter the context of relationship, everything must change. For never in human relationships are we called simply to be “nice.” Never are we called to please others for its own sake so as not to make someone feel uncomfortable. Many times, we are called precisely to the opposite! The very fact of love requires that niceness be replaced by kindness which is the active pursuit of another’s good regardless of what they think about it. This is why we are called to love others as we would want to be loved, not as they would prefer to be loved in the moment. Kindness often means not pleasing people or making them comfortable. Often it means doing good things that the other cannot understand in the moment. Kindness means love and love is messy and often rebuffed.

But it’s not merely that kindness is superior to niceness. In fact, niceness is its opposite because it’s rooted not in love but in its antithesis: indifference. Niceness is indifferent to the good and well-being of the other; rather, it only cares for creating equilibrium where everyone feels good in the moment. Nature gives us “nice” things precisely because it is indifferent to our well-being. And once we dehumanize ourselves by descending to the level of being nice, we have discarded real loving human relationships for a veneer that masks an intrinsic indifference that speaks the words “I will not judge you as long as you don’t judge me.” Once our culture has descended to the virtue of niceness, it has fallen prey to a myth: for niceness does not exist where relationship does.

A sunset can be nice. A breeze can be nice. But a person cannot and must not be nice.

Sunday Tidbit: Anticipation Made Flesh

The whole Christian life is an embodied anticipation of the certain reality of future glory. We act out in our mortal flesh the staples of kingdom life, however imperfectly. And in doing so, we declare to the nations the message that the kingdom of God is here and our King is coming. Thus, all foods are clean. What was once seen as an evil part of a broken creation is made new and good, anticipating the time when all creation will be restored. All life in the Spirit is like this: a downpayment. An anticipation made flesh. IMG_0664

Sunday Tidbit: Seeing

Imagination’s spent on many pretty things,

All swaddled in sweet sense like songs the sirens sing;

But if you turn your eye from all that dazzles you,

A richer world of wonder will rise up into view.

 

For Wonder can’t be bought by travels, tales, or time:

For all that glitters is not gold, nor sings that is sublime.

But if you learn to see with eyes that pierce through shallow sights,

All life becomes a fairy tale, and darkness becomes light.

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Of the Saintly Life: Lessons from a 10th Century Parisian Church

It’s been three months since I traveled to Europe, and I’m still not sure if the trip has finished affecting me. People ask me “how was Europe?” and I stand still, awkwardly trying to encapsulate in a few words the richness and depth and wonder of my first experience of the Old World. It was beautiful; it was dirty. It was profound and shallow; old and new; hospitable and xenophobic; deeply religious and profoundly pagan. Every city brought with it a cacophony of voices past and present proclaiming two millennia of stories to ears incapable of hearing it all. I strolled through narrow cobbled streets trying to absorb small charms and trinkets of each city’s vast hoard of history, art, and culture. Paris, Lyon, Nice, Prague, Berlin, and countless towns along the Rhine: each stood erect and distinct from the others, boldly displaying its own unique and stratified identity.

But among the endless idiosyncrasies of each of these cities, a common DNA dappled their streets, towered over their squares, and loomed upon their summits: the old and weathered churches of an age long past. It was to these buildings my heart continued to be drawn, and it was these buildings that became my greatest tutor, the stones crying out in a land near bereft of all true worship.

In Paris, I stayed in a flat in the Montmartre district–known to many as the art district of the 19th and early 20th century, and the past home of Picasso, Dali, Monet, and Van Gogh. Today, tourists daily visit the old homes of these artists and small museums dedicated to their work. But most come to the Montmarte district to experience another work of art: The Basilica of the Sacre Coeur. Towering above most of the city, the Sacre Coeur features some of the most beautiful and impressive stonework of any of the churches in France.

It’s a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity and structural beauty. I was even able to attend an evening mass the last night I was in Paris. But for all its beauty and power, it was the church beside it that captivated me. Hidden away and overshadowed by the Sacre Coeur, the Eglise Saint-Pierre de Montmartre stands a forgotten piece. It is much older than the Sacre Coeur, a church built upon the ruins of a Roman temple and known as the birth place of the Jesuit order. Yet for all its history, it stands unattended and forgotten by tourists and locals alike, not because it lacks history and character, but simply because compared to its counterpart, the Eglise Saint Pierre seems small and plain–a plate of bread and water next to a feast of meat and wine.

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Upon entering the Sacre Coeur, one is immediately confronted with its grand spectacle. The massive arches, polished stone pillars, and gold furnishings dazzle the eye. And with this comes all manner of tourist-driven booths where people can buy candles or other trinkets. Not so with Eglise Saint-Pierre.

It boasts no gold furnishings, grand architecture, or smooth stones. It features nothing for tourists. Nothing sparkles. Nothing dazzles. Nothing draws attention to itself. I walked into an empty church building whose only voice spoke the echoes of my feet upon its sober stone floor. The restored pillars were streaked black and worn rough by a millennia of time, wrinkled and grey with age and experience. The church was still. And in the stillness, it whispered its worship up to God with the voice of humility and awe. In its simplicity, the church professed the mysterious intricacies of the Godhead. In its sobriety, the church sung the joys of the Kingdom. In its humility, the church confessed the majesty of the Christ.

This church possessed a character and integrity that the Sacre Coeur and even Notre Dame could not match. Forgotten and empty, the Eglise Saint-Pierre stood with a subtle profundity and a humble magnificence, embodying within its ragged stones the ragged beauty of the cross-worn Christ. And in this simplicity and stillness, the stones cried out in worship.

