While reading Wendell Berry’s story collection, That Distant Land, I was struck by this description of a character named Martha Elizabeth Coulter:
She was a woman always near to smiling, sometimes to laughter. Her face, it seems, had been made to smile. It was a face that assented wholly to the being of whatever or whomever she looked at.
I don’t know whether Wendell Berry is a student of Thomas Aquinas, but that description of Martha Elizabeth as a person who “assented wholly to the being” of the people and things around her sounds like the kind of thing Aquinas would say.
That idea of assent is key to Aquinas’s understanding of love. And, as I will argue, it’s a major reason to write; in fact, assent may be the writer’s most important reason of all.
I’ll be paraphrasing and quoting from Josef Pieper, who was himself paraphrasing Aquinas. (The page numbers below refer to Faith, Hope, and Love, which collects three of Pieper’s long essays.)
We can mean a lot of different things when we use the word “love.” I love my wife and family. I love Jesus. I love watermelon. I love good books. I’m not misusing the word “love” in any of those sentences, but neither does the word mean quite the same thing in any of those sentences. What all of those usages share is the idea of approval. And, as Pieper writes,
This [approval] is first of all to be taken in the literal sense of the word’s root: loving someone or something is to find him or it probus, the Latin word for “good.” It is a way of turning to him or it and saying, “It’s good that you exist; it’s good that you’re in the world!” (p. 163-4).
Martha Elizabeth Coulter was always on the verge of smiling because she loved her world so much. She assented to its being. She would make a good writer, it seems to me. When you read a book like Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Song or Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, it is clear that those writers approve of the world around them. You get the strong sense that it is good that the world exists–that everything is worth our attention.
I should mention assenting to a fellow creature’s being is not the same thing as assenting to that creature’s behavior. Often, loving our neighbors means wanting more for them than they want for themselves. To write out of love does not mean to write or think uncritically. But love doesn’t leave room for us to say to (or about) another creature, “It would be better if you didn’t exist.” It doesn’t even leave room for us to say “You are beneath my attention.”
Pieper points out that assent or approval is an expression of the will. To love someone or something is to say, “I want you to exist.” I know we usually think of the will as that inner force that makes us go out and get something or accomplish something or make some change in the world, but consider what Aquinas has to say on the subject: “The will knows not only the act of striving for what it does not yet have but also the other act: of loving what it already possesses and rejoicing in that” (p.165).
If you’ve seen Hamilton, you’ll know that Alexander Hamilton had incredible force of will when it came to striving for what he didn’t yet have, but his downfall derived from the fact that he lacked the will to love and rejoice in the good things that were right in front of him.
Writing, like all creative work, starts with seeing–paying attention to what is in front of you and loving the world and your reader enough to give an account of what you have seen. And, as you already know, love is generative: it always gives birth to something new. (I can send my kids screaming from the room just by saying, “When a mommy and a daddy love each other very much…”)
Josef Pieper again: “The most extreme form of affirmation that can possibly be conceived of is creatio, making to be, in the strict sense of the word” (p.170). God created the world for the simple reason that he wanted to. And then he spoke those words of approval: “It is good. It is good. It is very good.”
Creative work–in any case, the creative work I want to do–starts with agreeing with that assessment. It is good that this world exists. It is good that each of God’s creatures exists. Sometimes we write to celebrate. Sometimes we write to lament or to reprove. But let us not lose sight of this most fundamental fact: This world exists because God thinks it is a good idea. To love the world and our fellow creatures is simply to say that God’s not wrong.