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The Single Smartest Thing Anyone Ever Said to Me

The Single Smartest Thing Anyone Ever Said to Me

Editor’s note: Andrew Klavan wrote this beautiful book The Truth and Beauty about, as he says, “literature, mostly poetry, mostly by the English Romantic poets, mostly William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and John Keats, with one chapter on the novel Frankenstein by their contemporary Mary Shelley. So it would not surprise me if you found yourself thinking, Where’s the Jesus here? Why am I reading this? What has this got to do with the Gospels? I understand that discussing these writers might seem like a peculiar path to understanding Christ. It might actually be a peculiar path to understanding Christ. And yet, again and again, as I reread the Gospels, it was their voices that spoke to me, their poetry that broke through the quirks and limitations of mere reason, and let me feel the savior as a presence, a man whom I might truly come to know… I believe the life, times, thoughts, and writings of these Romantics provide a fresh and illuminating way to look at Jesus — a way to see Him that I think will be inspiring not only to an admittedly offbeat individual like myself but to any believer or might-be believer who sometimes finds the religious whispers of his soul drowned out by the devices and desires of the present age.”

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“I don’t understand the Sermon on the Mount,” I said.

It was just past midnight, New Year’s Eve. I was sitting on a balcony with my son Spencer. We were eighteen floors up, as I remember. We were nursing whiskeys. Before us and below us stretched the lowlands of Miami, a city I have never loved. It’s all abandoned canyons of white stone, vast boulevards empty of pedestrians as in a plague. The alien palms look like pinioned spiders. The spiders are the size of alien palms. Sudden iguanas, giant lizards with their giant lizard eyes, stare at you from unexpected urban niches. People find alligators on their lawns and in their swimming pools. I don’t like alligators.

One morning, I saw a corpse floating in the bay. As I stood in a crowd of onlookers, watching the policemen pull the dead man into their boat, the lady standing next to me said, “Yes. That happened to me a few weeks ago. I was swimming at the beach and one floated by.” Bodies in the water are just a thing that happens here, in other words. In other words, the whole town stinks of crime and casual corruption.

Gaudy emptiness, monsters, and misconduct: it’s a city modeled on the human heart, a microcosm of the bright and shiny world.

On top of which, the good news of winter never seems to reach the place. Here it was January, the first minutes of morning, and it was only now that the muggy heat of the long day had lifted. We sat on the balcony, my son and I, and watched the year ending. Fireworks bloomed across the darkling plain of the city, first here, then there, then near, then in the distance. I felt the pleasant melancholy of far-off celebrations.

My wife, my son, and I had come here for the holidays. We were visiting my daughter Faith, her husband, and their new-made son. During daylight hours, we would dawdle in the young family’s apartment or go out to visit some tourist site or other when we could tolerate the heat. After the baby’s bedtime, we visitors would retire to our rented high-rise apartment to let the parents rest. Finally, after my wife went to bed, Spencer and I would pour ourselves drinks, sit out on the balcony, and discuss religion, philosophy, and literature, the things we loved.

“I understand the words of the Sermon, obviously,” I went on. “But I can never see the sense of it clearly. And even when I do, I’m not sure I believe in any of it or agree with it. The Beatitudes read to me like: ‘Blessed are you when your life is awful, because in Heaven, trust me, it’s gonna be great.’ I feel life is more essential than that. It’s not a trivial throwaway. It’s not a sentence you suffer in the flesh until you get to the good part when you’re dead. Or what about, ‘Don’t resist an evil person?’ Or, ‘Love your enemy’? Or, ‘Turn the other cheek’? I mean, we’re so used to believing these are high moral commandments. They’re the foundation stones of Western civilization, in a way. But would you actually do any of them in real life? Should you do them? Turn the other cheek? If an evil person attacked you, would I stand by with some prissy smile on my face, loving him and not resisting him? Congratulating myself on my piety? I’d rip his head off. I’d do my best to. If he attacked Mom, I’d kill him, then bring him back to life and kill him again just for the pleasure of it. And that would be the right thing to do, wouldn’t it? Not stand there like some simpering parson. Does pretending to believe something is good when you can’t live by it realistically — does that even mean anything? ‘If you lust after someone, you’ve already committed adultery.’ Well, no, you actually haven’t. All right, I can come up with a way to think about that so that it has some truth to it. But it’s not really true — not true like truth is true. So what’s the point of it all?”

