Paradoxes of Catholicism / by Robert Hugh Benson

Joy and Sorrow

Rejoice and be exceeding. . . . Blessed are they that mourn. -- MATT. V. 12, 5.

THE Catholic Church, as has been seen, is always too "extreme" for the world. She is content with nothing but a Divine Peace, and in its cause is the occasion of bloodier wars than any waged from merely human motives. She is not content with mere goodness, but urges always Sanctity upon her children; yet simultaneously tolerates sinners whom even the world casts out. Let us consider now how, in fulfilling these two apparently mutually contradictory precepts of our Lord,. to rejoice and to mourn, once more she appears to the world extravagant in both directions at once.

I. It is a common charge against her that she rejoices too exceedingly; is arrogant, confident, and optimistic where she ought to be quiet, subdued, and tender.

"This world," exclaims her critic, "is on the whole a very sad and uncertain place. There is no silver lining that has not a cloud before it; there is no hope that may not, after all, be disappointed. Any religion, then, that claims to be adequate to human nature must always have something of sadness and even hesitancy about it. Religion must walk softly all her days if she is to walk hand in hand with experience. Death is certain; is life as certain? The function of religion, then, is certainly to help to lighten this darkness, yet not by too great a blaze of light. She may hope and aspire and guess and hint; in fact, that is her duty. But she must not proclaim and denounce and command. She must be suggestive rather than exhaustive; tender rather than virile; hopeful rather than positive; experimental rather than dogmatic.

"Now Catholicism is too noisy and confident altogether. See a Catholic liturgical function on some high day! Was there ever anything more arrogant? What has this blaze of colour, this shouting of voices, this blowing of trumpets to do with the soft half-lights of the world and the mystery of the darkness from which we came and to which we return? What has this clear-cut dogma to do with the gentle guesses of philosophy, this optimism with the uncertainty of life and the future - - above all, what sympathy has this preposterous exultation with the misery of the world?

"And how unlike, too, all this is to the spirit of the Man of Sorrows! We read that Jesus wept, but never that He laughed. His was a sad life, from the dark stable of Bethlehem to the darker hill of Calvary. He was what He was because He knew what sorrow meant; it was in His sorrows that He has touched the heart of humanity. `Blessed,' he says, `are those that mourn.' Blessed are they that expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed."

In another mood, however, our critic will find fault with our sadness.

"Why is not the religion of you Catholics more in accord with the happy world in which we live? Surely the supreme function of religion is to hearten and encourage and lay stress on the bright side of life! It should be brief, bright, and brotherly. For, after all, this is a lovely world and full of gaiety. It is true that it has its shadows, yet there can be no shadows without a sun; there is death, but see how life continually springs again from the grave. Since all things, therefore, work together for good; since God has taken pains to make the world so sweet, it is but a poor compliment to the Creator to treat it as a vale of misery. Let us, then, make the best of things and forget the worst. Let us leave the things that are behind and press forward to the things that are before. Let us insist that the world is white with a few black spots upon it, be optimistic, happy, and confident.

"You Catholics, however, are but a poor-spirited, miserable race. While other denominations are, little by little, eliminating melancholy, you are insisting upon it. While the rest of us are agreeing that Hell is but a bogy, and sin a mistake, and suffering no more than remedial, you Catholics are still insisting upon their reality - - that Hell is eternal, that sin is the deliberate opposition of the human will to the Divine, and that suffering therefore is judicial. Sin, Penance, Sacrifice, Purgatory, and Hell -- these are the old nightmares of dogma; and their fruits are tears, pain, and terror. What is wrong with Catholicism, then, is its gloom and its sorrow; for this is surely not the Christianity of Christ as we are now learning to understand it. Christ, rightly understood, is the Man of Joy, not of Grief. He is more characteristic of Himself, so to speak, as the smiling shepherd of Galilee, surrounded by His sheep; as the lover of children and flowers and birds; as the Preacher of Life and Resurrection -- He is more characteristic of Himself as crowned,, ascended, and glorified, than as the blodd-stained martyr of the Cross whom you set above your altars. Rejoice, then, and be exceeding glad, and you will please Him best."

Once more, then, we appear to be in the wrong, to whatever side we turn. The happy red-faced monk with his barrel of beer is a caricature of our joy. Can this, it is asked, be a follower of the Man of Sorrows? And the long-faced ascetic with his eyes turned up to heaven is the world's conception of our sorrow. Catholic joy and Catholic sorrow are alike too ardent and extreme for a world that delights in moderation in both sorrow and joy -- a little melancholy, but not too much; a little cheerfulness, but not excessive.

II. First, then, it is interesting to remember that these charges are not now being made against us for the first time. In the days even of the Roman Empire they were thought to be signs of Christian inhumanity. "These Christians," it was said, "must surely be bewitched. See how they laugh at the rack and the whip and go to the arena as to a bridal bed! See how Lawrence jests upon his gridiron." And yet again, "They must be bewitched, because of their morbidity and their love of darkness, the enemies of joy and human mirth and common pleasure. In either case they are not true men at all." Their extravagance of joy when others would be weeping, and their extravagance of sorrow when all the world is glad -- these are the very signs to which their enemies appealed as proofs that a power other than that of this world was inspiring them, as proofs that they could not be the simple friends of the human race that they dared to pretend.

