instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, December 21, 2006

That immanent joy

Do you ever think that maybe we over-spiritualize the Beatitudes?
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousnes, for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you (falsely) because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.
And not without reason. Blessedness is the state of the saints in heaven, not of us wayfarers in this valley of tears. The beatitude Jesus was referring to is obviously not the casual happiness of the man who finds things copacetic today.

And yet, Jesus says, "Blessed are these people," not, "Blessed will these people be. It has been pointed out that the poor in spirit (and, by the same argument, they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness as well) have now the kingdom of heaven. Those insulted because of Christ are flat out told to rejoice and be glad, not, "You'll rejoice and be glad one day."

So let's allow that the Christian can be joyful and glad in his hardships, because he lives now in Christ, and Christ in him, and in the future he will become as He is. Is such supernatural joy and gladness convertible to natural happiness, to the spirit of cheer associated with next week's secular holiday?

In the past, when I've thought about such things, I've always been quick to downplay the connection between the spiritual and the physical. You can be both sad and joyful, I've repeated, and everyone agrees that no one is expected to be in a good mood every moment of every day -- all the more so the more we read about the effects of things like diet, sleep, and heredity on brain chemistry.

But, having read an essay on "Dominicans and Happiness" by Fr. Paul Murray, OP -- reprinted in his excellent book, The New Wine of Dominican Spirituality: A Drink Called Happiness -- I'm now thinking that I've been underestimating the effect our faith ought to have on our cheerfulness.

When St. Dominic is portrayed in the Nine Ways of Prayer asking
for himself and his brethren something of that transcendent joy which is found in living the beatitudes, praying that each would consider himself truly blessed in extreme poverty, in bitter mourning, in cruel persecutions, in a great hunger and thirst for justice, in anxious mercy towards all,
I suspect such transcendent joy can't help but be manifest in the countenance and mood of those who have found it. Perhaps it's less than I'd thought a matter of a person suffering cruel persecutions surprising me by turning out to be joyful, and more a matter of a joyful person surprising me by turning out to be suffering cruel persecutions.

In his Libellus, a history of the beginnings of the Order of Preachers, Bl. Jordan of Saxony (second Master of the Order) describes both St. Dominic's good humor and its source:
But more splendid than the miracles were his sublime character and burning zeal.... His mind always retained its usual calm, unless he was stirred by compassion and mercy; and, because a joyful heart begets a cheerful face, he manifested the peaceful harmony within his soul by his cordial manner and his pleasant countenance...

During the day, none was more affable, none more pleasant to his brethren or associates. At night none was more instant in prayer or watching. In the evening, tears found a place with him and, in the morning, gladness. The daytime he shared with his neighbor, but the night he dedicated to God, for he knew that, in the daytime, God has commanded His mercy, and a canticle to Him in the night.
The "unless he was stirred by compassion and mercy" answers the Pollyanna objection, but I particularly like the parallel Bl. Jordan draws between night/God/prayer/tears and day/neighbor/affability/gladness. His calm mind and cheerful face were buoyed up by a deep reservoir of prayer and vigil. Whatever sadness of his own he had, he brought before God at night, the better to join natural pleasantness to the supernatural Gospel joy he preached.

A cordial manner and a pleasant countenance sound like very minor things in a saint's catalog of virtues; in fact, these are quite likely to be dismissed as merely good secular manners, or even as masks for vices. Surely, though, the mercy God has commanded in the daytime extends to the whole of the persons we meet, and to be cordial and pleasant is to meet a natural desire that only we can meet (no one can be pleasant for you). While fasting might not make many of us more cordial and pleasant, we might ask ourselves whether a little more prayer might be in order.