Lord Byron gave us the moving poem The Prisoner of Chillon. The prisoner’s chained to a pillar along with his brother. After some time the beloved brother died and was buried in the cell under a slab. This drove the prisoner into deep depression and the jailers had pity on him and loosed him from the pillar so that he could walk around his cell. In his despair he made friends with spiders and mice and became a kindly lord in his domain. He wouldn’t have thought of it as Aspen or the French Riviera, but because he had no reason to think things would ever change he adjusted to the situation. He became content.
One day the broken but contented prisoner heard the song of a bird. It was up there on the window ledge and at the sight and sound something stirred in the man. Imagine him with great effort, and perhaps many failures, making his way up the wall and looking out at familiar sights and faintly hearing sounds that carried from a great distance. He sees the mountains, a river meeting the lake, the white wall of a little town, trees and a green island. He saw an eagle fly, free and high, in the blue sky before his strength was gone and he slipped or clawed his way back down into the cell. Having seen, he couldn’t “unsee” and the vision unsettled him; now the cell with which he had grown content was like a coffin that suffocated him and he wished he’d never been loosed from the chain and the pillar; seeing life’s possibilities destroyed his peace and we can easily imagine him for the first time beating on the door and yelling, “Let me out of here! I’ve got to get out of here!”
This is how he put it:
I had not left my recent chain;
And when I did descend again,
The darkness of my dim abode
Fell on me as a heavy load;
It was as is a new-dug grave,
Closing o’er one we sought to save.
Would it have been better had he not seen through the window the world he was deprived of? One thing is sure, he felt worse. His contentment was shattered and his peace obliterated. The vision of something finer turned his cozy little cell into a coffin. Would it have been better had he never looked? I suppose it depends on what we mean by “better”. Would you prefer to know that there exists so much more than you have, even if it created great pain in you? Would you prefer to remain ignorant and contented? There’s something to be said for both sides of the argument.
But is there really? A poor soul told me that she had never felt real bewilderment or sense of alienation in life until she became a Christian and life changed in many ways that were not pleasant. [“Arrrgh! I heard that everything would be better, easier, and it isn’t!” I suppose a baby in the womb feels that kind of distress at birth.] Did Peter ever feel the wave of awed fear before that day when he sat in a boat with Christ and witnessed the nearness of God that drove him to say, “Get away from me, for I am a sinful man O Lord”? It’s true isn’t it that in some true sense of the words that the closer we get to God the more we feel out of place in our own skin and in a world of people like us? And what makes it more distressing, on those occasions when we feel it most intensely, is that we can’t ask to be taken out of the world. Jesus Christ said to us: “As the Father sent me, so I send you into the world.”
Is it really a source of wonder that the better we see him the more we recoil at everything else because it is unlike Him? Imagine what it must have been like for Him to be elbow to elbow with the evil that is in us and flows from us. Now that is a true source of wonder! Somewhere in all this, his glorious vision of His Holy Father, Himself and us, in all our awful need, made Him restless and divinely discontent. His holy compassion toward us grew until, as Browning put it, it became a rage to suffer for humanity. And He thought it all worthwhile. Christ is no Greek god sitting blissfully unconcerned sipping the wine in the presence of equally unconcerned divine colleagues. He looked over the rim of the palace walls in the land of the Trinity, saw our desperate need, felt compelled to go and found the Father and the Spirit already preparing His gear for the assault on all the powers that enslave the bodies, minds and spirits of the human family.
We must love the best we see and know or we’ll never be anything worth talking about. I understand that in our debilitating weariness we don’t want to hear challenge and upward calls. “Leave me alone, I’m too tired.” Too much disappointment and dashed hopes, too many responsibilities, too many pressures—humans aren’t made to walk like kings! That makes sense but there are other things that make sense too and even when we’re too weary to want to continue we wish we had the energy to do it.
Listen, things not only can be better, they will be better! God’s Son became incarnate to make it clear that we’re not alone in this cosmic and eternal enterprise. “God is with us!” The Incarnation is the witness to that; that’s why He became “homeless” and yet never more at home than when He became one of us and remains one of us.
Blessed are the weary for they will rise up in strength like an eagle.