I guess I am still be thinking about last week’s theme, the two kinds of discontent, because the curious saying in Robert Browning’s poem, Andrea del Sarto, came back to me the other day: "Ah, a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
These days, to question a saying like that is almost considered heresy. Ambition is praised as a virtue. It used to be condemned as a vice, and taken in the usual sense, it is. A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so seek offices and stations above your ability and merit! A man’s reach should exceed his grasp -- so crave fortune beyond what you need! One might as well say that since a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, we should all take more cake than we can eat.
Yet if we take Browning’s saying to be about reaching for God, in hopes of being reached by Him, then it makes sense. He always exceeds our finite and natural grasp; now we see him darkly, as in a mirror. Then we will see Him face to face.
Was this actually what Browning was thinking? Something like that, maybe, since he was writing about a Renaissance painter’s attempt to represent something beyond representation.
Artistic aspiration reminds me of the old problem in ethics about the painter who is so keen to make things of unparalleled beauty that he neglects to take care of his family. One of my old teachers thought that in a case like that, it would just be tough for his family. After all, if he did take the time to care for them, the world would have lost all that beauty.
That view seemed wrong to me even then, but it wasn’t until years later that I realized what was wrong with it. The problem isn’t that such the painter is pursuing beauty too much, but that he is pursuing it in the wrong way. In itself, painting can be ordained to the uncreated Beauty in which all created beauty has its source. But neglecting one’s family in order to do it cannot be. Created goods should be pursued with temperance, not as though they were God.
For that matter, not even all ways of pursuing God really pursue God. The suicide bomber who screams Allahu akbar is pursuing not God, but a monster. The loveless legalist is not pursuing not God, but a dream of being perfect without grace. That, by the way, is how Thomas Aquinas thought Satan sinned: “Desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his appetite away from supernatural beatitude, which is attained by God's grace.”
Hold on. Granted that created goods should be pursued with temperance, must we be temperate about all of them? Even, say, knowledge? Aren’t we made to know truth?
We are certainly made to know truth, especially the truth about God. But God is not just another created good; to know Him face to face will be to know the uncreated Good. Only by reflecting that glory can created goods even exist.
So there is no such thing as to much wisdom, too much wonder, too much longing to know Him. Yet there are certainly limits to the desire for other kinds of knowledge. I mean, for example, the eagerness to learn the ways of power, the craving to be more in the know than other people are, and the empty curiosity that draws ours eyes to the covers of the supermarket tabloids. “I want to know” can be as sinful as “I want to take, to keep, to have.”