Loving Those Who Are [Still] Before Us

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One of the great joys and privileges of my life have been elderly folks who I can call friends and mentors and kin. These are the sorts of people who I have turned to for insight and perspective and to express my own frustrations knowing that they have probably, in the course of their life, experienced some taste of the same disappointment and seen the other side of it. These are also people who have blessed my life simply by who they have become to me personally.

Given the news regarding COVID-19, I have been anxious. Not so much for myself, but for folks who are at high-risk for such a virus, for older friends, family, and mentors of mine, spiritual mothers and fathers of mine that I know and love.

Frankly, the thought of losing them has filled me with fear.

Before college, I did not have many friends of an older generation than my own, and it wasn’t until I became an active member of a local church during my Junior year of college that these sorts of relationships started developing in my life. I can think specifically of my former pastors, members of small groups, elderly women who have hugged and encouraged me on Sunday mornings, and elderly men who have consistently prayed for me and welcomed me into their homes for lunch. These are folks I got to know regularly, and I owe it to the church for helping me see what life can look like relating to other people outside my own age range.

There seems to me to be a great dearth of opportunity for intergenerational friendships and communities in our culture. I can’t give you a reason for why (perhaps there are a multitude of reasons), but what I can tell you is that without these relationships, I would not be as worried as I am right now. And I consider that worry an appropriate response simply because I see within it a compassion that has not always been there. It is the sort of compassion that has been birthed through relationship and partaking of the means of grace together. It’s a gift provided to me by the church and a gift that I hope many more might come to know and receive.

A recent piece in The Atlantic, titled “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” argues that crises (like COVID-19 specifically) often “elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness” resulting in the “dehumanization” of the elderly. The author mentions that in this rhetoric, the elderly are robbed of “a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained” providing examples of real life exchanges of such degradation. The elderly have worth, as the author mentioned, not because of what they can offer economically but simply because they are “created in the image of God”—each distinct and each worthy of our time, love, and deep respect.[1]

The Apostle Paul wrote to the relatively young Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…” (1 Tim 5:1-2). John Calvin commented on this point of compassionate exhortation mentioning “It is impossible not to be moved with reverence, when we place before our eyes our father or our mother.”[2]  I don’t believe this is a simple rhetorical device that Paul is using given (among other broader theological themes) the parental (Rom 16:13), fraternal, and filial relationships he had including Timothy at the start of his letter who he refers to as his “own child in the faith” (1:2). In this family, there are certain blind-spots that we need addressed in both directions for our own edification, and I believe one reason for this lack of compassion (as evidenced in the aforementioned article) is due to a lack of intergenerational communities to place us in conversation and proximity with people unlike ourselvesto see that these are specific people with specific stories just like our own flesh and blood parents.

Unlikely friendships are opportunities for empathy, and by its nature, the church is highly conducive for such unlikely friendships. I firmly believe the church is a place where Millennial “snow-flakes” and Baby-“OK-Boomer”s can live together in mutual encouragement of one another given their union in Christ and adoption into the family of God. Of course families bicker and argue, but that does not make us any less family.  Alan Jacob’s wrote yesterday that “If you don’t care what happens to people, then you are unlikely to seek out more knowledge of their condition; and the less you know about their condition, the less you will feel called to compassion for that condition.”[3] I believe friendship can produce both. Because as we come to know each other’s lives, often we come to know compassion for one another as well. And as we come to grow in compassion, perhaps we may come to know their condition more.

Where our society is often lacking in providing venues for intergenerational friendships (and thus empathy), the church is uniquely capable for helping produce such relationships and compassion. And now is a good time for us to demonstrate this compassion by taking seriously the reality of this virus’s effects and the folks that are at serious risk, as the Apostle Paul also said, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Gal 6:10).

I am no expert on this virus, but I trust much wiser folks like Andy Crouch on this. And I would urge you to read this piece “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” for more, especially pertaining to this: “The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather (see below), is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.” 

More here: https://journal.praxislabs.org/love-in-the-time-of-coronavirus-26aaeb0396e3 

Stay safe friends.

