Monday, March 19, 2012

Ergo, Laetare

There are days when, all the urgings of propriety to the contrary notwithstanding, euphoria takes over. I have always been rather shamed by the admonition (repeated by numerous saints and spiritual directors, beginning, one suspects, with that persnickety Bishop Augustine) that the soul ought to be mortified during Lent. The soul, they say—not just the body. But what does a body (colloq.) do when fasting (or at any rate, giving up X) operates to make one happier? I suppose next year I could try giving up something the absence of which leaves me cranky. But then, they tell us not to do penances that "irritate," on the theory that penance ought to be penitential for us, and not for our neighbors.

It's not just the fault of the penances, either; there are other things about Lent that conspire to make the experience of it un-Lenten. If Lent fell in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, that would be penitential; the fact that it falls for most of us during planting time and for some of us near harvest means that there is something celebratory to the season. It seems appropriate that the time of the natural resurrection should be the time of the supernatural; that the "grain of wheat which falls to the ground and dies" should be remembered during the spring. It was the propriety of this analogy that once led farmers to make Good Friday the time for sowing their seed.

That may shock our sensibilities now—what, work on Good Friday? It is not a Holy Day of Obligation—it is in fact the only day of the year on which no Mass may be said—but work on it?

One reason we feel it inappropriate to work that day is because we feel, quite rightly, that it is a day when our minds ought to be turned heavenwards. There is another reason, however, and a less happy one: namely, that we are not in the habit of considering our work as heavenly. If it is not, it could be; if it cannot be, then we ought not to be doing it. All work ought to be of God; and then what better day to work, what better day especially to begin a new work, than Good Friday?

For Good Friday is the day of God's greatest work. There are many moments which can be considered as important to the Church: the confirmation of St. Peter, the institution of the Eucharist, the Great Commission, Pentecost—each event is, in its way, a birthday for the body of Christ. But if there is day on which God could most truly have said "Behold, I make all things new"—then that day is Good Friday. It was then that our redemption was accomplished, then that Christ did the work for which he came.

That work was, of course, of a different nature than most of ours. We work, but there is in most work some pleasure as well as some weariness—in addition to having some "compensation for our pains," we often find even the "pains" themselves not so very painful—not so bad, for example, as the physical pain of being down with the flu or the toothache. Our daily work contains suffering; but it is not (again I say, usually) simply to suffer. But God's work was precisely that.

And yet; and yet ... Even for him, there was a joy in the work—if the work itself had no joy, yet there was joy for him during it: "Christ's higher higher reason did not suffer thereby on the part of its object, which is God, who was the cause, not of grief, but rather of delight and joy, to the soul of Christ." (Summa, III:46:7) Of course, this is no excuse (if any excuse be sought) for belittling Christ's sufferings: while insisting on Christ's union with the Father, St. Thomas makes sure to insist equally strongly on his Passion: "[T]here was true and sensible pain in the suffering Christ, which is caused by something hurtful to the body: also, there was internal pain, which is caused from the apprehension of something hurtful, and this is termed 'sadness.' And in Christ each of these was the greatest in this present life." And looking to Scripture, St. Thomas finds that "[i]t is written (Lamentations 1:12) on behalf of Christ's Person: 'O all ye that pass by the way attend, and see if there be any sorrow like unto My sorrow.'"

This was possible for Christ, the God-Man, in whom "there was no overflowing of glory from the higher part into the lower;" for us, in whom high and low, intellect and passions are ingloriously entangled, there is an overflowing. The heart must suffer when the body sins; but by the same token, the joy of the mind—that we are redeemed—must sometimes overflow into the emotions—yes, even out of season. If it were only euphoria, only pleasure at the coming spring, I might give it a gloomier eye. I suspect, however, that euphoria is only the froth, only the surface manifestation of something deeper: what Aristotle called eudaimonia, and St. Thomas beatitude.

God knows I don't mean to belittle the contrition to which the Passion should inspire us, or to discourage anyone who happens to be in a penitential mood, as if there were not value in that kind of suffering just as there is in the suffering of the body. But I do think that what can be said of bodily sufferings may be said for the sufferings of the soul: that because Christ suffered all of the for us, we need not suffer them all. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted;"—it is a comfort that comes to many mercifully in this world as well as the next. We do well to beware of seeking comfort; but if comfort comes to us, it seems ungrateful to say no. If the Fall has sent a poison through mankind, so that even the joy of work became a suffering, then it is also true that the Redemption has sent something of the opposite sort running through our psyches, so that suffering itself becomes a work—or shall we say, a labor?—the end of which is, appropriately enough, joy.

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