* * *

Three months since I walked among those stones, I have not forgotten the lesson and challenge of that simple church, for within that structure stands a lesson about what my life is not and what my life should be. Standing in that church, I could hear the whisper of wisdom through those weary walls: Those whose piety stands upon the surface, often find little of it beneath.We are not called to a life of golden spirituality, polished virtues, and grand public influence. For often these things become mirrors reflecting the image of oneself. We are called to a life of sober simplicity and ragged faithfulness–a life whose magnificence is found in its humility and whose grandeur is found in its subtlety. For the life of the saint is one of quiet faithfulness, when all visitors forsake his doors and all marveling eyes turn toward another. Ragged and weathered, he stands, the humble pillars of his life joining the chorus of the saints who have gone before, the stones of Christ’s Church crying out in praise of the One whose majesty lights the stars.

*Photo credit for the Eglise Saint-Pierre: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ec/%C3%89glise_Saint-Pierre_de_Montmartre_-_portail.jpg

Sunday Tidbit: The Ordinary Life

To be truly ordinary means to be struck by the extraordinary. If one finds life dull, it is probably because one is dull. If one cannot see the oddities of life, probably means one is odd. To think the world dark and bleak probably means one is blind, or only looking at oneself. For it is only in humility and the willingness to be small that one can see how magnificent and large this world truly is. In order to embrace and live this romance, we cannot succumb to self-love. The man turned inward merely discovers himself, and what a rotten discovery that is! To see with eyes turned outward is to discover the beauty and bigness of a world that is other than oneself: for without the Other, there can be no love, and without love, there can be no joy in this extraordinary life.

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Reading Our Lives Like We Read Books

It seems like we often talk about how our lives are a tapestry where everything fits together, making even the tiny bits of our lives something useful and practical. We look at our future and think of all the significant things we’re going to do. We look at our past experiences, trials, and circumstances and we try to fit it into a nice narrative of what God was doing to prepare us for something. And when we’re in the midst of trial or pain, we try to find comfort in the fact that perhaps one day it will all fit together and be of some use.

I find it telling that one of the first questions we ask strangers is, “So, what do you do?” What we’re really asking is: What is it that makes your life worth it?  Of what use are you? All of us to some extent feel the tyranny of utility, as we fight to try to make our lives “worth it.” “Don’t waste your life,” rings in our ears as we try to justify our existence. And even in the midst of pain and suffering, we hear that similar ring: “This must have a purpose. Make it have a purpose.”

In essence, we’re trying to read our lives backward. We try to experience our lives for what it will be, for what it should be, for what we hope it will turn out to be. We try to experience our lives for the use that it will be in the future. And when we experience something that doesn’t make sense, we try to figure out why it happened. If our lives are a book, we try to read the ending first so we can make sure that everything that comes before actually matters. We’re like that child who just has to know how it all ends.

But what if we’re not supposed to read our lives backward? What if we’re supposed to experience our lives in the moment, the same way we’re supposed to read a book? When read from the beginning, with no knowledge of the end, our lives seem more like the lilies of the field than a tapestry. Most of our activities and experiences don’t seem to have much real use: they are here today and gone the next. Rarely do we get to see the use of our hard work, our sacrifices, or our suffering. And the more we try to understand the meaning and purpose of our lives, the more we can become disillusioned, because most of the time the things we do don’t seem to really matter and the things we experience don’t seem to make much sense. But if we can’t find contentment and peace in our work and our experiences through knowing the meaning and use of it all, can we find it at all?

I think so. When we read a really good novel, the enjoyment of the book comes not primarily from how everything works out in the end, but from the experience of the scenes as they play out, even when we don’t know where they’re going or how they’re getting resolved. When we’re in the middle of a funny or happy part of a book, we don’t turn to the end of the book to see if this section is relevant; we smile, we laugh, we enjoy it for what it is. When we read a tragic scene, we cry. When we read an intense or scary scene, we let our heart race. When we read something that strikes us, we read it to another. I think this is how our lives are meant to be lived: we laugh, we cry, we let our heart race, and we share it with others. It’s not our business to make it all make sense, and it’s not our business to know. Our lives are meant to be lived, not necessarily analyzed. Our lives are meant to be experienced with every depth of emotion, not necessarily with every analysis of cognition.

And when we look at our lives this way, we see something particularly profound about our unique experience as human beings; for we are given the privilege to play a double-part: we are the characters of the story and the readers of the story. The one thing we are not is the author.

Thank God.

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Sunday Tidbit: On Beauty and the Beautiful Life

Art is the meeting point of Truth and Goodness through the power of Beauty. Just as the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son, so Beauty is the bond of love by which Truth and Goodness are joined in art. And without Beauty, they all fall away. Art that is not beautiful cannot be true or good. It is shadow. The same is true of life. A life that is not beautiful may hardly be called true or good, for the one who has not love is nothing, says the apostle. While containing elements of truth and goodness, without Beauty, one’s life has failed to reach its Ideal. It has become a mere shadow. For Beauty is the shining light that bids us out of The Cave to see Truth and Goodness as they truly are, embodied in the Beautiful One who is “The Love that moves the sun and all the other stars.”

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The Forsaken God

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“Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break. […] In that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt. It is written, ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.’ No; but the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” –G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy. 

Sunday Tidbit: A Joyful Religion

If man is not joyful in his religion, then his religion has allowed him to be proud. A religion of humility is a religion of joy as the man learns to laugh at what he cannot understand. We see this often in children who, in response to that which seems impossible or extraordinary (like a man pulling off his own thumb), laugh. Thus in order for us to embrace Christianity in humility and joy, we must become as little children.

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