Jeb



[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/respect-old/607864/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=share

[2] Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (p. 119). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

[3] https://blog.ayjay.org/incuriosity-and-indifference/

Lent, Finitude, and the Ebb of Life

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Slowing down is not easy for me. There is always something I want to do or something that seems to be looming over me to get done. We live in one of the busiest societies ever despite all our technological progress to help us be more efficient. It is a strange irony that given the tools to do our tasks more quickly, we have found ourselves with even less time than we did before.

Somewhere along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that greater efficiency would give us space to slow down, but instead, all it has given us is the time to be more efficient with other things. The problem is not that we don’t have enough time. The problem is that we are finite creatures operating as though we are not.

Whether it’s my third cup of coffee to keep me going or the generous pour of whiskey to force me to stop, our lives have been robbed of a natural ebb & flow. A characteristic mark of a mortal creature is one of up’s and down’s. Times of real joy and real sorrow. Moments of deep rest and painful labor. Feelings of love and loneliness. Satisfaction and disappointment. Give and take. Life and death.

Life can feel like a constant, breathless flow. We work incessantly. We are constantly connected. We listen to the radio to keep our moods up. And we numb out with whatever we can so that we can finally go to bed. We live like creatures that will never die, but hurry is foreign to what’s eternal.

Lent season has forced me to ebb and exhale. It starts with Ash Wednesday’s existential reminder that “we are dust and to dust shall we return” and involves the conscious deprivation of something that will leave a noticeable hole in our day-to-day lives. As someone new to these past seasons of Lent, it feels like a disruption to my own delusions of independence and infinite limits.

It has punctured holes in my routines and forced me to meet with God in the gaps and exposed to me my own deeper longings. Where I would normally distract myself, I am forced to engage with myself. I am forced to pray in these areas of lack. St. Augustine once wrote that “the continuance of your longings is the continuance of your prayer” and that’s probably why prayer is often hard for me.[1] I’d rather fill the gaps of my life than have to sit in my own emptiness and experience my own longings. In other words, it’s too hard for me to pray when I’m too busy to desire anything.

Desire is another mark of a finite creature. We eat, we get full, we get hungry, repeat. We see friends, we need solitude, we feel lonely, repeat. All of us have routines of longings which ebb & flow. The delusional creature is always full and always connected: we overdesire and do what we can to prevent the ebb. But the consciously finite creature can stick out his or her hands in desirous prayer to makes space to receive what she knows she needs.

It is with empty hands that we come to see the love and grace perennially extended to us. As my friend Wes recently wrote, “Unclench your fists. Breathe deeply. Let your heart rate decrease. Know that you’re already bathed in the Father’s love, and ask simply for what you need, in the assurance that the One to whom you’re speaking is already cupping His ear in your direction.”[2] Like the prodigal son with his empty pockets stumbling on home only to be met by a full embrace and a full feast, it’s in the ebb of our lives that we come to see the great provisional grace of Another’s flow towards us.

 

[1] St. Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, Psalm 37:13.

[2] Wesley Hill, The Lord’s Prayer, 3. You can buy his book here.

1917 and the Ruin of Beautiful Things

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“We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.” St. Augustine

1917 is a brutal and beautiful film. The shots of falling cherry-blossoms complemented by the terrific lighting contrast scenes of corpses integrated seamlessly into the landscape. Acts of mercy are met with violence. Blood is spilled in acts of self-survival and milk is given in acts of self-sacrifice. The fire of the sun touches gently on rolling green pastures and the inferno of war bears down like a hellscape on a quaint French village.

War films have a way of disturbing me far more than any horror film. Perhaps it is how close war films can come to reality that unsettles me. One can sit at a comfortable distance from evil in a horror film, but a war film requires us to reckon with the evil in human history. I take it as a good rule of thumb: don’t trust a war film that doesn’t unsettle you.

