The Personalist Project

Sometimes a piece of writing seems all set to go.  You’ve wrestled it into shape: you’re not altogether satisfied, but it’s probably good enough, and anyway, the deadline is here.

But you keep sensing the very inconvenient need to file it away, start again from scratch, and address something else altogether.

That happened when our friend, Peter, died—I realized how pointless it was to try to write anything but a tribute to him.   Something similar happened today.

Here it is, Gaudete Sunday.  That means we’re commanded to rejoice.  Not just encouraged, but commanded (gaudete: plural imperative). 

That seems surprising, because sometimes the Good News is presented in a deformed state, and you’d think God wanted us continually guilt-racked and gloomy.

In fact, though Lent lasts forty days, Easter lasts fifty.  Even Lent is relieved by Laetare Sunday

just as, today, Gaudete Sunday breaks in upon the (theoretically) sober season of Advent.

And fifty-two times a year, each Sunday, we get a “little Easter.”

Maybe it’s our Puritan heritage

 that makes Americans forget to focus on the feasts.  You’d never hear a Puritan say, as the Spanish do, “For every day a saint; for every saint, a pastry.”

 Maybe, too, it’s just a universal tendency to fall for the devil’s efforts to keep our eyes fixed on what’s most discouraging.

But here’s what’s prodding me to address this weird mixture of suffering and rejoicing.  Not one, not two, but three of my friends have lately received an adverse diagnosis for their unborn babies.  One miscarried early, one is in the hospital with her newborn as he recovers from the bypass operation he endured at twelve days of age, and one is undergoing induced labor today.  Her little girl has anencephaly. 

And then all those little children were gunned down in Connecticut.

Rejoice?  We’re like the exiled children of Israel, by the waters of Babylon,

 asking, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

It’s all the more mysterious because at least in the Psalm it’s the captors, the tormentors, urging the exiles to sing in the midst of their captivity.  Here it’s God Himself who requires us to rejoice.

I keep thinking there’s been some misunderstanding—that maybe, when Pope Benedict declared a Year of Faith,

God misheard it as a Year to Test Their Faith. But I don't really think this year is so unusual.  All over the world, millions of people live with poverty and disease unimaginable to suburbanites like me.

We’re wired to want to understand why these things happen,though.  In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl, philosopher and Holocaust survivor,

addresses this universal need.  If we can discern a meaning behind the suffering, we can endure even a death camp.  We need meaning, literally, as we need air and food and water.

But our understanding of the mystery of evil has its limits.  As I tell my own young children, our minds are just too little for some things to fit in them.  That’s pretty much what God told Job.

 It’s not that there is no meaning, or no hope of understanding it a little better, even in this life.  But, as Msgr. Charles Pope points out in “Where is God At Times like These?”

it’s best not to be glib, pretending we have a pat answer--even to ourselves, and especially not to a challenger, or a seeker, who doesn't share our faith. 

We have partial answers.  Some of these are ably sketched by Msgr. Pope in the article linked above. For instance:

  • Evil wasn't part of the original plan.  
  • Free will--without which love is impossible--requires the real possibility of making evil choices.
  • God didn't set up the laws of nature only to intervene continually to prevent their operation.
  •  He's not indifferent.  He's not content to observe us from afar.  He comes down and stays with us and suffers with us and in us.  

How is that better?  What sense does that make?  I'm not sure. It doesn't fit in my mind.  I know He loves us, and I know He knows what He's doing.  

He's not like some human writer who figures out haphazardly what she wanted to say as she goes along.    

                                        *     *     *     *     *

(For a more thorough treatment of such questions, many have found C.S. Lewis' The Problem of Pain and Peter Kreeft's Making Sense of Suffering helpful.)  



Comments (5)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Dec 17, 2012 11:43am

Thank you, as always, Devra.  I love the way your gentle reflections invite peaceful thoughtfulness, as opposed to, say, frantic brooding or anguished worry about the state of the world, and as opposed to retreating into denial or superficiality to avoid the challenge of the questions evil poses.

I do have a question, though.  Is it really so that "Rejoice!" is to be received as a command?  Is everything in the imperative mode a command?  

I have doubts.  If I am outside at night in New Hampshire and say to my children, "Look!  Look at the stars!", I'm not issuing a command, am I?

There was a cruelty in the captors who commanded the Israelites to sing the Lord's songs.  A mockery of their condition.

There is none of that (of course!) in the Advent exhortation, "Rejoice!"  Isn't it, rather, a merciful God offering us relief from the unrelenting suffering of our condition, by showing us—by putting in front of our attention—the glorious reality of our coming redemption?

I so loved the OT reading yesterday, "You have no more misfortune to fear."

Devra Torres

#2, Dec 17, 2012 11:53pm

I think you're right: maybe "invitation" would be a better word than "command" in this case.  Or maybe something in between?  

Patrick Dunn

#3, Dec 18, 2012 6:08am

Fr. Mark Kirby at Vultus Christi referred to this question of what "rejoice!" means in a recent blog post:

"Saint Paul's greeting is not so much an imperative -- a command to be joyful -- as it is the imparting of a gift in the Lord. "What I wish for you, what I send you, what I offer you in the Lord is grace, and loveliness, and joy.""

Devra Torres

#4, Dec 18, 2012 9:25am

Patrick, that was a beautiful article, and I think worth quoting more of: 

What the Latin gives as, "gaudete" and the English as "rejoice," is astonishingly rich in Saint Paul's Greek. Any one translation would be inadequate. Paul says, "chaírete." It is the very same word used by the angel Gabriel to greet the Virgin of Nazareth. "Chaire, kecharitoménè!" "Joy to you, O full of grace!"(Lk 1:28). The word is untranslatable. Just when we think we have seized its meaning once and for all, another door opens inside it. "Chaírete" was the ordinary greeting of the Greeks. It embraces health, salvation, loveliness, grace, and joy, all at once. In the mouth and in the ear of Christians, the taste of the word is indescribable. "Grace to you, and loveliness, and joy in the Lord; again I wish you grace, and loveliness, and joy" (Phil 4:4). Saint Paul's greeting is not so much an imperative -- a command to be joyful -- as it is the imparting of a gift in the Lord. "What I wish for you, what I send you, what I offer you in the Lord is grace, and loveliness, and joy."

Devra Torres

#5, Dec 18, 2012 9:37am

What I love about the Church is the way it gives us room for personal, spontaneous affective response and also liturgical, scheduled times of fasting and feasting, rejoicing and mourning.  If the liturgical ones don't coincide with the personal ones, that's a reminder that we're part of something bigger than ourselves, united with other persons whose mental state doesn't coincide with our own--not dissolved into something generic, but joined to all the unrepeatable persons who make up the Communion of Saints.  It's not just that we can pray for each other, but that we can "bear one another's burdens," whatever St. Paul meant by that exactly.  And it keeps us from being overcome by our own sadness or isolated in our own happiness.

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