Joy is found even in a life filled with sorrow
I have been vexed by that question anew since reading recently a translation of the brilliant Russian novel Laurus. Here are the lines that have haunted me for weeks: “When she sees how Arseny prays at night, the new abbess says: During the dayes, God’s servant … laughs at the worlde, at nyghte he mourns the same worlde.”
How is that possible? How does one reconcile such laughter and mourning in a devout soul? It may be easy enough to understand a Christian who mourns. One does not have to look hard to find suffering in the world. Every human who has reached the age of reason can testify to the presence of sickness, injustice, sin and death — both around him and within him. A mature Christian can weep with shame at his own sins of carelessness and of malice; the same Christian can note with horror how the generations have been slovenly stewards of God’s graces and gifts. A truly devout soul can suffer pangs of compassion as she contemplates the pierced heart of our wounded Lord.
Yet St. Thomas Aquinas insisted on joy to be found even in the presence of sorrow, as long as the soul kept before itself the truth of God and the happiness of heaven. Perhaps the mature Christian can laugh because God loves so fiercely, tenderly and stubbornly such absurd creatures as ourselves — absurd because we aspire to such heights and fall to such folly. Consider these lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals — and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me —
nor woman neither …
We are to be laughed at because we human hybrids — we who are a curious mixture of mortal flesh and immortal soul — can take ourselves so seriously. We have lofty pretensions even though we eat, sleep, defecate and copulate like any other mammal. We are to be wept over because we inflict so much avoidable suffering upon ourselves and others while grasping at the passing fancies of this world as we avert our eyes from the summons of heaven. Round and round the contemplative goes — marveling at man’s grandeur, mourning over his failure. Where does it end?
When I was a young student I was taught that dramas were classified as comedies or tragedies depending upon whether the story had a happy ending. Stories that ended well were comedies, regardless of what happened prior to the ending; tragedies were stories that ended badly, regardless of the love or laughter along the way. On this view, if Shakespeare had amended his Romeo and Juliet by just a few paragraphs, that play could have been counted as a comedy. So we have to ask ourselves, is the human story a comedy or a tragedy? Is human laughter a mere distraction from final human disaster? Is weeping but a bump in the road on the way to an inevitable happy ending?
I don’t think such questions lend themselves to such easy, either-or answers. The French poet Charles Peguy wrote, “Life holds only one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.”
I say this: Let good Christians weep, as God weeps — mourning over his wayward children who refuse to become saints. Let good Christians laugh, as the saints laugh — marveling at God’s choice to make us humans the crown of creation, with bodies and souls made for the happiness of heaven. In darkness and solitude, let’s mournfully intercede for a world made for redemption and choosing perdition. In light and community, let’s joyfully worship God who made such unlikely creatures for his perfect love.
When I write next, I will reflect on the gift of families watching their little ones receiving First Holy Communion. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.
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