War often takes place in beautiful places and brings to ruin beautiful things—friendships, fraternity, creatures, and culture. Some have argued that 1917’s aesthetic  trivializes the brutality of war, I’d argue it does the very opposite. The film produces something uncanny in the way that it constantly flips back and forth between scenes of awe and scenes of horror and then sometimes blends the two together (so much so, I almost stepped out of the theater for some reprieve). I imagine that this was intentional on the director’s part perhaps wanting the audience to recognize that war does not just take place in hellish landscapes, it takes place in villages, among livestock, and with the sun illuminating everything to reveal both the former beauty and barbarism of battlegrounds. War takes place between humans even when everything seems inhumane.

1917 is about ruin and the preservation of beauty. It is about what we have that we lose in war, but it is also about why war is often necessary to preserve what is beautiful. It rides a hard line of showing the complexity of war, and it shows that sometimes we must choose destruction for the sake of peace and preservation.

I have a quote framed in my room that simply states “as long as we have our stories there is hope.” Sentimental as it may sound, there is a truth to it. We tell to each other stories to help us make sense of our lives and the evil within it. And these stories can continue to provide hope long often after their author is gone. In this sin-soaked and absurd world of ours, sometimes all we are left with is fragments of the beauty that once was, but we can certainly continue to fight for the cultivation and preservation of beauty that still is.

Merry Christmas to the Insignificant

Christmas among many things is a reminder that the Kingdom of God reveals itself through the weak, the lowly, and the insignificant. That Christ would come as a vulnerable and bloody newborn child, that the king of all would come from nothing is something we would do well to remember especially in a culture that seems to frequently imply that what we do or achieve determines our significance.

The birth, life, and death of Christ teach us that this embrace of insignificance is vital to the Christian life. Christ was brought low in coming to us in flesh. He lived a life of service and association with those deemed insignificant by society. Christ taught us to live like him in humility, and he pronounced blessed those who were poor in spirit, those who were hungry, and those who were being persecuted. And finally, of course, he was mocked and strung up naked on a cross.

Christmas is a time of great joy and celebration because we have a God who has come to us, who has not left us alone but has met us in our lowly estate. But it is also a time of great pain for many. Our culture places a tremendous expectation on the holiday season to be a time of familial serenity and warmth. But the reality is that for many, the holidays only magnify their own insignificance or lack of family. And for some, Christmas gatherings can very easily slip into conversations attempting to prove to ourselves and others that we have made or are making something of our lives—whether that is to hometown friends or extended family about the jobs we have, the people we are dating, the families we have, or the degrees we hold. It can quickly become about proving our own significance rather than about reveling in who has given us just that.

The ecstasy of Christmas is more keenly for those who know they can not prove themselves and have very little to their name aside from what they have in Christ. Christmas is for the insignificant. It is for those who know the pain of having very little: for the friendless, the rejected, the poor and lonely and abused. It’s for the wash-ups, the burn-outs, and those who are tired of constantly disappointing those they love. Christmas is a time which reveals—in a miraculous way—that the insignificant and significant have been reversed… The prodigal will be embraced. The eunuch will be given a name better than son. The lonely will be put in families. The barren woman will rejoice. The leper will be touched and healed. Strangers will be welcomed. The hungry will be satisfied. The slandered will be rewarded. The grieving will know relief. And those that beat their breasts over their sin will find themselves made right.

God’s power is made perfect through weakness, and his weakness has proved greater than human strength or significance. Perhaps in hindsight it should be no surprise that he met us in fragility as a baby, washed his disciple’s feet in servitude, and would then go on to a cross for us. His weakness made a mockery of what is strong and significant in the world, and his Kingdom has inverted the order. It’s a homeless baby who gets the glory rather than Herod, and it’s a man nailed naked on a cross who conquers Death and rises unto glory. 

In Jesus the seeming insignificance of our lives is wrapped up in His glory.

Merry Christmas.

Origin and Identity in the Dark Night of Space

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*This post contains some spoilers for the films: Ad AstraStar Wars: The Force Awakens, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. 


