Art sometimes reflects our fears back to us in such a way that we willingly face and emotionally grapple with anxieties that otherwise remain subconscious. And yes, I just called Avengers: Infinity War art. It’s not the Mona Lisa, but it does pull us out of our mundane day-by-day and force us to grapple with deep (dare I say, “spiritual”?) questions of meaning, existence, relationships, etc. You may call me a philistine, but that’s art in my book.
In this movie, one such deep question arises when Thanos arrives on Vormir in search of the soul stone. As he approaches its shrine, he is informed by the phantom Red Skull of what it will take to obtain this prize:
Soul holds a special place among the infinity stones. You might say it has a certain wisdom. . . .
To ensure that whoever possesses it understands its power, the soul [stone] demands a sacrifice.
. . .
In order to take the stone, you must lose that which you love. A soul for a soul.
In the Avengers’ universe, the infinity stones (including the soul stone) represent the elemental order of reality; they are basically God without a personality, quasi-spiritual laws of physics that determine what is. The soul stone—which has great but indeterminate power to manipulate all the souls that be—has ordained that none shall possess it without gaining an appreciation of its power. The would-be possessor must lose his or her greatest love, watching that person fall to death, in order to be worthy of the soul stone. As you just read, this loss is called a sacrifice.
Here, in a scene of comic-inspired space fantasy, we are confronted by one of our deepest fears: the sacrifices that God (or “the Universe” or Reality) demands from us in order to achieve our goals. Great deeds demand great sacrifices. In this movie, Thanos must sacrifice his daughter Gamora in order to accomplish great evil; in the sequel (Endgame), Black Widow must sacrifice herself and Hawkeye must endure this sacrifice in order to accomplish great good. As we contemplate the demands of such great ambitions, this demand for sacrifice lurks in the back of our minds, leading most of us to drift in the doldrums between super heroics and super villainy, trying to keep our heads down and avoid the cost of greatness.
We’ll have an opportunity in an upcoming post to reflect on this fear of the costs of sacrifice, but suffice it to say here that our definition of sacrifice as loss and cost would have perplexed ancient people, including the people of the Bible—they had a very different understanding of sacrifice. In this post, I’d like to focus on another aspect of Red Skull’s instructions to the Soul-seekers: he says, to paraphrase, that wisdom requires one to embrace loss (or even to inflict loss on oneself) in order to gain understanding. We might call this “sacrifice as instructive self-harm”: one must afflict oneself in some way in order to learn the most important lessons, by willingly depriving oneself of some great love.
This line of thinking conjures up images of medieval monks afflicting their flesh, portrayed in various movies and parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail by the monks who smack their heads with boards as they chant. Although we might dismiss such self-flagellation as perverse or preposterous, a similar notion of instructive suffering lies at the root of many people’s understanding of fasting and asceticism in general. We see suffering as character-building and asceticism as a way to speed up this process.
Certainly, suffering can teach us wisdom and build character. Saint Paul says as much in Romans: “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (5:3, 4). Yet it is not the mere fact of suffering that accomplishes this growth—many people suffer without growing more wise. Therefore, merely afflicting ourselves will not lead to greater wisdom.
In Colossians, St. Paul rejects such a worldly, self-imposed asceticism:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why do you, as if [still] living in the world, submit to those regulations in accordance with the commandments and doctrines of men: do not handle, do not taste, and do not touch, which are based on [the idea of] corruption by consumption? These [regulations] are similar to wisdom in their intentional worship, self-abasement, and harsh treatment of the body but not in having any value against indulgence of the flesh. (2:20–23)
Such worldly asceticism is found in the fasting of Hindu gurus and the discipline of Stoic Philosophers, but it does them no good. Instead of demanding self-denial as a means of seeking wisdom, St. Paul urges us to focus on Christ and our glorious new life in Him:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things above, not on earthly things. For you have died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. When Christ (who is our life) appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed. (Col. 3:1–5)
He shows us here that Christians do not afflict themselves in order to learn from suffering. Rather, we are so focused on spiritual things that we have no interest in indulging in worldly things. Our fasting is not self-harm but self-forgetfulness—as when the psalmist says “I forgot to eat my bread” (Ps. 101:5 [102:4]). We forget our need to eat because we are consumed with higher pursuits.
Since this perspective runs contrary to our ingrained, self-indulgent habits, we have to reinforce it with the help of structured discipline, exercises in fasting that minimize our devotion to food and other worldly things. But fasting must go hand in hand with intentionally maximizing our devotion to God in prayer, service, and worship. In fact, these positive disciplines are the reason for the abstinence. The suffering we endure by fasting is incidental to our pursuit of higher things.
Likewise, when we fast, we offer God not our suffering but the incense of pure prayer and the uplifted hands of holy devotion (see Ps. 140:2 [141:2]); the loss of luxurious food, sleep, comfort, and the like is just the cost of this offering. When God receives such offerings from us, one way He reciprocates is by sending upon us the Spirit of Wisdom. Marvel’s magic rock demands self-inflicted suffering for the sake of wisdom, but true wisdom comes not through mere suffering but through self-denying devotion to God, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 110:10 [111:10]).