July 31, 2006

WAU Meditation  on Pleasure & Pain

The question is: How is a society such as ours to understand the mystery of the cross, when it opposes the cross with pleasure at every level? Many in the world believe that we have finally “rescued” pleasure and freed it from the unjust suspicion and condemnation that used to surround it. Much of the misunderstanding that exists between the church and today’s so-called secular culture originate here. But for all our misunderstandings, there is one point of agreement: In this life, pleasure and pain follow one another just as a trough follows the swell of an ocean wave, pulling a shipwrecked person back into the sea even as he struggles to reach the shore. Pleasure and suffering are inextricably linked to one another.

The world desperately tries to separate these Siamese twins, to isolate pleasure from suffering. Sometimes we delude ourselves that we have succeeded, but not for long. Suffering lies in wait, like an intoxicating drink that turns to poison on contact with the air. Not some different, independent suffering, due to some other cause, but the suffering that comes from the pleasure itself. The disordered pleasure itself is turned into suffering.

The church claims to have an answer to this dilemma: From the beginning, human beings made a free choice to direct their capacity for joy exclusively toward visible things, instead of aspiring to the enjoyment of God.

The good news is that Jesus’ cross has finally broken this chain. “For the sake of the joy that was set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). He did the opposite of what Adam and every human being does. St. Maximus the Confessor once wrote: “The Lord’s death, unlike that of other men, was not a debt paid for pleasure but rather a challenge thrown in the face of pleasure itself” (Chapters on Theology and Economy, IV 39).

Jesus has ushered in a new kind of pleasure. This pleasure does not come before suffering and cause it. Rather, it flows from suffering, as its fruit. It is a pleasure not limited to a purely “spiritual” joy, either. It encompasses every honest pleasure, including the pleasure experienced by a man and a woman in their mutual self-giving, the pleasures of art, creativity, beauty, friendship, and work well done—in short, of every kind of joy.

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