Anna Karenina watches her husband’s hands, thinking how ugly they are. Anna, glorious and refined, thinks how annoying it is to look at those hands. To touch their clammy skin or watch them fumble doorknobs. And, what’s more, to hear that man make chewing noises when he eats, or glimpse a gob of food while his lips part at the dinner table. His details disgust her. Deep down, she feels revulsion. He’s annoying. Repellant.
She thinks it. She believes it. She owns it.
C.S. Lewis stands in a church, singing their hymns. Lewis, brilliant and poetic, thinks how these hymns sound like an eight-year old composed them. They grate on his knowledge of music and the beauty of words. The songs are one-dimensional, cloying, saccharine. Where’s his Dante? His Spenser? And, what’s more, the singers around him can’t carry a tune. He’s a little repulsed. These hymns are annoying.
He thinks it. He ponders it. He looks to Christ.
In the next pew forward, Lewis sees a plain, older man in dirty boots. Those dirty boots stand not on the wooden church floor, but in the presence of God. The man sings love and grace and truth, despite the details of imperfect words and dirty boots. Eyes opened, Lewis breaks down in humility in the presence of God.
In front of Lewis stands an etching of God. Lewis knows how to see God standing in dirty boots, an image of infinite worth, the personification of Christ. This plain, older man flares out with eternity, singing through imperfect hymns to the perfect God. Looking through grace that smooths away the details, Lewis sees himself as unworthy to kiss the dirty boots of the man who stands with both feet planted in heaven, seeing and showing God.
There are two ways of seeing people: with our eyes on ourselves or our eyes on Christ. If our vision stems from hunger to know Christ more fully, we will eagerly plod through any annoying burps and off-key singing to catch a glimpse of the eternal image of God deeply rooted in the person in front of us. Eyes fixed on Christ won’t stop examining when they reach those gate-keepers: the miss-matched clothing, the superfluous “ya know?” punctuating every sentence, the annoyances and details that appear so massive when our eyes are fixed on ourselves. What small hindrances compared to the reward of seeing Christ!
Humanity double-ends the spectrum: we are the closest image of God creation offers, which can make humanity’s creaks and absurdities appear scandalously wrong. But, eyes attached to a heart hungry for Christ barrel past these absurdities, eagerly shouting, “This person reveals knowledge and love of God that I can only comprehend by knowing her better, him better! Here is a person Christ loves so infinitely, he died specifically for him, for her! What is this human being that stands before me, and how can I not tremble when faced with the intense evidence of God’s love manifested in this creature?”
Poor eyes that get stopped at the senses! They’ve lost sight of their king, these in-turned eyes that stop at annoyances like clunky hands and frail words. The danger isn’t in the initial feeling of annoyance, but in the indulgence of that feeling. Anna Karenina indulged in that feeling of superiority that comes from classifying someone into an inferior category. Who hasn’t felt that little thrill of pride when we slip someone tidying under the file heading “unworthy” or “lesser?” Yes, those hands were not worthy of Anna Karenina’s refinement; but, her heart was unworthy of the image of Christ that animated those hands.
So easily, we and Anna get lured into saying to ourselves, “That person can’t see it, but he is clumsy, gullible, has poor social skills, lacks basic table manners, is tactless, doesn’t know how to use turn signals, dresses without color coordination.” This kind of smug judgment feels fantastic – we can even guard ourselves from the reprimand of feeling moral superiority, because it isn’t a moral issue! We believe we have recognized something true about the world and – lo and behold! – that truth indicates that we are better than someone else. That sweet taste of indulging our annoyances feels like candy given to a toddler who is marking up museum masterpieces with a crayola.
Rather than indulge, Lewis fights the temptation to be annoyed. Where his ears are weak to hearing Christ, his heart is ready. When the feeling of annoyance rises, he looks to the off-key singer, and his heart brushes past the notes. Like Anna, he discerns unworthiness, clumsiness, impropriety. The difference being that he saw them all in himself.
Eyes searching for Christ will find him. We balance this vision in the simultaneous knowledge of the imperfection of human beings and the image of the perfect Christ. The annoyances don’t disappear, they are simply overshadowed, becoming insignificant in the face of significance. We grow hungry for righteousness in the face of perfection, instead of glutting ourselves on smug superiority in the face of imperfection.
The quick adrenaline rush of letting ourselves feel superior must be recognized and resisted. We can’t deny the feeling, but we must see through it, looking beyond the imperfection for the deeper truth. Lewis doesn’t amend his judgment by pulling back on it, digging his heels into “I will love this music;” he amends it by falling to his knees in humility, longing for the longing he’s missing, and saying, “I will love Christ.”