Archive for April, 2009

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JOY

April 28, 2009

Early on in my conversion, I identified Joy as the one Christian concept I would have trouble with. As someone who came to the foot of the cross by way of clinical depression, joy stood out as one response I couldn’t fake nor generate in any real way from within. Tears of thankfulness I was pretty good at though. I got by for a while fudging a tear of thankfulness with a tear of joy but Joy always remained something I could read about and understand but simply was unable to identify with.

I remember what joy used to feel like. There was a moment on a Cape Cod beach in my late teens when I swore I would never forget a perfect day and the thrill of being alive. And I still remember throwing myself down on a beach towel on the sun baked sand after chilled from body surfing. As the warmth spread through my body I was aware of such happiness and joy that I needed to do more than just experience it, I needed to give thanks in some way: so I thought to myself, never forget this moment, and oddly enough, fifty years later, I still do.

It was later in Japan I would learn about something I had also sensed, perhaps back there on the beach when I made my vow, that any great joy is tinged by a sadness of some sort. The Japanese, in their lexicon of aesthetics called it “aware” (ah-wah-rei) or “mono no aware,” that in Heian Japan captured the sensitivity or sadness of things, and described beauty as an awareness of the transience of all things, and a gentle sadness at their passing. Some also translated it as the “ah-ness” of things, of life, and love.

The fact that its romanji representation was the English verb “aware” made it a word play of precious meaning. But by then it seemed that my whole soul had taken on the knowledge that even in my most happy moments I would carry a tinge of sadness, that every satisfaction made me aware of a limitation or a fear of jealousy or in every embrace, a loneliness or a distance. In all forms of light, a surrounding darkness.

In the Greek tradition, beauty in the West is sought in the ultimate perfection of an external object: a sublime painting, perfect sculpture or intricate musical composition; a beauty that could be said to be only skin deep if it failed to provide a pure and lasting response in its beholder. The Japanese ideal sees beauty instead as an experience of the heart and soul, a feeling for and appreciation of objects or an artwork — most commonly in nature or the depiction of it in a pristine, untouched state. Hence a falling or wilting autumn flower is more beautiful than one in full bloom; a fading sound or reverberation more beautiful than one clearly heard; the moon partially clouded more appealing than full. The sakura or cherry blossom tree is the epitome of this conception of beauty; the flowers of the most famous variety, somei yoshino, nearly pure white tinged with a subtle pale pink, bloom and then fall within a single week. The subject of a thousand poems and a national icon, the cherry blossom tree embodies beauty as a transient experience.

As I came to adulthood in Japan after a rite of passage in Vietnam in the late 60s, Joy became forever changed and lost for me, a memory of an outer beach in South Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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 Joy holds a special primacy of place amongst Christian emotions:

“Gloom is no Christian temper; that repentance is not real which has not love in it; that self-chastisement is not acceptable which is not sweetened by faith and cheerfulness. We must live in sunshine, even when we sorrow; we must live in God’s presence, we must not shut ourselves up in our own hearts, even when we are reckoning up our past sins. We must look abroad into this fair world, which God made “very good,” while we mourn over the evil which Adam brought into it. We must hold communion with what we see there while we seek Him who is invisible; we must admire it while we abstain from it; acknowledge God’s love while we deprecate his wrath; confess that, many as are our sins, His grace is greater. Our sins are more in number than the hairs of our head; yet even the hairs of our head are all numbered by Him. He counts our sins, and, as He counts, so can He forgive; for that reckoning, great though it be, comes to an end; but His mercies fail not, and His Son’s merits are infinite.” [1]

John Henry Newman

Perhaps the most challenging of all the passages of the New Testament for me was Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice Always.” [1 Thessalonians 5:16]. If ever a biblical phrase was shrouded in a fog of total impenetrability, this be the one, I thought. The only examples of “rejoicing always” I could bring to mind was Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman: a state of enforced hilarity with a botched plastic surgery smile carved into his face. Or some fictive serenity: a terminal cancer patient’s heroic posturing, radiating love peace and acceptance, surrounded by a loving family — not anyone I knew.

And how many of my bible study classes degenerated into bitch moan and complain sessions about the state of the Catholic faith as exemplified in our pews or our pitiable ghetto like existence within the American secular society at large. Joy? I just didn’t get it. Not in my parish anyways, best left to the halleluiah hymnal acclamations of some Holy Roller black gospel choir.

But like many true Christian attributes of our faith, my cynicism could never quite overcome Joy. There’s something about it — it would just never go away. No matter how my prayer life or contemplative understandings experienced some pseudo joyful breakthroughs from time to time, “Rejoice Always” remained thoroughly elusive, an inside joke of the Holy Trinity.

 


[1] Erich Przywara, The Heart of Newman. A Synthesis Arranged by Erich Przywara, S.J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 317f.

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