Posted by Casey Cole, OFM on 2/19/18, 12:00 AM
Pleasure. A delicious meal, a beautiful symphony at the theater, a hot shower after a long day in the cold. With five senses and billions of nerves in the human body, there are an infinite number of ways to experience pleasure from the world around us. What a wonderful part of the human experience, am I right?
A little over a century ago, the prevailing moral norms of Victorian culture would not have agreed. Closely associating pleasure with sin, leaders sought to remove pleasure completely from normal life. If it felt good, they thought, it was morally bad. Pleasure was from the devil. Adherents avoided meat and filled themselves with bran and coarsely ground wheat flour; sleep was often brief and interrupted; exercise was regular and excessive; clothing was restrictive and covered as much as possible; and anything that might lead to carnal desire was removed from their routine. In every way possible, pleasure was to be avoided, repressed, mitigated, and replaced with austerity and denial.
Now, far removed from these external practices (and arguably on the other end of the spectrum), I can’t help but wonder if the mindset of that age still has a hold on us. Even in the midst of a pleasure-seeking culture today, I get the sense that many people still associate pleasure with sin. There is a part of us, I think, that still feels guilty when something is too good.
Is pleasure really from the devil? Is it something that we should be concerned about?
For an answer to this, I look to one of my favorite books of all time: C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Imagining a corporate world of demons whose sole purpose is to lure people away from God, the book consists of 31 letters of advice from an experienced demon to his nephew, offering insight into the human experience and tips as to how the young demon can best tempt his assigned human. In one such letter, Screwtape, the experienced demon, offers a discussion on pleasure and how it might be used to exploit the human, but also warns against it:
“Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, as times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence, we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable” (The Screwtape Letters, Letter 9).
In other words, the purest form of every pleasure—that which is most original and most pleasing—is actually from God, and is quite good. What the devil offers us are easier, cheaper knockoffs that are only distortions of the gifts we have been given, and eventually leaves us dissatisfied. Things like food, drink, reputation, power, money, authority, pride, comfort, and, yes, sex, are all gifts that originate in God and are in fact good in themselves. But sometimes, recognizing that these great things come from God and have been given to us to share for the sake of the world, we can seek them solely for the sake of pleasure, separate from an experience of God and at the expense of healthy relationships. Nothing the devil offers us can ever be better than what we are already offered by God.
As we begin Lent and enter into a period of sacrifice and simplicity, often giving up some of the pleasures of our world, I think it is important to keep this truth at the center of our focus. When we sacrifice things during this season, we do not do so because pleasure is bad and we need to purify ourselves of it. We sacrifice things to restore what has been distorted in us, to strip ourselves of the bad habits we’ve created, and the false truths we’ve accepted so that we can return with perfect vision and focus on the one who created the pleasures in the first place. For a moment, we give up all that is extra in our life so that we can truly know and rely on what, and who, is most essential: our relationship with God.