Perhaps the most demanding asceticism within life is the discipline of joy. Rarely is this recognized. For most of us, the word joy itself rings superficial. It speaks of empty victory celebrations, mindlessness, lack of full awareness, naiveté and lack of depth. There is a cynical adultness in our reaction to joy: “If you knew better, if you were fully awake, you wouldn’t be this happy!”
Mary Gordon captures this excellently in her novel, Final Payments. She describes her feelings upon entering a room in which some university students were having a party: “I would look among the faces of the students for a face I could love. I would look for something original, something arresting in the shape of the chin or in the eyes, something that suggested the belief that there was residual pain that could not be touched by legislation. But they all looked so relentlessly happy and healthy that they did not interest me. I realized I was looking for someone who was sad, and I was angry at myself for making the equation, my faith’s equation, the church’s equation, between suffering and value.” (Final Payments, Page 139) There is, too often, an equation, in the church and in the world in general, between depth and heaviness, joy and superficiality. This is a curious, but understandable, algebra.
Former Christian spiritualities tended to focus on the incompleteness of life…We live “mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.” There was great strength, and some real wisdom, in that. It gave people permission to cry, to taste life’s bitterness without feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong with them, and it helped people accept the truth that in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished. In this way, it helped stem frustration and allowed people to suffer the martyrdom of an incomplete and inconsummate life more calmly and heroically. But from saying that life will always be incomplete and full of inevitable pain, it is an easy, though false, step to affirm that therefore depth and maturity lie in being heavy, grim and stoic. Unfortunately, that has often happened and Christian asceticism has too often lost its link to joy. Newer spiritualities, generally, have fared no better. Superficial affirmations that we are a resurrection people and therefore should always be bouncy, upbeat, enthusiastic and never down, help re-enforce the false equation that joy means superficiality because the components are impossible to live. To live on this side of eternity means tears, incompleteness, bitter loneliness, and seasons of life wherein it is simply impossible to be bouncy and upbeat.
Other current spiritualities, at least as they are frequently lived out, affirm the equation between joy and superficiality by emphasizing anger, indignation, righteousness, and an undue sense of purpose and urgency about everything. In such a view, just as is the case in Marxism, joy again becomes something superficial, naive, and even something that positively stands in the way of genuine conversion and growth. Then, just as in the older view that life is a “valley of tears,” living becomes a grim, humorless, joyless and often bitter affair. These last words – grim, humorless, joyless and bitter – describe to some degree the church and secular circles we move in. Most frequently, these circles are sombre, anxious, over-burdened, cynical, humorless, heavy places, hard untender places. There is an undue sense of urgency and precious little childlikeness, freedom and simple joy. Worse still, and this is the real un-joy, our circles are also characterized by melancholy, distrust, anger, bitterness, suspicion, jealousies, and an unhealthy adultness and realism that lets us characterize laughter and play (as C.S. Lewis so aptly puts it) as a “disgusting and direct insult to the realism, dignity and austerity of hell.” (The Screwtape Letters, Page 58) As Christians, we need to be reminded that real asceticism lies in joy itself.
It is far easier, and it takes infinitely less discipline, to be heavy than to be light. Heaviness, resentment, anger, grudges, moroseness and lack of joy come naturally; light-heartedness, forgiveness, long-suffering, humor and joy have to be worked at. They require discipline and asceticism.
A commentator recently looked at the world and the church and remarked: “Crabby contentiousness is here to stay!” It is – so long as we confuse joy with superficiality and depth with heaviness of spirit.