“Know heaven to be the only treasure and labor to know also what a treasure it is. Be convinced once that you have no other happiness, and then be convinced what happiness is there. If you do not soundly believe it to be the chiefest good, you will never set your heart upon it; and this conviction must sink into your affections; for if it be only a notion, it will have little power. As long as your judgments undervalue it, your affections will be cold towards it. If your judgments once prefer the delights of the flesh before the delights in the presence of God, it will be impossible for your heart to be in heaven. As it is the ignorance of the emptiness of things below that makes men so over value them, so it is ignorance of the high delights above, which cause men to so little care about them. If you see a purse of gold, and believe it to be nothing but stones, it will not entice your affections to it. It is not a thing’s excellency in itself, but it is excellency known that provokes desire. If an ignorant man sees a book containing the secrets of arts or sciences, yet he values it no more than something common, it is because he knows not what is in it: but he that knows it, highly values it; his very mind is set up on it.”Richard Baxter, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest
Another offering by my daughter Natalie.
A couple of weeks ago I rewatched one of my favorite movies, the 2015 animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella “The Little Prince.” It’s an unspeakable tender film, dealing with themes of grief, memory, imagination, love, and the achingly bittersweet journey from childhood to adulthood. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll give you a brief synopsis.
Instead of only using the Little Prince novella as its plot, being as brief a story as it is, the film places the story into a larger narrative. On the outset, a little girl (who is given no other name, hence why I’ll only refer to her as “the little girl”) and her mother have just moved into a new neighborhood to be in closer proximity to a prestigious prep school. The two are kind and love each other very much, but are intensely driven and plan to squeeze every ounce of their summer in preparation for the school year ahead. The mother creates a whole “life plan” for her daughter, telling her warmly that she’s “going to make a wonderful grown up.” However, a wrinkle in their plan appears in the person of their neighbor, an eccentric old man. In a neighborhood of identical gray modern homes, the man lives in a peculiar three-storied house bedecked with trailing ivy and complete with a precarious, perch-like wooden balcony for his telescope. The little girl avoids the old man at first, suspicious of his antics. But after receiving small installments of a story about a Little Prince via paper airplanes, the little girl becomes curious, and eventually befriends the man who is both an aviator and the narrator of the Little Prince. And thus the story of the Little Prince and our larger story of the little girl are interwoven through the film.
The Little Prince brims with scenes that both pull on your heartstrings and make you think. But on this viewing, I was struck most by one of our antagonists, the Businessman, who counts and owns the stars, eventually housing them in an enormous domed glass bell jar. He explains to the little girl that he’s finally found a way to make the stars “useful,” and the film shows how he crushes and converts stars into electricity for the whole city. The Businessman is our obvious enemy in the movie, turning bicycles into paperclips and tyrannically running a colorless planet.
We can clearly see that the Businessman is wicked, so we’re predisposed to think that his actions are evil. So I thought to myself, setting aside his selfish motivations, what is the true evil of capturing the stars as he does? After all, he certainly demonstrates how, in a strange way, it helps the planet. Well it strikes me that the Businessman’s problem, intertwined with his greed and endless quest for gain, is that he fails to recognize the Beauty of the stars. He only lives to see what might be gained from them. He has no use for the awe they inspire, only the energy they create.
And oh, what a mirror: how quickly we fail to relish Beauty. This scene made me ask perhaps not a preposterous question: Would humans turn from admiring stars to commodifying them if we could? If we could capture them, would we try and find their utilitarian use?
While I watched these scenes, I kept thinking of Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
It’s a simple poem, one with meaning easily grasped, I think. Whitman writes a brief but poignant vignette of how the study of the natural world can often be devoid of wonder. The “Learn’d Astronomer” has come to mind many times when I think of how we race forward with technology but don’t seem to have a proper sense of what it means to be human. To what end are we racing forward? Mere understanding? Convenience and ease? The Little Prince sees the Businessman counting his stars and asks, “what good does that do you?” I think Whitman’s narrator asks the same: What good is it to know all of the charts and figures of stars but to forget what it is like to be dumbfounded by their glory? To be stilled by their brightness?