“Deep within every man lies the dread of being alone in the world, forgotten by God, overlooked among the tremendous household of millions and millions. That fear is kept away by looking upon all those about one who are bound to one as friends or family, but the dread is nevertheless there and one hardly dares think of what would happen to one of us if all the rest were taken away.” – Kierkegaard


Even a journey into the depths of space cannot bear the anxieties of our origins and identities.

This last decade has been filled with existential space films, and it makes sense given that endless space is the perfect setting for finite man’s eternal and familial questions.  Many of these films—like the recent Ad Astra and the latest Star Wars trilogy—take us to some of the deepest reaches of the galaxy simply to ask questions about where we come from.

Human progress would have it that for us to go forward into the unknown we must untether ourselves—to advance we must go as those independent and unrestrained from anything that might hold us back.

Kylo Ren and Rey, the two protagonists of the latest Star Wars films, demonstrate a helpful tension. One is obsessed with finding out where she came from, the other is possessed with removing himself from the family and tradition in which he came. Without space, we would perhaps never have been given the inspiration for something as imaginative in scope as the Star Wars universe, yet it is in the scope of these cosmos that these characters are still haunted by their own origins. Both Rey and Kylo are desperate to discover who they are despite the enormous power they contain and the worlds in which they inhabit. Rey assumes she will discover herself by discovering the identity of her parents. Kylo assumes he will discover himself only by removing himself from his parents and everything they represent.

At the core of a lot of recent Sci-Fi films is an existential angst of determining who we are in the midst of an infinite cosmos.

The existential and slow-burn of a film, Ad Astra, notably sought to answer this question. Brad Pitt stars as the lonely and depressed astronaut, Roy McBride, who embarks on a mission to find his father who had previously set out to the planet Neptune. This film contains plenty of internal monologues and defies much of what we have come to expect of the science fiction genre. This is partly because this film is less interested in providing cheap human answers like human ingenuity, reason, or force-of-will to solve existential questions (cf. The Martian, Interstellar) and more about the loneliness and ennui that accompany us in the dark night of space.

Clifford, Roy’s narcissistic and belligerent father, is intent on discovering non-human life out among the stars even at the expense of all humanity. The one human at the farthest reaches of space is in no surprise the one whose antipathy towards humanity proves to be the strongest. Roy is willing to embark to this far off place primarily, it seems, because of this paternal gravitational pull. And it is not until after his eventual confrontation with his estranged father, that he concludes that life and meaning are only to be found back from where he came. It takes a journey into the unknown to settle for what was already known to him. But this quest for meaning and identity has existed far before space-travel.

The oft told story of the Prodigal Son is a fine example. The younger brother takes what is his, untethers himself from his father, and journeys deep into unknown territory only to come up short-changed and longing to come home. Roy McBride acts as an inverse Prodigal Son who attempts to find his father in far off places only to be radically disappointed by him but who realizes what is significant is what he left behind on Earth. He returns from the far-off place with the final admission, “I am looking forward to the day my solitude ends. And I’m home.”

Kylo Ren, also like the Prodigal Son, takes the gift of Force inherent to his bloodline and uses it for his own ends. In a way, both had blood on their hands for what they did to their fathers. Both wanted autonomy. Both wanted a life of their own removed from the security and seeming monotony of their own destiny. Both wanted an identity formed for themselves rather than inherited by another. But, as Rey notes regarding Kylo, “there is still a tension within him.” His umbilical severing has not left him without an internal conflict to return.

This innate longing is wrapped up in a return to relationship. And perhaps that is what is so fundamentally wrong with the elder brother in the Prodigal Son story. He is right near his father in proximity but is in his own far off place in spirit. He is in his own way hurdling through space untethered and alone but somehow convinced he is going somewhere. The primacy of our identity lies in being embraced by the father rather than just being near to him in formality. Unlike Clifford, this prodigal father goes out in search for his son and runs to embrace him—unlike Roy’s desperate and forced embrace of his father who simply demands he let him go. And like Han Solo meeting his son, he is not afraid of potential harm or disgrace.

