This year I read Perelandra during Holy Week. It wasn’t on purpose, I swear. I just happened to say “hm, I should read that again,” right about the same time as Palm Sunday. But as is the way with me and books, I saw something new this time. Oddly, it had less to do with Easter as a Christian holy day, and more to do with a lot of things going on.
I’m single, and some of you know that this state of being is not one I’ve found easy to be content with. I turned thirty this year, as well. The rational part of my brain asserts that I’m in a better state now than I was ten years ago, or even five – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. But the irrational part of my brain picks up all my assumptions and disappointments and fears and shortcomings and waves them in front of me, as if trying to see just how badly I can freak out. One can say “I’m fine as I am” only so many times before it sounds like sour grapes.
My spirit was full of heartbreak from a friend’s loss when the week began. While practicing for Good Friday, my fellow singers talked about motherhood the whole time. On Good Friday, while out shopping for shoes, I was surrounded by ads for Mother’s Day and things geared for wedding season. Pretty soon I stuck in a cul-de-sac of self-pity, and not just self-pity, but the overwhelming feeling that singleness is a burden to be borne. ‘Cause marriage and family are gifts and blessings, and if you can’t earn them, blessings are still something you’d naturally desire and of course it would be sad when you don’t have them and everybody else does.
“So,” said the quiet, gentle, reasonable voice in my head, “why did Paul say he wished everyone was like him? Y’know, single.”
Do not argue with the Reasonable Voice. It wins. Every time.
One of the themes of Perelandra is accepting the good that is given rather than the good that is expected. The book uses fruit: the planet Perelandra is overflowing with fruit of every kind. There’s one kind so phenomenally incredible that Lewis describes it as “orgiastic.” There’s another kind that gets called “breadlike”. Which sounds pathetic when you put it up against a word like “orgiastic,” except the hero of the story points out not that “bread isn’t so bad”, but that sometimes you don’t want “orgiastic”. Sometimes “orgiastic” is too much. Sometimes—lots of times, if you know the right kind—bread is exactly what you want.
And two words came into my head: austerity and prodigality.
The most obvious gifts are the prodigal ones, the ones full of abundance. We like abundance. We like to have lots. Probably because having lots is not guaranteed, and we assume it means we won’t want for anything. Receiving comes with celebration, either we celebrate having it, or we use it to celebrate. Holidays have feasts, birthdays have presents, weddings explode into massive events. In movies, big moments have big music. Good theaters are big theaters, concert halls are massive. This prodigality isn’t necessarily about stuff: there’s floods of sympathy, mountains of confidence, depths of knowledge, riches of love. When a thing is wonderful, of course we want it, and if we have it, why wouldn’t we want more of it?
For awhile I’ve had this thing about how having less isn’t shameful, that being poor isn’t necessarily bad, and that abundance isn’t always good. And it is definitely not a case of sour grapes. I live in a city – not a huge one, maybe, but the thing is, it so happens that it’s surrounded by lots and lots of nothing. And I love it. I do. People in Europe and Asia and on the coasts have no idea. They don’t know what it’s like. You can’t, unless you’ve been out there. When the only life you know is built on human institutions, human culture, human interaction, the lack of it sounds like a famine.
You get on a highway that isn’t the Interstate. You point your car to the horizon and go. You drive out, and the cities fall away and the houses disappear as the bars on your cell phone go out like candles, and the road stretches on straight and even, the two yellow lines superfluous on the dusty surface, empty and still, the land gray-green, the wind visible in waves of grass nodding, the sky awake with its own thoughts, the sun roaring white and soundless, and the silence. You feel very small, perhaps. Yet there’s a peace, a feeling of gentle eternity, a serenity in a world where years are only numbers, where the acts of human life evaporate like water, where the sand dunes have stood ten times longer than the houses. The words and wants of civilization have no meaning. Subtractions come out in positives: solace, sanctuary, rest. The world passes you by, and you wave contentedly as it goes.
There is a loneliness in saying hello to the guy on the bus you see every day reading his paper, who never looks up. There’s quite another in bidding good morning to a butte on the horizon that’s been quietly minding its own business for several thousand years.
Austerity is a dirty word these days. When governments use austerity measures, it means someone’s messed up and everyone’s going to suffer. Except ‘austerity’ isn’t about suffering. It’s about shedding what we don’t need. It needn’t be any colder than a sunny afternoon, or harsher than a flannel blanket, or crueler than a kind word. The things we need are love (not romance), grace, hope, truth, faith, a roof over our heads and food on the table. The funny thing about austerity is that when you subtract what you don’t need, you shine a light on what you have.
Austerity is pure silk. Austerity is a hot cup of tea. Austerity is a good laugh with a good friend, a beloved book, or a moment of peace Austerity knows the pleasure of the small and the shy, the simple and bright. Boiling thunderclouds break into clear blue. The crowd hushes for a single word. The orchestra falls silent so one sweet voice can sing. The fullness of the orchestra loses nothing by its rest. The voice was no less beautiful before, just harder to hear.
We need both. We have both. Some of us just get more of one or the other, and in different ways. There’s things I’ve got lots of. It so happens that a family of my own isn’t one of them. I can want it, ’cause hey, it is a blessing. It has all manner of joys and delights. It’s a prodigal blessing, rich and complex and full. But in this way I have an austere blessing, one of peace and simplicity. It may not always feel like that, but hey, I’m human. We always want what we don’t have. I see the elaborate gowns of my married friends, rich with embroidery and velvet and myriad colors, and they’re gorgeous. I just have to remember that I’m the one in a silk sheath, elegant and perfect, needing not even the smallest gem, because the designer is just that good.
When we have a prodigal blessing, we must be thankful. When we have an austere blessing, we must be thankful. And we can never assume that any of us should have one or the other. Only God knows which one we need.