Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Woe is me, I'm so spiritual

It’s a miserable business being holy, isn’t it?

I remember a time, not long after I’d joined the Jesus Army, when I returned to my home town for a few days. While I was there I visited a friend, a young woman who’d played a pivotal role in my faith coming alive a few years earlier when I was 16.

She was charismatic (in both a theological and sociological sense) and attractive (ditto re theology, sociology, and let’s throw in biology for fun). A succession of guys had fallen for her (I, as it happened, had avoided this through the unforeseen and useful happenstance of falling for her sister instead).

Anyway, I wanted to make an impression. After all, had I not just discovered the best church in the nation, nay the world? I was gearing up for a life in intentional community. Hang it all, I was weighing up a call to holy celibacy. (That this didn’t come to pass was not due to my friend’s sister, I ought to say, but rather to the radiant creature who is now my wife. I didn’t know that – or her – at the time.)

I wanted to impress. I’d discovered something wonderful. I wanted her to know it. I didn’t deliberately try to look holy, I promise. But I did, nonetheless, try to look holy. My desire to convey the specialness of what I’d discovered manifested in a manner that was forcedly “spiritual”. And, with hindsight, downright miserable.

I’d wanted to foster an air of spirituality; I succeeded in coming across as depressive. My other-worldly air was woeful, my long meaningful silences stultifying. My attempt at gravitas was, in fact, just grave. Not surprisingly, my friend wrote to me not long after that visit to express some concern for me having lost my spark. She was troubled. I seemed unhappy.

I can look back and laugh now. And I think my friend has been long since reassured that I am, in fact, happy. Today, on Facebook, I saw a picture of her on some beach somewhere, the happy (if not entirely willing) subject of a photograph which I noted (thanks Facebook) was taken by a photographer with whom she is now "in a relationship". I smiled, happy for her. My memory drifted back to other happy memories, and back to that day of my forced solemnity. That’s why I write about it now.

Why is it, I wonder, that we often associate holiness with unhappiness? Misery as a measure of sanctity?

Julian of Norwich
Check out this cheerful saint, Julian of Norwich. It was once suggested to me that maybe she looks so miserable because she’s been saddled with a bloke’s name. But I suspect that hagiographers painted her sad simply because she’s a saint. Looking sad is what saints do, isn’t it?

Francis of Assisi
Check out Saint Francis, the new pope’s namesake.

Not exactly full of the joys of spring, eh? Even the bird in his hand looks like he'd rather be one of the two in the bush.

And before my dear Protestant readers spot an opportunity for controversy and start on about “Catholicism's attachment to unbiblical asceticism” or such like, check out these two Reformation pillars, Martin and John.

Martin Luther
John Calvin
Fancy an evening down at the pub with either of these two gents? (Not unless you want your party well and truly pooped.)

And let’s not even start on pictures of Jesus. Do a Google image search for “Jesus” if you dare. Once you’ve got over the fact that most of the results look like women (note to self: topic for future post) you'll notice you’re staring at a sea of miserable faces. Was Jesus, that magnetic gatherer of the common people, really so epically po-faced?

Why do these heroes of holiness all look like they could do with watching all twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers back to back? Why so miserable, Julian, Francis, Martin, John?

There is, of course, something to be said for the calling of God’s people, shaped as they are in the image of God’s Messiah, to carry the world’s sorrows. To pray with groans. To weep with those who weep. But this cannot be the whole story. Jesus skipped with delight when he saw his Father at work. Peter described a similar experience as “joy unspeakable”. Paul, writing to the Philippians, is positively bubbly (ironically, he was in prison waiting for the chop at the time of writing). We’re to rejoice with all who rejoice.

Put simply, to be holy does not mean to be unhappy. Holiness makes laughter and tears deeper. Holiness means that beyond happiness and unhappiness there is joy. The road of holiness is one along which a cross is carried, yet the destination makes the journey jubilant.

One of my favourite quotations from across the panoply of Christian saints is ascribed to Teresa of Avila – “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord deliver us!” Teresa is the same down-to-earth saint who advised her followers, if struck with melancholia and overdoing the “sighing saint” bit, to “eat a good steak and have a hot bath”.

I’m happy to be holy. But I’m not very holy, yet, which is why I’m not always happy. The holier I become the happier I’ll be – whether I’m laughing or crying. And when God wipes away every tear, I’ll be happy – because I'll be holy – forever.

And as for “rejoicing when others rejoice” – I'm so glad my friend's happy on that beach with her photographer. To her I joyfully dedicate this post.


pierscjc said...

Tried to comment then lost it due to needing to clear cache and cookies - however you do that.

Anyway, I reckon that rejoicing always, genuinely, is one of the toughest commands out, because you have to do it from your spirit, rather than just making cheerful noises on top of a heavy heart. I touched it yesterday, for instance, and it was... refreshing.

n0rma1 said...

Yep, I'd say fake joy is even worse than forced solemnity.