“Let us now praise famous men” (Ecclesiasticus, 44)
At a party game with Susan’s cousins over Christmas, I was asked what I would want to be famous for. The occasion called for short amusing answers, not serious ones. So I did not say what I really thought. This is what I wanted to say.
I would want to be famous for making gingerbread houses, like Aunt Marion. She bakes over 100 gingerbread houses each Christmas season and gives them to her grandchildren and to ours, and to who knows who else. It takes Aunt Marion many weeks to bake so many gingerbread houses. Decorating them is one of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions—all made possible by dear Aunt Marion.
This kind of service typifies her whole life. She ministers and serves, all without seeking or wanting recognition and fame.
Aunt Marion remembers every person’s name in the extended family and a lot about them. Though she herself is now a widow of 91, she invites other widows and shut-ins over to lunch every week. She visits sick and lonely neighbors. She shares her garden produce. As long as I have known her, she was always taking casseroles or cookies to someone.
In eternity, these deeds will her memorial be, to paraphrase “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” They are recorded in Heaven and will enroll her in the ranks of the noble and great ones more than deeds of conquest and discovery that make people famous here in mortality.
So what is true fame? It is being honored by God and Heaven. This is the hard-won lesson that Milton learned in his lifetime. It is what C. S. Lewis said about fame in The Great Divorce, which recounts his imaginary bus ride to Heaven. There, Lewis encounters a woman of extraordinary glory being honored and adored by the Heavenly hosts. He thinks she must be “one of the great ones.” “She is,” he is told, but she is “someone ye’ll never have heard of.” Her name is Sarah Smith of Golders Green. On Earth, she lived an unknown life in a nondescript suburb of London. But Sarah Smith was a kind person, a good neighbor, and everyone who came under her influence was better for it. Now in Heaven she is a person of breath-taking glory, beauty, and splendor.
You see, explains Lewis’s guide, “fame in this country [Heaven] and fame on Earth are two quite different things. . . . Haven’t ye read your Milton?”
I did not know how to say all this to the party guests without sounding like a stuffed shirt. So let me say here for the record: What would I want to be famous for? I would want to be famous for gingerbread houses—or, to put it more broadly, for being good in God’s eyes rather than for being great in the world’s eyes. For in God’s eyes, goodness is true greatness.
The desire for worldly fame—a desire that has spurred great accomplishment and animated ages like the Renaissance—is spiritually perilous. I believe that it is something we need to resist. For it springs from what the scripture calls “vain ambition” (D&C 121:37).
Milton described fame as “That last infirmity of noble mind” (Lycidas). He struggled to master this infirmity his whole life—Renaissance ambition jostling with Christian humility. He had to learn the painful lesson that God does not need our works. He needs our willingness. He wants us to be ready to serve, even if we “only stand and wait” (Sonnet 19)—perhaps unseen and unknown to posterity, but known and loved by God.
In eternity, true fame may be bestowed on more gingerbread house makers than on Nobel Laureates. For true fame is when God pronounces on one’s life, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” In the end, the approbation of Heaven is all that matters. But it matters all.