Purgatory Island, Niggle, and the Pointlessness of Walks
In podcast episode 6, we discussed the danger of agendas; we always have to be doing something for some reason, to produce some result. Father Simon Tugwell, in his book The Beatitudes, observes that we’ve become suspicious about doing things simply because they’re enjoyable or because we want to do them. He points out that we come up with pseudo-justifications: taking walks for “exercise,” or riding a motorcycle “for the experience,” or having tea with someone “in case he wants to talk.” Worst of all, he says, we “go all solemn and declare something to be ‘important’.” (I think this dynamic is particularly prevalent in aesthetic matters; it sometimes seems we can’t just enjoy a particular style of art or music without claiming it to be the only “proper” style, to be defended at all costs against imaginary barbarians.) Fr. Simon goes on to explain that in one sense, God doesn’t have “a purpose” for what he does; he “is his own purpose”!
Why do we have this inability to relax, this need to feel “busy” and “important”? Perhaps it is that we are uncertain of our value before God, or even before ourselves. We may say that we are pro-life, and that a feeble child with Down’s Syndrome is just as valuable as the most brilliant scholar or powerful ruler, but when it comes to valuing our own lives, we are not so sure; we feel that we have to do something to earn God’s love and validate our own worth.
The reality, however, is that we are feeble, inconsequential, and precisely because of this, God loves us tenderly, no matter what our mistakes and failings may be. A few years ago, a transitional deacon preaching at our parish told the story of his visit to “Purgatory Island” in Northwestern Ireland, spending three days barefoot and fasting, praying constantly, in a harsh environment. On his last evening, he stood looking out over the ocean and presenting himself and all his spiritual exercises to God. And all God said was, “I like your smile!” He came to understand that God wasn’t impressed by all the heroics, but instead that God loved him for himself, for who he was.
These two themes, the danger of agendas and the unmerited quality of God’s love, are beautifully brought together in a short story by J. R. R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle. Niggle is a little man, an artist who has a vast project underway; a great picture of a tree in a landscape. The painting becomes the lens through which he comes to view both his own identity and that of others; in particular, his burdensome neighbor becomes a mere obstacle to the completion of his painting. And yet as the story unfolds, he comes to realize both the relative unimportance of his plans and dreams, and the great and merciful love of One who “knows we are but clay”, and yet gives us more than we could ever dream. In the final analysis, Niggle “was never supposed to be very much, anyway” but his very insignificance was transformed into beatitude by the mercy of God.
Leaf by Niggle is both a beautiful meditation on the true meaning of life and a cautionary tale, warning us against measuring our own worth, or the worth of others, against our self-imposed agendas. The warning is particularly critical for those of us with a “mission” for cultural renewal or evangelization or Christian community building. Our projects and imposed agendas can become self-defeating, dividing us from reality and from the true meaning of things. We can come to see others not as splendid, unique beings made in the image of God, but as mere allies or enemies of our projects. We can become proselytizers rather than evangelizers, always trying to advance our ultimately petty projects instead of bringing the “good news” of God’s love to others. The time we “waste” with friends or with God is the truly important time. Every useful activity is for the sake of the “useless”: for rest, for leisure, ultimately for beatitude. What, after all, is the purpose of happiness? In the end, all projects, ideologies, “purposes” will pass away; there are no purposes in Heaven.
Photo by Andreas F. Borchert / CC BY 4.0
A beautiful ending there Malcolm. It’s so hard to not measure every moment and decision by good might result from it. Part of abandonment to Divine Providence I think is being willing to do the hard work and make the hard decisons tirelessly, but also being unattached to any results so that you can just enjoy being in God’s presence in the moment. The path between utilitarian work obsession and epicurean hedonism is narrow.