Sunday Thoughts: The Treasure in the Field

Deconstructing fairy tales is like deconstructing a ming vase; it’s easy to do, but it says more about you than about the subject itself. When some wag sniffs at the ‘love at first sight’ trope, or writes smarmy novels about Cinderella realizing how shallow her love for Prince Charming really is, it only shows the narrowness of her own mind.

Remember, narratives are always inadequate to the reality. You are always going to miss something. The question, then, is what elements of the real thing are you going to portray and why, with the goal being to convey the true, complete nature of the thing as much as possible.

Love at first sight, leading to an unyielding desire to possess the object of ones affection, is not how things usually play out day-to-day in real life. It is, however, the true pattern of an ardent love; you recognize the other for the thing you desire and you put all on the line to win her and keep her. In the context of the real world, that recognition likely takes place over the course of a good deal of time and, since we’re flawed beings, may be imperfect. In any case, there will always be elements about her that could lead you to think that you may have made a mistake at some point. But the pattern holds good; success comes in finding what you want and committing wholly to it.

As you will notice, this pattern is itself a copy of the greater pattern that Christ speaks of in today’s Gospel readings: the man who found a treasure in a field, then went and sold all he owned to possess it, or the merchant of pearls seeking one of great price who, when he found it, sold everything he owned that he might have it.

The point both here and in the fairy tales is that the hero discovers something that is worth making the baseline of his life; the thing to which all else can give way because its value exceeds them all. It is the thing that gives context and meaning to all else, and thus takes precedence over all else. It is your purpose, your destiny. Lose that, it won’t matter what else you have. Achieve it, and you achieve all.

It used to be that this pattern was repeated on earth in a minor key. And it still is in less noticeable measures; the desire to serve a noble cause and a great leader is baked into the heart of man. In legend, a young knight would consider it the highest honor to be in service to King Arthur or Charlemagne, and would endure anything for that opportunity. More recently, hundreds of men signed up to serve with Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, and many were disappointed to be turned away. The chivalrous spirit has, as an essential part of it, unyielding loyalty to one’s master and cause: to the Faith the knight defends and the King who serves that faith. In practice, it wasn’t so much important that the king be a good king; it was the unyielding loyalty, the submission of the self that matters. David, one of the prototypes of the Christian Knight, continued to serve King Saul even while Saul was seeking to murder him.

The virtue of devotion must be practiced in an imperfect context – to King, to country, to wife – because that is the one we know and see and thus can’t fool ourselves over. If we say “I’ll be loyal to Christ because he is perfect, but not to my country because it’s imperfect,” then we probably won’t be loyal to Christ either if He ever asks us to do something difficult or something we don’t understand. Indeed, how often do we hear people today saying things like “I love Jesus, but I don’t think he cares about my sexual habits, or about usury, or about whether I go to Church.” Because we don’t have the habit of devotion, of serving the imperfect, we have instead the habit of ‘serving’ only as we see fit. Which, of course is not serving at all. A soldier who only follows orders that he himself judges to be correct and sensible is claiming the rank of a general; a knight who only obeys his king when he would have done the same thing is claiming the rights of a king. If we have no experience of actually serving, how will we know to serve God? “He who is loyal in small things will be loyal in great ones.”

Hence, the narrative pattern of giving all for the desired object; the princess, the treasure in the field, the pearl of great price. Hence the pattern of the noble knight who wants nothing more than to serve the good king. These are, in fact, the correct way to look at life, despite slurring over the details.

Christ, our Lord, our maker, our redeemer, is the foundational value; the base from which all other value proceeds. To be of the Kingdom of God — to be ‘in service’ to Christ — is the supreme glory of the human person and ought to be our greatest desire.

3 thoughts on “Sunday Thoughts: The Treasure in the Field

  1. At first sight, this seems like a nit-pick, but I’m not sure it is: David *didn’t* continue to serve Saul when Saul was trying to kill him. He continued to *honor* Saul, as having been anointed of the Lord, but he very definitely fled his service once the spears started flying – with, I might add, the full approval and encouragement of Saul’s own children. You may want to find a better instance. (Though, to be honest, I’m not sure how this whole section of the essay supports your central thesis anyway. First you’re talking about the service of the great and noble as an object of fundamental desire, and then suddenly you say that, actually, it’s just a matter of personal self-abasement, and the worthiness of the one served is completely irrelevant. It’s as though you started writing a completely different essay in mid-paragraph – and not only a different one, but one that actually contradicts the one you started out to write.)

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    • Rushed and unedited, I’m afraid; following ideas as they came to me. I don’t think that the ideas are contradictory, as the point is that loyalty to the very imperfect simply because they stand in a particular relationship with us prepares us for devotion to the truly great by mortifying our desire to stand in judgment over it (that is, to not serve but only accompany as long as we judge it worth our while), but that may have been better served with a separate or longer post.

      As for King David, I was considering his continued efforts to guard and support Israel and undermine its enemies as ‘service’ to Saul, as it was aiding his ostensible goals, but you’re probably right; I would have done better to go with El Cid, or Kent from ‘King Lear.’

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      • “All my ideas are consistent, but I cannot expound them all at once.” When you began this essay, I’ll bet you didn’t expect to be echoing Rousseau by the end of it, did you? Still, it’s a valid point, I suppose.

        I’m still not wholly convinced, though. Just because the vassal doesn’t have the authority to pronounce sentence on the liege, that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have the right, and even to some extent the duty, to decide for himself whether or not the liege is worthy of service, or how far the nation or the cause must be perverted before his oath no longer holds. It’s that old ambiguity in the word “judge” that so baffles the Left – and not the Left only, perhaps.

        This being the feast of St. Maximus Confessor, let’s take as an example the various bishops condemned by Constantinople III as “instruments suited to [Satan’s] purpose”: Sergius of Constantinople, Macarius of Antioch, Honorius of elder Rome, et cetera. These were perfectly legitimate bishops, and so in the abstract it would seem that the priests of Antioch, Constantinople, etc., were obliged by their vows to obey them, and that it wasn’t those priests’ responsibility if, as a result of that obedience, Satan “rais[ed]… obstacles of error against the full body of the Church”. And yet, really, how can it *not* be their responsibility? If you permit yourself to be a mere instrument of your superior, and your superior is an instrument of Satan… well, instrumentality is a transitive relation, isn’t it?

        (And it’s no good saying that they couldn’t be expected to know that Apollinarianism was false, because the Church hadn’t yet spoken infallibly on the matter. The bishops themselves could obviously have made the same plea – as, in fact, I gather that at least some of them did; if that made them “uninterested in true holiness”, as per Nicaea II, then presumably those who went along with them lay under the same condemnation.)

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