It is even more interesting to remember that our Divine Lord Himself calls attention to these charges. "The Son of Man comes eating and drinking. The Son of Man sits at the wedding feast at Cana and at meat in the rich man's house and you say, Behold a glutton and a winebibber! The Son of Man comes rejoicing and you bid Him to be sad. And John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking. John the Baptist comes from the desert, an ascetic with his camel-hair about him and words of penance and wrath in his mouth, and you say, He hath a devil.... We have piped unto you and you have not danced. We have played at weddings like children in a market-place, and you have told us to be quiet and think about our sins. We have mourned unto you, we have asked you to play at funerals instead, and you have told us that it was morbid to think about death. We have mourned and you would not lament."

III. The fact is, of course, that both joy and sorrow must be an element in all religion, since joy and sorrow together make up experience. The world is neither white with black spots nor black with white spots; it is black and white. It is quite as true that autumn follows summer as that spring follows winter. It is no less true that life arises out of death than that death follows life.

Religion then cannot, if it is to be adequate to experience, be a passionless thing. On the contrary it must be passionate, since human nature is passionate too; and it must be a great deal more passionate. It must not moderate grief, but deepen it; not banish joy, but exalt it. It must weep -- and bitterer tears than any that the world can shed -- with them that weep; and rejoice too -- with a joy which no man can take away -- with them that rejoice. It must sink deeper and rise higher, it must feel more acutely, it must agonize and triumph more abundantly, if it truly comes from God and is to minister to men, since His thoughts are higher than ours and His Love more burning.

For so did Christ live on earth. At one hour He rejoiced greatly in spirit so that those that watched Him were astonished; at another He sweated blood for anguish. In one hour He is exalted high on the blazing Mount of Transfiguration; in another He is plunged deeper than any human heart can fathom in the low-lying garden of Gethsemane. Behold and see if there be any sorrow like to My Sorrow.

III. For, again, the Church, like her Lord, is both Divine and Human.

She is Divine and therefore she rejoices -- so filled with the New Wine of the Kingdom of her Father that men stare at her in contempt.

It is true enough that the world is unhappy; that hearts are broken; that families, countries, and centuries are laid waste by sin. Yet since the Church is Divine, she knows, not merely guesses or hopes or desires, but knows, that although all things come to an end, God's commandment is exceeding broad. Years ago, she knows --and therefore not all the criticism in the world can shake her -- that her Lord came down from heaven, was born, died, rose, and ascended, and that He reigns in unconquerable power. She knows that He will return again and take the kingdom and reign; she knows, because she is Divine, that in every tabernacle of hers on earth the Lord of Joy lies hidden; that Mary intercedes; that the saints are with God; that the Blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin. Look round her earthly buildings, then, and there are the symbols and images of these things. There is the merry light before her altar; there are the saints stiff with gold and gems; there is Mary, "Cause of our Joy," radiant, with her radiant Child in her arms. If she were but human, she would dare but to shadow these things forth -- shadows of her own desires; she would whisper her creed; murmur her prayers; darken her windows. But she is Divine and has herself come down from heaven; so she does not guess, or think, or hope -- she knows.

But she is human too and dwells in the midst of a human race that does not know and therefore will not wholly take her at her word, and the very height of her exaltation must also be, then, the measure of her despair. The fact that she knows so certainly intensifies a thousandfold her human sorrow, as she, who has come that they may have life, sees how they will not come to her and find it, as she sees how long the triumph which is certain is yet delayed through their faithlessness. "If thou hadst known," she cries in the heart-broken words of Jesus Himself over Jerusalem, "if thou hadst but known the things that belong to thy peace! Behold and see, then, if there be any sorrow like to mine, if there be any grief so profound and so piercing as mine, who hold the Keys of Heaven and watch men turn away from the Door."

So, then, in church after church stand symbolic groups of statuary, representing joy and tragedy, compared with which Venus and Adonis are but childish and half- civilized images -- Mary as triumphant Queen, with the gold-crowned Child in her arms, and Mary the tormented Mother, with her dead Son across her knees. For she who is both Divine and Human alone understands what it is that Humanity has done to Divinity.

Is it any wonder, then, that the world thinks her extravagant in both directions at once; that the world turns away on Good Friday from the unutterable depths of her sorrow, and on Easter Day from the unscalable heights of her joy, calling the one morbid and the other hysterical? For what does the world know of such passions as these? What, after all, can the sensualist know of joy, or the ruined financier of sorrow? And what can the moderate, self-controlled, self-respecting man of the world know of either?

Lastly, then, in the Paradox of Love, the Church holds both these passions, at full blast, both at once. As human love turns joy into pain and suffers in the midst of ecstasy, so Divine Love turns pain into joy and exults and reigns upon the Cross. For the Church is more than the Majesty of God reigning on earth, more than the passionless love of the Eternal; she is the Very Sacred Heart of Christ Himself, the Eternal united with Man, and both suffering and rejoicing through that union. It is His bliss which she at once experiences and extends, in virtue of her identity with Him; and in the midst of a fallen world it is the supremest bliss of that Sacred Heart to suffer pain.

<< Paradoxes of Catholicism >>