January 07, 2013

Pleasure versus Joy


Went to St. John's Byzantine yesterday and was nonplussed to learn they were celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord which I believe will be celebrated in the Roman rite next Sunday. So back-to-back Baptisms for me. The liturgy was extraordinaringly long, a healthy, rip-roaring, special expanded edition. Eastern Christianity sure makes the Baptism of Jesus a major feast. I skipped out after Communion at 11:13, the service having begun at 9:30. Fr. T brought up in his homily how he takes home a big jug of holy water ("Jordan water" he calls it) every year after this feast and uses it liberally and daily. He blesses his pets with it, puts some in his soup, blesses his bed with it before sleeping, will use it after someone troubled comes to visit in the rectory, sprinkles it in his garden, etc... Now there's the true Byzantine spirit in action - having that maximal zeal towards the sacraments and sacramentals. No Protestant-inspired fear of the material. Faith is ultimately a "gratitude machine" because if you believe, then even humble holy water is something that contains power and consolation. Faith teaches that God is not mincing in his gifts but is extravagant, even to the point of making matter (like water or bread or wine or us) holy.

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I often recall a line from Andrew Greeley's "The Jesus Myth" in which one correspondent with Greeley said that what it all comes down to is whether you consider the universe to be benevolent. Which I suppose means that it was crafted with care and not simply the result of random chaos.

It can be hard to see the universe as benevolent seeing all the suffering that occurs within it. But then suffering is not the measure of benevolence, nor is pleasure. Even the presumed atheist/author Zadie Smith sees the difference between pleasure and joy:
"A final thought: sometimes joy multiplies itself dangerously. Children are the infamous example. Isn’t it bad enough that the beloved, with whom you have experienced genuine joy, will eventually be lost to you? Why add to this nightmare the child, whose loss, if it ever happened, would mean nothing less than your total annihilation? It should be noted that an equally dangerous joy, for many people, is the dog or the cat, relationships with animals being in some sense intensified by guaranteed finitude. You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness.

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, 'It hurts just as much as it is worth.' In fact, it was a friend of his who wrote the line in a letter of condolence, and Julian told it to my husband, who told it to me. For months afterward these words stuck with both of us, so clear and so brutal. It hurts just as much as it is worth. What an arrangement. Why would anyone accept such a crazy deal? Surely if we were sane and reasonable we would every time choose a pleasure over a joy, as animals themselves sensibly do. The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth."
I was thinking about this in connection with Jennifer of Conversion Diary's recent hospitalization. I fear the worse, but thought about how by definition being open to life is also risking death. In fact, the more kids you have the more chance one will die before you, which seems the great curse. I thought about how odd it was that I thought it wrong that the mentally ill sister of Msgr. Pope (Pope being the priest who blogs at the Archdiocese of Washington website) ended up dying in a fire she started. Wrong, presumably, because he seems a holy man and one might expect his prayers to be efficacious and yet...that sentiment is so totally antithetical to the gospel because Jesus himself of course suffered and died.

That the universe is benevolent is another way of saying that God loves us. And my saint of the year, via Jennifer F's website, is St. Terese Margaret Redi, "a pious child who saw God in all things, and who was confused to learn that not everyone knew that God loved them." Indeed.

A homilist recently said that the disciple Jesus loved in the gospel according to John was not John but was you and me. All of us. What I'd long taken for braggadocio on the part of the gospel writer or his scribe might actually be considered as a placeholder for me. Crazy, but it would fit into the whole gospel zeitgeist of things not being as they appear and of the holy person's typical deflection of making things about himself or herself but in loving others and wanting them to feel included. The priest also said that when Jesus promised to Nathaniel that he (Nathaniel) would see angels rising and falling before the son of Man, we get to see that as well here on the altar. Angels are going before the son of Man here, today. Again that sense of inclusion, that hunger we all have for being included in these otherworldly things that can seem far removed from us in the 21st century.

Lino Rulli brought up something today on his radio show about how puzzling it is that God shows Himself to some and not to others. God shows himself to St. Paul so that Paul can tell others. Many of Lino's friends say they don't believe in God because God hasn't show himself to them personally. And there is a great mystery there, but when Lino and the priest were starting to address it I got a phone call. Doh! I suspect there's simply no getting around faith - even though we'd all prefer experiential knowledge instead.

Thought about poor old Andrew Greeley and how he suffered that traumatic brain injury. How tragic it seems and yet - and yet not really. Do I not believe in the Resurrection and that his body will become mint again!? So will all of us become "like angels". We mourn the decline of our natural human facilities even though they are pitifully lame compared to what we will eventually receive.!

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I tend to want to get over my numbness to prayer and sacrifice by first, ironically, self-indulgence. As if Christ said, "you must die to self after enhancing your mood sufficiently." Our Lord didn't seem concerned about us achieving consistent transcendent states of happiness in this world. Rotten luck, I say, that Truth would be suchlike. Or so I say in this life, without access to all the relevant information.

A couple moments of transcendence not found in brew or poetry today. A snippet of the catechism that resonated concerning the fulfillment of Jeremiah's new Covenant in Jesus and thus in us. And the offering of a prayer, a Hail Mary, for Jennifer F. The purity of simply asking Him "if my prayer can contribute then so be it" while not having delusions of grandeur. Of being of service in even a micro way.

Time and again I realize the freeing recognition that nothing is really possible without God and all things possible with Him. That when I'm "hitting the wall" in terms of a niggardly spirit, I don't have to depend on self alone. That when my power to love fails there is a Backup. Which is actually the Frontup, the only Love who is.

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