I am going to have to stop calling Mondays student letter days, because I make so many exceptions.  But the Canadian author of this letter was a student not too long ago.


Can you please define "contentment"?  What does being content look like in our daily lives?  Does striving for increase (career advancement, higher education, a better car, a bigger house, etc) narrow contentment?   Is there something as spiritual contentment?  Would contentment be a good thing or bad for our spiritual lives?


Most people take for granted that a good life is a life that contains good things.  Whether this is true depends on which kinds of good things we are talking about.  Have you noticed that each of the kinds of good you mention is at best a conditional good?  Having a bigger car, for example, would be helpful if you needed the extra room to pack in all your children, but it would be bad for you if you were going to use it to flee from the police in a life of robbing banks.  To put it another way, the conditional goods can’t make your life a good life – but if you are living a good life, some of the conditional goods might become good things for you.

The goods that do make life good are called intrinsic goods – these are the goods that are good in themselves, the goods that are unconditionally good.  One example of an intrinsic good is virtue, epitomized by wisdom, courage, justice, temperance, faith, hope, and love.  Another example is friendship – not just any kind of friendship, but partnership in a good life, because good is diminished if it can’t be shared.  Such things literally can’t be bad for you.

I am sure you can add to the list of intrinsic goods.  Be careful, though, because we often mistake conditional goods for intrinsic goods.  Consider career advancement.  If I had a calling for administration, then to accept a so-called promotion to an administrative position might be a very good thing.  For me personally, though, accepting an administrative position would be a betrayal, because my calling is teaching and scholarship.  So career advancement, as conventionally understood, is a conditional good, not an intrinsic one.

You might now be expecting me to say that contentment is simply having the intrinsic goods.  Not exactly.  One can have friends, family, and meaningful work in a life of virtue, and still ask “Is this all there is?”  There is only one good so complete and perfect that it leaves nothing further to be desired.  This good is the vision of God, which nobody experiences fully in this life, but which the blessed experience in heaven.  All of the other goods finally come into their own in this beatific vision.  For example, just because it is the perfection of friendship with God, it carries with it perfect friendship with all of His friends.

You close with the question, “Would contentment be a good thing or bad for our spiritual lives?”  Let me put it this way:  To be on the path toward the vision of God is the whole point of our spiritual lives.  But to settle for anything less – to imagine that we can be ultimately contented by anything in this life -- would be the greatest possible calamity; it would be to trade our ultimate good for eternal unfulfilled desire and unrest.

I might add that the very fact that nothing in this life fully contents us forms one of the arguments for the existence of God.  The argument goes like this:  There is exactly one longing that nothing in the created order that can satisfy; anyone who does not recognize it in himself does not know himself.  Assuming that each of our longings is for something -– what would be a point of a longing that nothing could fulfill? -– it follows that the object of this one longing must lie beyond the created order.  This is what we call God.