Sometimes it is in the context of being alone and removed from what we love that we come to notice something missing. The vacuum of space can help reveal to us what we are not, but it can not in its own right tell us who we are. Rather, it is only by embrace that we can see most clearly where we have come from, where we are ultimately going, and who we truly are.

 

Augustine and a Life of Holy Longing

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A professor of mine once wrote that, “We once assumed that a great man was one who controlled his desires. Today we assume that a great man is one who indulges his desires.”[1] We live in a world which consistently hounds us to find an end to our hungers and longings as quickly, efficiently, and authentically as possible in our pursuit of final happiness. Of course, like Don Draper in the show Mad Men said, “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Whether by sex, food, purchase, or endless entertainment, we always find ourselves longing for something to satiate us once more.

St. Augustine in his sixth homily in his Homilies on 1 John makes the point that one distinctive quality of Christian living is that we learn to live into our longing. As he says, “The whole life of the good Christian is a holy longing. What you long for, as yet you do not see; but longing makes in you room that shall be filled, when that which you are to see shall come.”

Contrary to popular opinion, a life lived with open hands is not a life wasted.

Augustine continues: “When you would fill a purse, knowing how large a present it is to hold, you stretch wide its cloth or leather: knowing how much you are to put in it, and seeing that the purse is small, you extend it to make more room. So by withholding the vision God extends the longing, through longing he makes the soul extend, by extending it he makes room in it.”

According to Augustine, in this time of waiting and hope, God is expanding the soul of the Christian. The withholding of the beatific vision unto his people is in some way whetting our appetites for it. In this time of waiting for the consummation of all things, Augustine reminds us that, like in the Beatitudes, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are the ones who shall be filled (Matt 5:6). Like the purse analogy, this time of eager expectation is a time that often feels like stretching.

Fundamentally, to long for something is to feel its lack. It is one thing to feel hunger and know that you can walk to your pantry to eat; it is wholly another to have to hold out your hands in utter dependence and with no immediate solution—no money, no pantry, no backup plan. It is no easy thing to live a life of longing, but it is one that we are called to as Christians.

Augustine remarks on Paul’s words from Philippians 3:13: “He speaks of himself as stretching out, and following according to his purpose: he felt himself too small to take in that which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor hath come up into the heart of man. That is our life, to be trained by longing; and our training through the holy longing advances in the measure that our longings are severed from the love of this world.”

We are to be trained by longing, but not by the sort of arbitrary longing for this or that, here or there, but by a holy longing: a longing for “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:14). Yet, Augustine admonishes us and reminds us that these lesser longings can rob us of the training and stretching our souls need. How will our souls be stretched if we are constantly filling them with things we look to as ends in themselves rather than God himself?

“Empty out that vessel that is to be filled; you are to be filled with good, pour away the evil. God would fill you, shall we say, with honey: where can you put it if you are full of vinegar? What your vessel held must be poured away…”

All of us, in one way or another, seek to alleviate the apparent emptiness of our souls with something other than God. And of course, this isn’t to say food, romance, success, or entertainment are bad things. God has given these things to us as a gift to enjoy, yet these things were given so that we may know the Giver through them. They were never intended to wholly fulfill us, nor were they given so that we could forget the Giver. Perhaps this is why the gospel is often more easily accepted by those who feel their need (for food, for friendship, for forgiveness, etc.) all the more keenly. Like the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee, she knew that it was better to empty what she had so that she might be filled with the love of Christ. It is easier to pour out what you have when you are convinced that it will no longer satisfy you.

When we attempt to use our own goodness, wealth, relationships, or possessions to fill the purse of our souls, we rob God of what he desires to pour into us, and we rob ourselves of the only thing that can truly fill us. And what is that thing?

“Speak as we may of that which cannot be spoken, call it what we will, its proper name is—God. Even in this word, ‘God,’ what have we said? Is that single syllable the whole of that for which we wait? Nothing that we have power to name is high enough. Let us stretch ourselves toward him, that when he comes he may fill us full. For ‘we shall be like him; because we shall see him as he is.’”

