The Eternal Joys of Coming In Last
Adam’s sin was pride, but many of the old English poets stressed the love that in his pride he repaid with disobedience. In other words, they saw that the fundamental manifestation of pride is ingratitude. So George Herbert portrays Christ reproaching us on his way to Calvary:
Then they condemne me all with that same breath
Which I do give them daily, unto death.
Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth: Was ever grief like mine?
It is easy enough for the Christian to remember to thank God for at least a few of the good things he has given us, especially when our whole society celebrates a day called “Thanksgiving.” We might even remember once in a while to thank God for the breath in our lungs, for our mere existence, since it is with each of us as it was with Adam, that God has taken some dust from the earth and breathed into it, that we might be a living soul.
But Adam in his pride wanted to seize for himself what he saw as a good thing that God had not given him. In his disobedience he showed himself ungrateful for what he had been given (since he wanted even more). But there is something else to notice here: Adam showed himself ungrateful not only for what he had been given, but for what had been withheld from him, since he judged that he might provide for himself a fairer enjoyment of goods. He fell because he did not give thanks that he did not have everything.
Adam forgot to thank God for the prohibition. He forgot to praise God for the inequality between himself and his Maker. The really grateful soul—the one that is full of thanksgiving—is pleased not only by the great gifts God has given him, but by the great gifts God has withheld from him.
He is also (and this is most difficult for man’s hardheartedness) pleased by the surpassing gifts that God has given to others. That includes the gift of authority over us, as God gives us someone nearby to obey: the father and the mother whom we are to honor, and the pastor and the elders whose wisdom we do well to consult, and all those rulers and teachers and apostles to whom God has given the place of command or counsel, for both our earthly and our eternal good.
Such delegated authority is one of God’s ways of drawing near to us, lest we spend all our hours vainly imagining a conversation wherein God says what we should like him to say. Our subordination is a divine gift, though we (thankless creatures that we are) often feel it as a burden.
Equality is a great mantra these days, but I do not see how a narrow-eyed insistence upon equality is easily reconcilable with gratitude. I am not talking about equality of human dignity or equality before the law. I am talking about that demand to have what everyone else has—not only material goods, though we do feel that, but also qualities like respect and authority—and to feel affronted if we do not.
What authority could survive, if everyone had an equal warrant to thwart the commands of another? How unutterably dreary life would be if everyone else had at most one’s own measure of intelligence, love, courage, wisdom, and beauty. Imagine how tuneless would be the choir in heaven if everyone sang only as well as oneself.
“Various voices make the sweeter song,” says the emperor Justinian to Dante in paradise, smilingly explaining why it is a source of great joy to him to be granted only his modest place in heaven, if the word “modest” can be applied to our wholly unmerited enjoyment of the very life of God. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, says the writer to the Hebrews; St. Paul with his sword of a mind, and the impetuous Peter, and the practical James, and the abashed woman at the well whose heart Jesus touched; Louis the King, marked by a humble glory, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, marked by a glorious humility.
Egalitarian ingratitude produces a world in which most of us would not want to live. Imagine having no one to admire, no one to obey, no one to follow, but everyone equally admirable, meaning everyone equally infatuated with himself, and everyone possessed of equal authority, meaning everyone doing exactly as he pleased, and everyone claiming to be leader, meaning everyone going where he wanted to go. I am not sure whether the dullness or the disorder would be harder to bear.
If I am right about that, then a craving for equality can find no place in the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus suggest that there may be one soul who is lowliest in the Kingdom, who enjoys the fullness of God’s bliss in a way that is most strikingly humble.
What must it be like, I wonder, to be “least in the Kingdom of God”—to rejoice in the superiority of every other soul in blessedness? To be but the elevator operator of heaven, say: the soul with the lowliest job, whose gift it is to look up to everyone else.
It would be, we know, a joy and glory beyond the comprehension of the greatest saint on earth. Adam ate the fruit that he might be as a god, yet that least soul would find the glory that Adam in the Garden could not fathom. He would be preeminently like God; he would claim the strongest likeness, if not to the Lord’s greatness, then to his littleness.
It cannot be beneath our dignity to be least, not when Christ deigned to descend to us and to be born in a manger. May God then teach us to give thanks even for what we are not, and to give thanks for those who are what we are not, lest even that little which we have be taken away. •
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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