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Blog

The Tiresome Gift

Alissa Wilkinson

old couple in bed For the first text in our creative nonfiction writing class, my students and I read St. Augustine’s Confessions. For the second, we read Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.

I hadn’t read all of Wiman’s book when I assigned it, but I was pleased that the syllabus fairy saw fit to have me assign them together. Augustine’s book contains the meditations of an ancient church father; Wiman’s is subtitled “Meditations of a Modern Believer.” Augustine’s is addressed largely to God; Wiman’s is addressed mostly to us, and also to himself. When Augustine wrote his meditations, he was ill, run-down, beset by heresies, and in the midst of midlife turmoil, if not a crisis. Wiman’s book wraps around his own struggles with cancer and pain and belief. Augustine wrote to find, narrate, and uncover his faith — and Wiman did, too.

It’s beautiful, then, that two books by two men from opposite ends of history can speak to one another, and to us, so well, in so many ways. Wiman’s book, despite its subtitle, seems sometimes ancient; Augustine’s feels intriguingly modern.

One way they talk to their readers is this: we spend much time delighting in “the little things” these days. Cooking and design blogs and accessible digital photography and real-time updates let us revel out loud in the steam coming off a cup of coffee, a firefly spotted in a backyard, the smell of a new book, the feel of butter on your fingers when you’re making a pie crust.

There is a joy and beauty in the everyday, and yet, it can take over. We can feel not just deprived but despondent and despairing when they go away; we can fixate and acquire, needing more stuff, more experiences, to help us have that feeling. Augustine would say that these earthly pleasures are good, so long as they direct us toward love of God.

Exactly how that works, though, can still be a bit of a mystery. Wiman filled in part of that for me:

God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel him to find him does not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All to often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or to touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep.

That is, the work of directing our experience of the everyday toward God is not just reveling in the coffee and giving thanks — though this is important — but noticing the duller, more tiresome bits, and changing how we respond as an act of worship. The backache. The mosquito bites. The long commute. It’s not just beauty: these small things, too, can be funnels for my attention toward a greater Giver.

(Photo by Fausto Podavini)