The morning after I rewatched the film I awoke to gray skies and the promise of a storm, and I sat by my window to read St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I have been slowly pacing through this month. And would you believe it, I began book 5 where Augustine laments all the brilliant, leaned philosophers who study the stars and yet do not know or praise their Creator. This felt like such an obvious wink from the Lord, bringing together a children’s movie, a poem, and the writings of a 4th century Church Father. Augustine recognizes what little good our knowledge does for us apart from the One who gave us our capacity to know in the first place. He writes to God, saying, “You draw near to none but to the contrite in heart, nor are you found by the proud, no, not even if by cunning skill they could count the number of the stars and the sand, and measure the starry regions and trace the courses of the planets” (70).
And I thought of the Businessman as Augustine made this following observation: “They did not know this way and fancied themselves exalted among the stars and shining, and lo! they fell to the earth, and their foolish heart was darkened. They say many true things concerning the creation; but Truth, the Architect of creation, they do not seek reverently, and therefore do not find him” (71).
There are so many good quotations from this section of the book that I could drop in here. I’ll refrain, but allow me just one more: “Even so, a just man to whom all the world of wealth belongs, and who, as having nothing, yet possesses all things by holding fast to you who all things serve, though he does not know even the circles of the Great Bear, is doubtless in a better state than the one who can measure the heavens, number the stars and weigh the elements, *but is forgetful of who you made all things in number, weight and measure”* (72). Forgetful. That’s a word worth stopping on. Augustine reminds us that we’re a forgetful people, and we forget our Creator. We forget that He spoke the world into being and sits enthroned above it.
Perhaps the most memorable quote from the Little Prince comes when the old man gives the little girl advice as she fears the idea of growing up. He tells her, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” But in that precise moment, he doesn’t name the object of our forgetfulness; what are we prone to forgetting? Wonder? Beauty? Awe? I think any and all of those suffice. I’m glad Augustine reminds us of the One who inspires those things.
Towards the end of the Little Prince, we have a teary-eyed scene in which the old man tells the little girl, repeating the phrase from the beginning of the movie, “You’re going to make a wonderful grownup,” and even with few words, it’s clear what he means. The little girl will be a child who grows up and remembers. She will not lose sight of the beauty of the world and the ones she loves. And I just love the word choice here: wonderful, full of wonder.
The movie ends with a shot of the little girl and her mother star-gazing with the aviator’s telescope. I love the very minor detail of how the mother cannot see anything until her daughter removes the lens cap. Her child helps her behold wonder. And I sit there, reminded to keep my child-like faith, and holdfast to my Creator.
Does your heart burn for God? Long for God? Do you long to know him better, to love him more fully, to follow him more faithfully, to trust him more completely? Do you deeply desire to live a God-centered life in which God is glorified and reflected in your daily thinking, speaking, and doing? If so, you already belong to the Fellowship of the Burning Heart.
Of course, no one, save the Lord Jesus Christ, can say that they fully desire any of those things, much less have arrived. The Apostle Paul himself didn’t presume to have arrived but knew he must continue to press toward the goal of such communion with God and conformity to the likeness of his Son, Jesus Christ.
Yet even the desire to desire God in such a way is a good thing.
There are some who have gone before us who have hungered and thirsted for God, (as well as for his Kingdom and righteousness), and they have shared a bit about their journey with those of us who would follow them down that path. That’s what these occasional posts, under “Burning Heart” will focus on. They will share snippets – bits and pieces – from those of the fellowship who’ve finished their pilgrimage to the Celestial City and now rest from their labor. What they have left behind for the rest of us is encouragement and wisdom to help us travel the same road. More importantly, they have exalted the King of that road and call upon us to do likewise.
This small effort will be nothing more than sharing brief devotional quotations and insights of the folks who have blessed me along my own journey. I’m quite certain ten different people could come up with ten completely differently lists. Those on my list may not all be your cup of tea, yet I do hope that you will find a little gold in the gravel. But if that is the case, then please find your own fellowship of the burning heart who can help encourage you and build you up for our journey.
