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Call it happy talk, call it spin, call it the devil’s handiworkyou
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’
And even in the Church: “We don’t want to upset those people in the pews, do we?”
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.”
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:
cheerfulness you should have is not the kind we might call
physiologicallike 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.
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 spiritfor 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.
attitude involved here becomes a bit cleareror at least it did for
mein two contrasting ways of responding to the same situation that I
observed close together many years ago. The situation I refer to is
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.
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.
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 spreadlots of good food and drinkand beyond that a sun porch where
friends and neighbors stood around eating and drinking and socializing.
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 itwith 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 waybut you get the point.
cheerfulness not only allows but requires that we recognize the reality
of evil and suffering. Here’s St. Josemaria Escriva again:
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 eviloffense to God and harm,
at times irreparable harm, to soulsdoes not exist in the world.
But then he adds the kicker:
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.
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 happenif something gets in the
way of “complete goodness in a complete lifetime”? Then obviously we
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.
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 nowthis is what heaven is for). This faith and this
hope are the two pillars of supernatural cheerfulness.
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.
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
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.
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.