Letter to My Grandfather

Corato, Puglia, Italy | Puglia, Southern italy, Basilicata

Here is a letter I wrote to my grandfather many years ago (with some slight modifications) when he was very ill. He was baptized two days after reading it:


As you know perhaps better than anyone, most people never get a dinner. Moses, who as he was leaving Mount Sinai said, “The food in that hospital is terrible”—never got a dinner. Amelia Earhart, who said, “Stop looking for me; see if you can find my luggage!”—never got a dinner. Steven Spielberg’s mother, who said to E.T., “I don’t care where you’re from, you’re here and you’re getting bar mitzvahed!”—never got a dinner. Queen Elizabeth, who said, “Not now, I’m on the throne”—never got a dinner.

And yet here you are, the recipient in all likelihood of far too many dinners, a man who is loved by his friends and family. You have been loved by your parents, your friends, your wife, your children, and now, however imperfectly, by me your grandson. This letter is born of that love for you, in full recognition that a grandson (like a son) lives always under a debt to his grandparents which he cannot repay. You have provided for me and my family financially; you have instilled in me a love for cats, languages, Italy, one-liners, and the Mets; and you have loved me both as a grandfather and as a friend. It will forever be impossible for me to make all of that up to you; but I write this letter to you as a grandson and as a friend out of my appreciation for you, respect for you, and sincere desire for the best for you.

This letter is a plea: a plea for you to repent, to fall upon your knees and turn yourself in to God. “Fallen man,” Lewis says, “is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms.” This letter is a plea from one recovering rebel to another to lay down his arms. I beg you to open your mind and your heart to these words, to “lend me your ears” so that you may perhaps lend God your soul. I do not write as one superior to you or to anyone else—only as a blind man whose eyes have been opened attempting to lead his fellow to the light.

I believe in God; I cannot help it. I believe in God because I believe in the Tuscan countryside, “Clair de lune,” and a thousand other terribly lovely things whose loveliness I cannot believe is merely accidental. It is perhaps conceivable that the universe just so happens to exist on its own; that it just so happens to be such that life exists within it; that life just so happens to have evolved such that minds emerged from matter; and that minds just so happen to have evolved not only a sense of the good, the beautiful, and the awesome but also the ability to create good, beautiful, and awesome things. But I find each link in that chain to be quite weak and rather silly, and thus I believe instead that “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the earth.”

I believe in Jesus; I cannot help it. I believe that the story of Jesus is the greatest and most iconoclastic story ever told—that it is quite literally too good to be false. It is perhaps conceivable that a small band of Jews (sons of the most fiercely monotheistic nation in the history of the world) just so happened to invent a man who claimed to be God, and that this new brand of utterly blasphemous Judaism just so happened to sweep through and overtake the whole Roman Empire. It is perhaps conceivable that the man whom they invented just so happened to become the most present and overpowering figure in literature, art, philosophy, and history for two thousand years, and that his alleged resurrection just so happens to be the only supernatural event seriously discussed by historians today. But I find these propositions incredible. Either there lies at the heart of the Christian faith a lie—some grubby-handed and vile scheme for wealth, power, or fame—or the Truth, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and the whole Good and nothing but the Good. I have my doubts, and I have my questions, but I can no more believe that the root of the Christian faith is wicked than I can believe that the root of my mother’s love for me is wicked. I conclude, therefore, that the root of the Christian faith is the unending creativity and love of our Father in Heaven.

I believe in God; I believe in Jesus; I believe in the Holy Spirit; and I believe in Joy. There is no religion so joyful as Christianity, no religion so brimming with laughter and hope in the face even of death. “Death be not proud, though some have called thee / Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,” writes Donne—not with the affected indifference of the Epicureans who say, Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (“I was not, I was, I am not, I do not care”), but with the triumphant joy of a man who cares deeply about his fate and simply has nothing to fear. A husband and wife can perhaps learn to be content with childlessness; but they would be fools to compare their acquiescence with the exulting joy of the couple whose first child has just been born. And that newborn joy is very much like the joy which runs over from the cup God bids us drink. It is a joy which we can only taste in this life, sinners that we remain; but it can indeed be tasted, and I intend one day to swim in it and be engulfed by it. For it is a laughing, dancing, and perpetual joy, like a smooth and clear and ever-flowing stream—not at all the addicting but dissipative delight that comes from being praised, respected, feared, or desired, but the translucent joy that comes from praising, respecting, fearing, and desiring God.

Therein, in the pure love of God, lies the great secret and beauty and joy of Christianity, but also the great stumbling block: for a man can love God only insomuch as he foregoes the love of himself, his self-love. A man who derives some pleasure from chasing skirts and even more pleasure from loving his wife cannot thence conclude that he can combine the two pleasures by combining the two pursuits; the combination will ultimately give him less joy than either pursuit on its own. In the same way, a man may derive some pleasure from loving himself, from setting himself up as his own god; but this pleasure will never be anything more than a ghastly shadow of the pleasure he would derive from God—from Joy Himself. And the two pleasures cannot be combined; they are oil and water to each other.

Therefore Christ teaches that a man must lose his life to save it; that the path to joy is self-sacrifice; and that (as I have said before) the path to victory lies in laying down one’s arms. The point of Christian morality is not to be a decent person, for the very good reason that decency is entirely compatible with self-worship. The point of Christian morality, rather, is to crucify one’s love for self in order that one’s overbrimmingly joyful love for God may be resurrected.