“To have found God and still to pursue Him is the soul’s paradox of love, scorned indeed by the too-easily-satisfied religionist, but justified in happy experience by the children of the burning heart.” A.W. Tozer
We all desire that far green country. Let’s walk the path of those who have successfully gone before us and left a trail of breadcrumbs behind them.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 – [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
Great saints of God have beautifully, if feebly, attempted to capture the height and depth and weight of such a majestic verse as this. In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Pascal’s oft-quoted idea that people have a God-shaped vacuum in their hearts only God can fill strikes a similar note.
We do have a longing in our hearts for eternity, or better, the God of eternity. Perhaps C.S. Lewis in, The Weight of Glory, best expressed this deep desire of our hearts. He wrote,
In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness… I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each of one of you – the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence… We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name.
…The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire, but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing in itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
Eternity has been placed in our hearts by the King of eternity. Our longing is a homesickness of sorts. For though this is our Father’s world and was created good, it is now fallen. And when touched by the Holy Spirit we can no longer remain content with the things of this world alone, things that are temporal and destined to fade away.
Perhaps some do not experience such a longing for their true homeland because their hearts and minds are not yet set on things above where Christ our King is seated. Perhaps the ravages of sin have so infected their hearts and minds that a shadow has veiled their sight. We can only pray that the same gracious and sovereign Spirit who touched and re-created us will do the same for them.
In the end there is no end, for we were created for eternity. We are pilgrims and aliens traveling in a foreign land, longing for the City of God, not built with human hands, but eternal in the heavens.
May the longing of our hearts for things unseen serve as our true north, that we might one day arrive Home.
- Have you ever sensed the longing described by C.S. Lewis? Describe that experience?
- Did you find that you tried to locate the feeling in something temporal or were you able to understand it was pointing beyond itself, to something eternal?
- What are some ways you could explain this experience to an unbelieving friend as a way of introducing him or her to God?
God of eternity, I praise you for planting deep within my heart a longing for you, my true Home. I thank you that you are not content watching me move through this world with little desire for you. The penetrating calling and conviction of your Spirit ever draws me back to you. Please keep my heart and mind set on you. As St. Augustine put it, please make me restless until I am finally and fully resting in you. Continue to give me a heavenly homesickness that will continue to move me toward you. In Christ I pray. Amen.
The title of this blog comes from a line in The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Toward the end of the story, Frodo finds himself at the Grey Havens, ready to sail off to the undying lands. After saying goodbye to his friends, we find these words,
And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
In the movie, Peter Jackson placed these words in the mouth of Gandalf, in an exchange with Pippin, but it was just as powerful. Here’s the scene…
We are indeed on a journey as some of my favorite books remind me, and we will all encounter death. It is part of the path we all must take. I don’t know about you, but I long for what’s beyond it. As the following post emphasizes, I long for my true home, which is to say, I long for God. I love Gandalf’s faraway look as he reflects on the place he has been. And when Pippin tells him it doesn’t sound all that bad, Gandalf knowingly replies, “no, no it isn’t.” Was this the response of Lazarus when his life was being threatened again? He had been there and done that. What could possibly scare him? Gandalf’s smile, faraway stare, and deep sigh assures Pippin that death does not have the last say. There’s so much more awaiting them. And us.
C.S. Lewis understood this. He wrote often about longing or desire. I hope to share some of my favorite quotations by him in posts to come. Peter Kreeft even goes so far as to call “death,” the one we often think of as our enemy, as a lover. When we are in Christ, to quote the Apostle Paul, to live is Christ and to die is gain. It’s a win-win situation.
Now, to be sure, I’m not trying to hurry to the day I stand before the Lord, but as Richard Baxter assures us, there is for those who know Christ, an indescribable rest. Can you imagine anything better? To rest in the very presence of God himself?
I will enjoy my life God has given me in the here and now. I will seek his glory each and every day. But one day, when the Lord calls me home, I will look for that far green country under a swift sunrise.