I offer the observation in the title defiantly, because there is much evidence to the contrary. Admittedly, I am a happy camper—more or less healthy, my extended family happy and doing well, blessed with a wonderful parish and a good bishop. Even my cat is contented. But I am aware that many people in the world are not happy campers, that suffering and sickness abound, that poverty and war mar the lives of many innocent people, that children across the globe go to bed hungry, while their parents can only weep and extend their empty hands. Many in the world would contend that life is not good.
That is why I offer the sentiment defiantly. We must, of course, do what we can to feed the hungry, to strive to heal the sick, to dry the tears of the suffering, to comfort the children. There are many opportunities to do this (one thinks, for example, of the work of IOCC), and our Lord commands that we use these opportunities according to our ability. Affirming that life is good does not involve stopping up our ears so that we cannot hear the cries for help of the needy.
But it does involve living with sensitivity to all the gifts which God daily showers upon us. Our temptation is to continue with insensitivity to these gifts. And let’s be honest: if we do not feel that life is good, it is not usually because we are haunted by the sufferings of others, but because we are too self-absorbed. Fallen creatures that we are, we find it easy to focus on the petty slights of others, the minor disappointments of the day, the stresses and strains that come with living. It is as if we are on a long hike through the mountains in springtime, and can think only of how tired our feet are. We miss the view, the shining, wet, loud, radiant world that crowds around us, that shouts at all our senses, telling us that the whole world is filled with God’s glory. We are insensitive to this. All we notice is the fact that our feet hurt.
Orthodoxy challenges us to live sacramentally, to receive each day as an unmerited gift from God, to lose our sense of entitlement, and recover a sense of wonder at how strange and beautiful is the world God made and the life He has given us. It will all be over soon enough. Like the country song says, “You get one time around, one roll of the dice, one walk through the garden, one quick look at life.” All the more reason to notice every flower in the garden, every smile, to enjoy every chocolate, to savour every sip of wine. As well as a theology of asceticism, we almost need also a theology of pleasure, recognizing all the pleasures which God packs into His world for us to enjoy.
C.S. Lewis knew this well: in his famous Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape observes of God, “He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a façade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore’...He has filled the world with pleasures…Everything has to be twisted before it’s of any use to us.” (Screwtape, ch. XXII). Calling asceticism “a façade” is perhaps not quite it, but the point Lewis makes in Screwtape’s indignant demonic rigorism is that joy is the final goal, and asceticism is merely the means to achieve it. God likes pleasure; that is why He made it. All the pleasures God made, small and great, are His gifts to us. We don’t deserve any of them, and yet God continues daily to pour out His evidently endless cascade of blessing and beauty. And all of it free.
Well, maybe not quite free. Though He needs nothing from us or from any, He does ask something in return—that we say “Thank you”, that we eat to our fill and then bless Him for it. This response is not meant to be like the sullen and mechanical “Thank you” wrung from a child in obedience to the prompting of a parent. It is meant to be the natural and spontaneous overflow of a full heart when we truly see with open eyes all that God does for us. No doubt we often fail to show such gratitude. I remember as if it were my own confession of sin the words of Garrison Keillor, in his anthology, Leaving Home: “Thank you, dear God, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” Keillor is right. Life is good.