Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of joy in the Christian life; Christians should not be sad, melancholy or nostalgic. What is it that makes sadness so tempting? And what is it in Christianity that exposes it as a lie?
Fallen humanity is in a state of dilemma: there is a very real, unavoidable sense in which man is not quite at home in this world.
Generally, the notion of home provokes thoughts of a place of fulfillment, and contentment—a place to rest at the end of a long day. And yet, regardless of where we are on this earth, or when, that sense of fulfillment of which we sometimes get a glimpse lacks a sense of finality; it never stays.
When man is happy he wants to stay happy, when he loves he wants to love forever. And yet, change is the very nature of the temporal world and diminishment the nature of the finite goods we accumulate. Multiplying these goods certainly adds to their quantity, but there is no point in the equation that the finite goods become enough; what man ultimately longs for seems to be a different kind of thing.
Even those nonmaterial goods we have—relationships, education, health, experiences, beauty—are subject to change and can ultimately disappoint us, at least in so far as they will never be entirely good, or good forever.
Nothing in this world is capable of fulfilling the human desire for happiness, because what man desires is infinite.
And so we are left with the fact that man desires what he cannot achieve in this life. As Christians we are first called to recognize this, our own fallen humanity—to see this dilemma in truth. But then we must respond in truth, and it’s the way we are called to respond that will lead to a life of joy.
The Christian answer is one that speaks to the paradoxical sense of longing that exists in man for something he has yet to experience in full. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:
The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place,
and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that
I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring.
The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy.
I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant,
and why I could feel homesick at home (Ethics of Elfland, 284).
This is what Christianity tells man: that this world is not his final destination, not his home.
Man is status viatoris, a wayfarer; and if man is on his way, that implies that some goal exists towards which he is journeying. Christianity says that man is right to feel the restlessness he does, for he is not yet at the place of fulfillment. What distinguishes the Christian is his hope in the promise given by Goodness itself, namely God, that his happiness will in fact be fulfilled.
Hope is a theological virtue—a habit, a practice, that is ultimately achieved by our cooperation with God’s grace. When we practice hope, we are able to live in joy because we recognize the good things in this world as really and truly good—they sacramentally echo some “place” towards which we are on a seemingly backwards journey towards. And yet, it is this ultimate reality that satisfies all of our desires—eternal, complete, self-sufficient Goodness—God Himself; He is the only being who meets the description of the standards for our happiness, and He has created us to live in friendship with Him.
The theological virtue of hope is our source of sustenance for the journey.
The answer that hope provides the Christian aptly solves the problem of humanity and in doing so it brings further meaning to our current lives and this world of unrest. We are fallen creatures, and when plagued with this restlessness, we are often all too eager to disorder our desires. By grace, hope gives meaning to our uneasiness in helping us to attend to it faithfully and hence be driven to God so that our eyes may stay fixed on our true goal. Furthermore, living the virtue of hope puts all of our desires for worldly goods into proper order and perspective, which will actually allow them to be pursued more truthfully, and therefore flourish all the more.
When we attempt to force a godlike role upon some contingent good—whether it be a possession, a job, a person—we ruin our chance for ultimate happiness and destroy the potential for that good to grant us its respective fulfillment. It is through hope that we are able to live in joy, seeing the good in this world, and it is because of hope that we want to transform it. In darkness of melancholy and despair, this world is a foretaste of hell—absence from God; in the light of hope, it is a foretaste of heaven.
In the Garden at Gethsemane, we hear Christ voice His fear, His recognition of sin and what it will entail for Him in asking, “Father, if thou art willing, let this cup pass from me.” And yet His hope in His ultimate end remains: “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” As His followers, we must both recognize the difficulty of human condition—we must look to the Cross—and yet we must remain steadfast in the hope of what has been promised us—the Resurrection of Easter.
Every time we attend mass, we echo Christ’s hope
We admit, “I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof”—since we truly are beings who fail Him daily and are, on our own, not fit to have the Divine dwell within us. Nevertheless, we hold on by the grace of hope to the promise that by the power of His word, we are to be healed from the condition that plagues us, to finally be granted access to that which alone can finally and forever satisfy—the very life of God Himself. And what but that could make mortal man more full of joy?
“I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you.” Ephesians 1:18
Bethany Wall studied Theology and Philosophy at DeSales University. An ardent lover of reading and writing, she is likely to relate at least one situation in her life per day to something said by G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis. She is utterly thankful for good coffee, good conversations, and good music (especially anything involving a banjo).