Sunday, March 28, 2010

True Simplicity -- the Lightness of Joy

I was just thinking about my last post on silence. I made a distinction between a kind of receptive speech where one is trying to understand reality better and a kind of silly speech which seems like static. I also mentioned "merriment" which is natural to children and which some people might mistake for the proverbial foolishness but which I don't think is the same. I wanted to talk about that some more because I think it is another clue to simplicity.

GK Chesterton was called the "chorister of Christian joy" here at Zenit and he says some very perceptive things about a particular quality of joy in the Christian life. I quoted him the other day about simplicity -- here is the passage that follows that one.

The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things.
He also says this, which reminds me of what Von Hildebrand says about the height and depth of living things as opposed to inorganic matter:
"A bird is active, because a bird is soft. A stone is helpless, because a stone is hard. A stone must by its own nature go downwards, because hardness is weakness. The bird can of its nature go upwards, because fragility is force. In perfect force there is a kind of frivolity, an airiness that can maintain itself in the air.... Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.

This his always been the instinct of Christendom.... Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One "settles down" into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. A man "falls" into a brown study; he reaches up at a blue sky. Seriousness is not a virtue.... It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one's self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch, For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity."

and here

Joy, which was the small publicity of the Pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.
I think I understand this somewhat better after reading Father Dubay's book and then St Teresa of Avila's book Way of Perfection and St John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. You would think these are solemn books but I was seeing in them a secret behind the words, a secret of freedom from slavery to lesser things, of freedom from anything but the grand, noble and beyond-all-things beautiful procession of the One whom St Teresa called His Majesty.

There is a hidden, secret kind of lightness of being that I don't claim to have myself but that I have seen in the lives and words of the saints and the holiest of people. It is the lightness of no longer having to be concerned about anything but the Unum Necessarium. It restores to one some of the child's nature of simplicity that we lose as we get older and take on the cares of the world. Those cares and concerns of the world -- they are still there and you do your best to confront them because that's what God has called you to, but they Don't Matter. Even the good things -- you don't feel their pull so much. They are nice and good and all, but you are already full. He has done you the favor of calling you... He has stooped infinitely out of love for your poor self. To return to normal things would be like the Prodigal Son going back to his pigsty, or the beggar maid going back to pauperdom after being raised to be the queen. You have the bread of life and the living water, and other things are like husks in comparison.

It is the joy that comes to those in love. You might be huddled out in a rainstorm but you are happy because you are next to the one you love. The joy might well bubble over in mirth, which is almost incomprehensible to those who aren't in love. You might be making jokes that were utter nonsense to a spectator who was sitting there miserably waiting out the storm. Melissa once wrote memorably in Sometimes Lilting, Sometimes Tilting about the moments of joy that can bubble up into laughter even at the most wrenching times. I remember that post well because it put into words exactly what my husband and I experienced when our Aidan was in the hospital going through horrible ups and downs. Certainly we were stressed, but there were moments of unexpected joy that we were where we needed to be and sometimes it spilled over into joking which might have seemed utterly weird to those around us. Aidan was too young to participate then, but he must have caught a bit of that joy and mirth, or else he was the one who helped bring it to us, because he has a gift for laughter and joy even in stressful situations.

St Lawrence was the saint martyred by slow roasting who said to his torturers that they could turn him over now because this side was well enough done. This is either utterly crazy, grandly (and futilely) stoical, or the unearthly giddy joy one feels when one is finally going to be fully united with one's Beloved. Of course, it was the latter, because the former two couldn't stand up to that level of terminal torture. But in the third alternative, pain is only temporary but the joy is eternal, and already descending with bright wings to enfold and lift.

St Philip of Neri
was not martyred -- he lived till 80, but he was known as the apostle of joy.

Philip lived in an atmosphere of sunshine and gladness which brightened all who came near him. " When I met him in the street," says one, "he would pat my cheek and say, ' Well, how is Don Pellegrino ?' and leave me so full of joy that I could not tell which way I was going." Others said that when he playfully pulled their hair or their ears, their hearts would bound with joy. Marcio Altieri felt such overflowing gladness in his presence that he said Philip's room was a paradise on earth. Fabrizio de Massimi would go in sadness or perplexity and stand at Philip's door; he said it was enough to see him, to be near him. And long after his death, it was enough for many, when troubled, to go into his room, to find their hearts lightened and gladdened. He inspired a boundless confidence and love, and was the common refuge and consoler of all. A gentle jest would convey his rebukes and veil his miracles.
Maybe in light of these witnesses, Chesterton was not so far off when he said:

There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth, and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
So this is to say that when I'm talking about silence and serious speech I don't want to leave the impression that all mirth is foolish and all solemnity is good. I don't think St Benedict meant it that way either. I think the key mark of Christian hilarity is that it takes the worldly things lightly, which seems shocking to those who are serious about essentially trivial things like mortgages. The lightness of the saints is not irresponsibility -- because to be shiftless about one's responsibility means usually that you are too serious about being lazy and comfortable to be responsible. The holy ones will work diligently and take every detail conscientiously (remember that the etymology of diligence is "delight") but their delight will be in their Lord, not in whatever earthly satisfaction comes from doing this or that worldly thing. Their work will seem light in their hands. Like I say, I don't live this but I glimpse it sometimes in the testimony of those who have gone before me.