There are a great many decent men in this world who do mostly good things but are motivated chiefly by self-love. They are hard workers, exemplary citizens, and family men; and they care very much that their hard work, citizenship, and family life be acknowledged and praised. They tend to believe that they are self-made men; as a result, they tend to look down on others whose standing does not compare so favorably with theirs. If their lips are not condescending, their hearts certainly are. They think constantly about what they have achieved and what they are owed and not nearly enough about their absolute dependence upon God and infinite debt to Him. They are, in a way, just as tempted by good as other men are by evil; for they worship at the altar of Self-reliance (that most American of idols) or Self-worth or Respectability or Principles or Country or Family Honor rather than of Sex or Drugs or Theft. Society regards the decent men’s idols as benign; they are, after all, the idols which our society has enshrined. But God regards them all as malignant and spiritually deadly—for they all lead men, especially “self-made” or “decent” men, to seek joy in something apart from Him. Your temptations and mine are the temptations of the decent men; but they are no less temptations. My idol will never be Drugs, but it may very well be Intellectual Pursuits, or Academic Accolades, or the Right Politics, or what-have-you. Without God’s help, I shall worship Intellectual Pursuits and pay my taxes and give charitably and yet look down upon other men and ignore God altogether—a decent man outwardly and yet inwardly a son of Hell. Such is my idolatry; and yours is very much the same. If it is respectable idolatry, it does not therefore cease to be idolatry. It remains idolatry; it remains a cancer; and if it is not dealt with, it will kill you.

Cancer must be obliterated before the body can heal. And our spiritual cancer is not Democrats, Republicans, the poor, the rich, blacks, whites, men, women, the Man, or society, but ourselves. Solzhenitsyn, survivor of the Soviet gulags, writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” There are not yet any truly good or truly evil people; good and evil exist within each of us, and all any of us can ever do is choose to biopsy the evil within himself. We are the problem. The story goes that The Times of London asked several British luminaries to send in responses to the question “What’s wrong with the world?”; Chesterton’s reply was “I am.” This recognition that the problem lies within is the beginning of repentance, the beginning of Christian discipleship, and consequently the beginning of all new life.

Grandpa, I am the problem. My love for myself—my desire to be praised and admired for my intelligence and wit, or even for my humility and kindness; my desire to be better than others: smarter, more talented, handsomer, more important, even (strange as it may sound) godlier; my desire to live comfortably even as others undergo horrible suffering—all these desires conspire to overthrow me and to turn me away from the living water, Him Whom I was made to desire, God Himself. I am hardly the model of Christian virtue, but I acknowledge before God that my life’s work is and will and ought to be to destroy the darkness of self-love within me so that the pure light of God may shine throughout my whole being. For only two options present themselves to me: to destroy the darkness within or to be destroyed by it.

Grandpa: You are the problem. You, no more and no less than any of us, are the problem. I do not speak flippantly or disrespectfully; I have chosen my words carefully, and I mean what I say. I believe wholeheartedly that my problem is me; and I believe wholeheartedly that your problem is you. A joke here and there lightens the mood; a joke after almost every sermon or prayer makes a mockery of God. Will you consider a sermon not as a religious formality nor even as an act of public speaking to be scrutinized but as a feeble attempt to draw your attention to the evil in your heart? An autobiography is a fine thing and a blessing to your grandchildren; but it is a damning sin to care more about one’s autobiography than about one’s Biographer. Will you abandon your stories and love instead His neverending story, whose beauty far exceeds any creation of yours or mine? (For all of our accomplishments and accolades are dust in the wind and will invariably be forgotten; the comfort we take in them is nothing next to the eternal comfort of Heaven.) You are respected and honored by your fellow men; will you ignore their attention and seek instead the face of God, before Whom you and I are mere unruly children? For there are many poor and ignorant and seemingly insignificant men who are closer to the Kingdom of God than you. Yes, I know your good deeds, and so does God. Will you leave them aside and call to mind instead your stubborn rejection of Him over so many years? For there is only one ethics committee that matters; and God is its chairman. Will you fight to set your heart on things above and not on your Mets, your food, your writing, your career, or even your health? Or even your family? I fight everyday to set my heart on God and not on my respectability, my wealth, my social prospects, my romantic desires, or anything else. Will you join me in this struggle against the whims of the flesh and toward infinite Joy?

God has brought your body to its knees, as He will to us all. Will you bring your soul to its knees before Him? We must learn to crawl to God if we are ever to walk in the garden with Him. Confess your sins; soften your heart; acknowledge your depravity and indebtedness to God; believe; repent; be baptized; seek first His Kingdom. The road is at first unbearably difficult, but it becomes unbearably delightful. Lusts must at some point be set aside if love is to be awakened. Do not merely tame, crucify your self-love and come into the light!

Your time, like all of ours, is short. I do not pretend to know much of anything about the age to come—only that true joy apart from God is in the end impossible. There is no true joy apart from God; God simply is True Joy. Anything else placed ahead of him—education, politics, status, family, one’s own charitable deeds and generosity—is an idol and a tool of the devil. That is no cause for mourning, but for rejoicing; for the idols do not hold a candle to the Real Thing. I plead with you to join me on the path to reality, the path to joy, the path to God. The first step along the path is the most daunting; every step after that becomes more natural, until at last you could not have imagined journeying any other way. Leave behind any thought of your own goodness or rights or superiority; they are only an encumbrance, an obstacle between you and the God of joy. Think only of God and of His Son, and everything else will fall into place.

I cannot know how these words will affect you. If they sting, remember that so does alcohol applied to fresh wounds. I implore you to disregard whatever literary merit you may see in my words and consider only the message they convey: God has created you for infinite bliss, and you have rebelled against him. He has sent His Son to save us from our sins; all He asks is that we give up ourselves—lay down our arms. You have heard the good news. Believe; confess; repent; be baptized. I beg you, lay down your arms. You will get, not just a dinner, but an eternal feast.


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