[1] https://twitter.com/dandoriani/status/828633606734151682?s=20

The Misery of Distraction

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Mankind has never been a stranger to distraction. Certainly, we live in a time and age in which diversions seem nearly boundless. We turn on Netflix and find show after show catered to our interests. We scroll through social media feeds that have no end, yet this draw to disconnect is no new thing.

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century French mathematician and theologian, once wrote that “The only thing which consoles us for our miseries is diversion, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries” (Pensées, 171). Pascal in the section of his Pensées (regarding the miseries of life without God) makes the argument that man is drawn to distraction because he would rather not have to reflect upon things such as his mortality, ignorance, and particular sufferings. Man pursues vanity to escape unhappiness. Yet, this escape only escalates his miseries.

Pascal continues, “For it is this [draw to diversion] which principally hinders us from reflecting upon ourselves and which makes us insensibly ruin ourselves. Without this we should be in a state of weariness, and this weariness would spur us to seek a more solid means of escaping from it. But diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.” It is this weariness that we all seek to avoid. The weariness of our lives, our relationships, our own inconsistencies, our own failures and longings, our mortality, and yes, our own shame.

The desire to escape is alluring, yet a life patterned by distraction inevitably leads to ruin– And I would argue, not just ruin for one’s self, but also for our respective communities.

Of course, it is distraction which drives us away from contemplation of both God and self. It drives us to shirk integrity and sincerity: to not call sin sin within ourselves but to passively distract ourselves from having to make such self-evaluation. It is the desire unto distraction which would drive us more towards tweeting than prayer, more towards slander than confession, and more towards consuming beauty than delighting in it.

There is a bitterness to life that occurs when the good things here continue to dissatisfy us.

And the effects of this terrifying boredom transmits itself.

It is there in the way we shrink back from a vulnerable yet necessary conversation with a loved one. It is there in the way we blame-shift to avoid dealing with the problems that exist within. It is there in the way we pit our tribes against another in the hopes that we will defeat the source of this weariness.

Pascal mentioned that this collective, human weariness need not destroy us though. This weariness, perhaps akin to that of the Preacher’s efforts in Ecclesiastes, can help us if we were to let it spur us on to something which would ease it rather than towards that which seeks to avoid it.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval monk heavily influenced by Augustine (similarly to Pascal), wrote:

“It is so that these impious ones wander in a circle, longing after something to gratify their yearnings, yet madly rejecting that which alone can bring them to their desired end… They wear themselves out in vain travail, without reaching their blessed consummation, because they delight in creatures, not in the Creator. They want to traverse creation, trying all things one by one, rather than think of coming to Him who is Lord of all. ” (On Loving God, VII).

St. Bernard effectively agrees with Pascal. This weariness causes a longing for something that would cause us to know peace and satiety. Yet, we find this weariness impossible to deal with because its solution is beyond what we can find in other creatures.

When we have a million possible things to do within arm’s reach (or within hand’s grasp of a smart-phone), it is easier to think we can find a permanent distraction to our own weariness than trust that a solution may still be available for us.

It is no secret that both St. Bernard and Pascal saw the Triune God as the solution to such weariness. And of course it is Augustine’s hallmark phrase which they are echoing: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” No amount of distraction, no worldly pursuit or conquest will appease us.

Indeed only life eternal in communion with God can put us to ease and cause us to rest.

And St. Bernard knows what that means for us now who long for that eternal bliss: “To them that long for the presence of the living God, the thought of Him is sweetest itself: but there is no satiety, rather an ever-increasing appetite… Yea, blessed even now are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they, and they only, shall be filled” (On Loving God, IV).

For St. Bernard (and the others), to live now, is to live in anticipation: to not stoop to fulfill an eternal craving with a taste of something that may lead us from that which truly satisfies. Rather, it is to live consciously with the weariness and hunger, to feel our tongues dry for a taste of righteousness, and to acknowledge our own emptiness so that we might be filled by the God who has and will and continues to give himself to us.