There is a Tex-Mex restau­rant in Hous­ton I have vis­it­ed on three occa­sions. Each meal has begun with chile con que­so. The cheese at this par­tic­u­lar restau­rant is the most deli­cious food I have ever tasted.

With every bite, I have been over­come with grat­i­tude to God for cre­at­ing taste buds, cows, and human inge­nu­ity. And that grat­i­tude has led to praise.

Some folks under­stand this. Some think I’m kid­ding. And oth­ers are skep­ti­cal that such a car­nal thing as a Tex-Mex appe­tiz­er could pro­voke gen­uine worship.

We Chris­tians have a long his­to­ry of mixed and some­times open­ly hos­tile atti­tudes toward sen­su­al plea­sure. Saint Augus­tine is the fourth-cen­tu­ry poster boy for our dilem­ma, strug­gling in Book X of his Con­fes­sions to rein in each of his five sens­es. He attempts, for exam­ple, to take food at meal­times as though it were med­i­cine” and to fight against the plea­sure in order not to be cap­ti­vat­ed by it.”

Augus­tine is ever-vig­i­lant that plea­sure in cre­at­ed things nev­er replace our desire for the Cre­ator. His cau­tion is well tak­en. But late­ly I’ve been dis­cov­er­ing an emphat­i­cal­ly pro­plea­sure voice in the writ­ings of anoth­er Chris­t­ian guide.

C. S. Lewis is known, of course, as a lit­er­ary schol­ar, nov­el­ist, and apol­o­gist. He is also, con­sis­tent­ly, a cura­tor of plea­sure. Where there is beau­ty to be received, music to be heard, laugh­ter to be wel­comed, and (espe­cial­ly) food to be eat­en, Lewis attends, cel­e­brates, scru­ti­nizes, describes, and partakes.

In Let­ters to Mal­colm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis argues that the plea­sures derived from for­est moss and sun­light, bird song, morn­ing air, and the com­fort of soft slip­pers are shafts of [God’s] glo­ry as it strikes our sen­si­bil­i­ty.” Our task is not to guard against sen­su­al enjoy­ment, but to allow our minds to run back up the sun­beam to the sun” — to see every plea­sure as a chan­nel of adoration.”

Lewis even argues that there is no such thing as a bad” plea­sure — only plea­sures snatched by unlaw­ful acts.” But he is not blind to the con­cu­pis­cence” (lust­ful­ness) that so haunts Augus­tine. When our response to plea­sure is greed instead of ado­ra­tion — when we seek to grasp and pos­sess rather than receive — our healthy cry of This also is Thou” dis­torts into the fatal word: Encore.”

In his intro­duc­tion to The Four Loves, Lewis dis­tin­guish­es between Need-plea­sures” and Plea­sures of Appre­ci­a­tion.” The enjoy­ment we feel upon receiv­ing a Need-plea­sure — water to quench thirst, for exam­ple, or the scratch­ing of an itch — is intense but short-lived. But with Appre­ci­a­tion-plea­sures — nonessen­tial things that awak­en us to delight, like deli­cious smells and tastes and scenes of beau­ty — the sen­sa­tion inten­si­fies over time. Greed — the repeat­ed cry of Encore!” to, say, rich black cof­fee or extra-creamy que­so — may trans­form a Plea­sure of Appre­ci­a­tion into a Plea­sure of Need, drain­ing out of it all the last­ing enjoyment.

The answer, Lewis con­tends, is not to avoid plea­sure but to have” and read” it prop­er­ly: to receive it, open­hand­ed, as both a gift and a mes­sage. We know we are being touched by a fin­ger of that right hand at which there are plea­sures for ever­more. There need be no ques­tion of thanks or praise as a sep­a­rate event, some­thing done after­wards. To expe­ri­ence the tiny theo­phany” — the small sign of God’s pres­ence — is itself to adore.”

In many respects, Augus­tine and Lewis are argu­ing two sides of the same coin. But there is a major point of diver­gence at the heart of their oppo­site ori­en­ta­tions to plea­sure. Where Augus­tine sees our sen­su­al­i­ty as a lia­bil­i­ty to be man­aged until God consign[s] both food and bel­ly to destruc­tion,” Lewis views every earth­ly plea­sure as an appren­tice­ship in ado­ra­tion for the sort of thing that will go on for­ev­er in heaven.

Bib­li­cal writ­ers seem irre­sistibly drawn to an image — part metaphor, part promise — of the sacred meal with God.” From the table pre­pared for the psalmist (Ps. 23:5), to Jesus’ sto­ry of a great ban­quet (Luke 14:15 – 24), to the Rev­e­la­tion 19 vision of a wed­ding sup­per, the Scrip­tures are filled with the antic­i­pa­tion of feast­ing togeth­er — in the pres­ence of God — for­ev­er. The prophet Isa­iah (25:6 – 8) takes par­tic­u­lar plea­sure in this vision:

On this moun­tain the Lord Almighty will pre­pare a feast of rich food for all peo­ples, a ban­quet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this moun­tain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peo­ples, the sheet that cov­ers all nations; he will swal­low up death forever. 

For Lewis, earth­ly meals are chances to prac­tice the grat­i­tude and ado­ra­tion that will accom­pa­ny our ever­last­ing feast with God. Just as tri­als train us in patience, plea­sure trains us in wor­ship. Every sen­su­al enjoy­ment (prop­er­ly received) is a tiny theo­phany” — a chance to taste and see” that God is good, and a reminder that there is a whole lot more where that came from.

I rest my que­so.

Pho­to Copy­right: Alexan­der Mychko

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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