My son was studying for his doctorate in Classics at Oxford then. He knew more about almost everything than I did — except life, I guess, my being over sixty. He was a true scholar, like his mother’s father before him, while I... I may fairly say that I had read just about everything there was to read in the world, everything worth reading anyway. I was a dogged completist in such matters. But I could never remember a word of anything I read. Images, descriptions of events, ideas — they all just seemed to pour themselves into some hobo bisque bubbling away in my brainpan until the steam of it rose behind my eyes as a visionary atmosphere, a general way of understanding things and seeing them. I was a novelist, in other words, an artist, a barefoot teller of tales, as I liked to say. When I looked out on the exterior landscape, I saw mostly what I imagined to be there. Like a blind man then, I found reality by the touch of it. I felt my way.

  • By this method, about a dozen years before, at nearly fifty, I had become a Christian. It was a bold decision, in one sense, a stroke against the unbelieving tenor of the times.

But it was tentative too. I told myself I could always revert to being a secular Jew if Christ turned me superstitious or small minded or otherwise screwy. In the event, however, to my wonder and delight, it was all the other way around. Baptized, I had acquired a new realism. My deepened relationship with God augmented my talent for living. I would never call myself an easy creature, even now. I have always been an oversized and thumpy character who made the knickknacks rattle when I walked around. But accepting Christ had transformed me into a weirdly peaceful monster, joyful in every little thing. Not happy in everything — that would have just made me a loon. But alive to the life of the moment, and twice alive to the people and the things I loved: my family and my friends, my work and a good whiskey, a good book and the loveliness of enchanted venues, almost everywhere, in fact, that was not literally Miami.

Also, I had noticed this: each time I reached a deeper understanding of some passage in the gospel, each time I learned to adapt my mind just a little more to the mind of Christ, it was like swallowing a spoonful of crazy happy sauce. It made my joy increase, and I don’t mean in the moment only but ever after, all the time.

So to founder on the Sermon on the Mount was a real frustration to me. It was like I had a great big jar of crazy happy sauce right in front of me and couldn’t get the lid off. I wasn’t going to explain away what made no sense to me — I hate that. I wouldn’t quote back to myself some tidy piety from some book or sermon — I hate that too. And you know what else I hate? Windy nothingness: grandiose oratory that purports to elucidate gospel wisdom and then blows on out of your mind, leaving life just the same as always.

No. I believed in the Gospels now. I truly did. But I wanted to know what I believed, what exactly. If Jesus was the Word made flesh, let Him speak to me. If He was God made man, let Him speak to me man to man.

I said to my son, “The thing is, I have this intense feeling that it all does actually make sense somehow. It’s like a beautiful picture, but it’s blurry to me. I feel if I could just turn the lens a little bit this way or that, it would all come suddenly into focus. But I can’t seem to do it.”

Whereupon Spencer sipped his whiskey, watched the panorama of fireworks below, thought about it for a while, and said,

  • “Maybe the problem is that you are trying to understand a philosophy instead of trying to get to know a Man.”

I recognized this on the instant as the single smartest thing anyone had ever said to me.

Excerpted with permission from The Truth and Beauty by Andrew Klavan, copyright Amalgamated Metaphor, Inc.

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Your Turn

How much of our reading Scripture is missing Jesus Himself? How often do we try to unscrew the inscrutable instead of just know the voice of Jesus and lean into Him as a Friend? Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

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