Pope St. John Paul II often avoided the use of the term “free will” when he was describing man’s moral life. Instead he preferred to speak of “self-determination.” What he hoped to emphasize in doing this was that our actions have an effect on us. What we do does not simply remain outside of us, but make up who and what we are. In other words, our actions turn us into something. Even our speech reveals this to be true: we call a person who lies repeatedly a liar, a person who steals a thief, a person that repeatedly shows courage a hero and a person who repeatedly gives of himself a saint. This theme is central to his encyclical on Moral Theology, Veritatis Splendor. Rather than commending what many consider JPII’s most difficult encyclical, I would like to point out the smuggled moral theology contained in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. In this deep meditation on good and evil, Lewis’ pilgrim meets people somewhere between heaven and hell and finds that even if someone were given the option to choose between heaven or hell in the afterlife, they are already fixed as heavenly or hellish people. Lewis himself cautions the reader not to read the book as a theological commentary on heaven, hell and purgatory. Instead he calls it an “imaginative supposal” which offers insights into the moral life.
One of the more puzzling characters that the pilgrim meets along the way is a woman who seems to have a nearly endless list of complaints. After listening to her “shrill monotonous whine,” the Pilgrim asks his guide how it is even possible that she is in danger of damnation. She seems to have gotten into the habit of grumbling, but it is a mostly harmless thing that a little change in environment would remedy. The Guide (George MacDonald) replies that:
“That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler…Aye, but ye misunderstand me. The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman-even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”
Given the current level of discontent of most Christians with the direction the culture is taking, I think there is a grave danger than many of us may in fact become grumbles. Grumbling and Christianity have become somewhat synonymous. We may have grown so accustomed to it, that we fail to see its dangers. What I would like to offer today then is a complaint against grumbling.
Sacred Scripture is consistent in its condemnation of grumbling (or murmuring). In fact, it even goes so far as to say it is useless. The Book of Wisdom tells us to “keep yourselves from grumbling, which profits nothing” (Wisdom 1:11). St. Paul suggests that it is by doing things without grumbling that the Christian distinguishes himself when he tells the Philippians to “[D]o all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil 2:14-15).
If grumbling really profits nothing and we risk blame over it, how can we become grumble-free? To answer that question, we must attempt to define it. The Greek word for grumble is goggýzō which means “to express smoldering discontent.” This is why Lewis expressed the lady’s situation in terms of ashes and flames. Something that is smoldering, even if it never reaches a full blown flame, will eventually be consumed. Grumble enough and we become grumbles.
At the heart of grumbling is a general discontent for life. One who finds little joy in life grumbles. This is why it is so antithetical to a truly Christian existence—Christians should be marked by their joy. Left unchecked, this discontent becomes the seedbed of hell. Lewis also says that, in the end, “the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’‘: and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.” We have all met people (we usually call them saints) who carry heaven with them. We have also all been unfortunate enough to meet those who carry hell with them as well, and they are almost always if not other things, grumblers. As Lewis says, “[H]ell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others… but you are still distinct from it. You may even criticize it in yourself and wish you could stop it. But there may come a day when you can no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God “sending us” to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
By saying that grumbling has no point, the author of the Book of Wisdom means that absolutely no good comes from it. Christians are in the world because they are meant to redeem it. With The Master as his model and his inspiration (in the truest sense of the word), the Christian transforms all things by drawing the goodness out of it and bringing into being good that otherwise would not have existed. Evil is a parasite, it always feeds upon a good. In the midst of personal suffering, social evils and secular culture, the Christian is called not simply to complain but to draw those goods that are present out.
Grumbling tends to make mountains out of molehills. More accurately, we allow molehills to serve as stumbling blocks to True Mountain. To overcome this tendency we must develop a radical trust in Divine Providence. Note how Jesus responds to the grumbling of His disciples in the Bread of Life discourse. He tells them to stop grumbling and then calls them to faith (Jn 6:41-43).
The faith that He invites us to is not one of resignation but one that is completely active. When confronted with either a Mountain or a Molehill, we should ask how the situation can be redeemed. Why is it that God allowed this to happen? We are not attempting to write our own version of the story but to draw the good that God intends out. Faith tells us there is good to be found, grumbling says there is none.
The reality is that we often do not have the power to eradicate a particular evil. This is usually when grumbling sets in. We must fight this temptation. Instead we should seek to find the goods that are revealed and celebrate those. When GK Chesterton suffered an ankle injury, he wrote an essay called The Advantages of Having One Leg. It wasn’t that he was optimistic so much as the fact that losing the use of one of his legs became an occasion to praise God for the gift that up to that point he had taken for granted. Evil has this strange quality in that it often allows us to see goods we would normally never have noticed. If an evil persists, despite our best efforts to fight it, perhaps we need to look for those goods we were previously overlooking. Summarizing, Chesterton wrote, “This world and all our powers in it are far more awful and beautiful than even we know until some accident reminds us. If you wish to perceive that limitless felicity, limit yourself if only for a moment. If you wish to realize how fearfully and wonderfully God’s image is made, stand on one leg. If you want to realize the splendid vision of all visible things–wink the other eye.”
Finally, grumbling blocks patience. Of all the spiritual works of mercy, bearing wrongs patiently is the one that is most tied to the Cross. We imitate Christ most perfectly when we silently bear wrongs. This is not to suggest that Christians are doormats, only that there are times when confronted with evil that we must be silent. Christ responded to the high priest servant’s blow by speaking, but there are also times when we must turn the other cheek. Wisdom will help us know the difference. But when by complaining I will bring about no good, no conversion of heart, perhaps the best approach is to bear it with patience. The Cross always acts like a wrench in the gears of evil.
Anyone who has read The Great Divorce would immediately see the influence that Dante’s Divine Comedy had on Lewis. As he climbs Mount Purgatory, Dante finds each of the remedies to the deadly sins has a Marian solution. If he were to include the grumblers, then they would be purified by Our Lady’s habit of “keeping these things in her heart.” She never grumbled because she always pondered. May we too imitate her spirit.