Call it happy talk, call it spin, call it the devil’s handiwork—you find cheerful blather just about everywhere today. In politics (tell the voters what they want to hear). In business (keep the stockholders happy, no matter what). In the military (gotta pump up the troops’ morale).
And even in the Church: “We don’t want to upset those people in the pews, do we?”
I read something recently by a fairly prominent churchman commenting on a finding that only 23% of American Catholics go to Mass every week but 77% say they’re proud to be Catholic. Good news, he enthused—“there is an openness among Catholics to be identified with the Church.”
Well, yes. But for many, it appears, not to the extent of taking part regularly in the central act of worship of that Church they say they’re proud to belong to.
Refusing to face facts isn’t genuine cheerfulness, it’s frivolity or denial. The only authentic kind of cheerfulness is the kind that starts by facing up to facts. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the more in touch with reality someone is, the more cheerful he or she will be in the end.
Let me explain why.
Start with the distinction between two kinds of cheerfulness made by St. Josemaria Escriva. In his little book The Way the founder of Opus Dei writes:
The cheerfulness you should have is not the kind we might call physiological—like that of a healthy animal. Rather, it is the supernatural happiness that comes from the abandonment of everything, including yourself, into the loving arms of our Father God.
Indeed, there’s something downright offensive about this “physiological’ cheerfulness. I think that’s what Dietrich Von Hildebrand is talking about when he speaks in Transformation in Christ of what he calls “joviality”:
The good fellow takes everything in a friendly spirit—for the sake of his own comfort rather than out of consideration for others. This jolly attitude has something unimportant, superficial about it….It is incompatible with a great and vigorous personality, with the hunger and thirst for justice; generally it is coupled with a certain laziness and shallowness.
The attitude involved here becomes a bit clearer—or at least it did for me—in two contrasting ways of responding to the same situation that I observed close together many years ago. The situation I refer to is death.
Two people my wife and I knew pretty well died within a short time of each other. One was an old lady who lived across the street. The other was a doctor. The old lady and her family were Unitarians, I believe, although they didn’t make much of it. The doctor was a church-going Catholic.
When the old lady died, you’d have thought something shameful had happened. The family kept to themselves and said nothing about it. There was no church service; perhaps there was some kind of ceremony at the funeral home, but I can’t be sure because nobody was invited. Cremation, of course, not burial.
The intention seemed to be no muss, no fuss, no public display of any sort. It was almost as if death were an embarrassment that needed hushing up.
Things were very different with the Catholic doctor. I still remember the wake at his house. He was laid out in the front room, where people were welcome to stop and say a prayer. Back in the dining room there was a big spread—lots of good food and drink—and beyond that a sun porch where friends and neighbors stood around eating and drinking and socializing.
There was no disrespect in any of this, just a sense that this man had lived a full life and this was the way he’d want to take leave of it—with an enjoyable social occasion, a party, for family and friends to send him on his way.
Two very different ways of handling the fact of death. One way full of cheerfulness. The other way—but you get the point.
Supernatural cheerfulness not only allows but requires that we recognize the reality of evil and suffering. Here’s St. Josemaria Escriva again:
We have to be realistic, without being defeatist. Only a person with a callous conscience, made insensitive by routine or dulled by a frivolous attitude, can allow himself to think that evil—offense to God and harm, at times irreparable harm, to souls—does not exist in the world.
But then he adds the kicker:
We have to be optimistic, but our optimism should come from our faith in the power of God who does not lose battles, not from any human sense of satisfaction, from a stupid and presumptuous complacency.
Fundamental to this cheerfulness is a firm belief although the full realization of God’s kingdom will not happen in this life, it will happen.
Here is where even the highest and best of pre-Christian wisdom falls short. Aristotle, in the Nichomachean Ethics, wrote: “We cannot have happiness unless we have complete goodness in a complete lifetime.” And if that doesn’t happen—if something gets in the way of “complete goodness in a complete lifetime”? Then obviously we aren’t happy.
Without knowing it, many people try to live by this Aristotelian principle, which underlies the “you only go round once” philosophy. And they wind up being miserable as a result.
But we have the firm assurance of faith that Christ’s kingdom will come to perfection and the firm promise of hope that we will be fulfilled in it (only not here and now—this is what heaven is for). This faith and this hope are the two pillars of supernatural cheerfulness.
Here is where the Cross becomes of central importance in Christian life. A lot of well-intended popular religious writing about “the Cross” doesn’t make this very clear. Certainly it doesn’t mean that there is something good and desirable about suffering as such. Rather, as St. Josemaria says, when people move beyond the stage of “simply tolerating” pain and suffering, the real significance of the Cross comes into focus.
It is no longer just any cross we are carrying. We discover that it is the Cross of Christ….We cooperate as Simon of Cyrene did….For a soul in love, it is no misfortune to become voluntarily Christ’s Simon of Cyrene.
There is a high spiritual doctrine here that can only be understood by beginning to live it. As someone does that, he or she lives supernatural cheerfulness and communicates it to others.
On the whole, then, I think Von Hildebrand gets it right when he says the fabric of a Christian’s life should be “interwoven with threads of true joy and threads of true sorrow alike….[But] joy must be the deeper, the decisive element, the form of our life.”
Much else no doubt could be said, but I am not sure much more than that needs to be said.