The Tower of Babel is a powerful reminder to all Christians alike that no matter what we create, it will never climb the skies to finally reach the heavens. There is nothing we can do to cross the infinite divide of heaven and earth to secure our own eternal happiness. Science can secure many things, but it will never quench our thirst for eternal joy and security in God’s Kingdom. Secular Humanism, offers us nothing more than a half-truth, run often by sentiments that proclaim “serve thy neighbour” but that neighbour is usually some ideology, rather than a real person, and the person is far away. We find it much easier to serve someone we don’t know and rarely have to talk to, than the difficult-to-handle, next-door neighbour. We are more in love with the idea of “humanity” than particular human persons. And finally, even if our love for our neighbour was good by a worldly standard and the cardinal virtues, it still would not suffice to bring us what we thirst for in the depths of our soul. We will die, and no human being can overcome that, along with the loved ones who depart. Apart from fond memories, embellished by our own desperation to hold onto something good, we fail to realize that the persons we love never really quenched our thirst for total fulfillment.
I would suggest, under this given principle to the spiritual life that we look upon a current trend within the life of the Church to build another tower of babel. I would call it the tower of emotivism, whereby mankind attempts to foster nothing more than the counterfeit of joy. This counterfeit of joy easily dupes many both within the Church and without, because we have become addicted to our emotions, and replaced spiritual depth, or even awareness of depth, with affective consolations.
Unlike the Stoics, I hope not to give the impression that emotion is an evil or bad thing. Emotion is after all, an aspect that human beings share with many beasts. It is a gift, and a part of our identity as creatures. Unlike the hedonists, however, I would hope to never place emotion at the centre of man’s well-being. Although emotional-health is certainly important, it is also not the be-all and end-all of the spiritual life. There is a middle position between the indulgence of the emotivists/hedonists and the repression of the stoics, and it is orthodoxy.
Years ago, I remember speaking about suffering, which of course was quickly by-passed by a gesture towards Christ resurrected, yet mounted to the cross. “Don’t forget, it didn’t end on the cross, there is joy.” At the time, I felt twisted inside, when I heard this statement. It was as if we were merely meant to white-knuckle through suffering and by-pass it. It was as Joy had nothing to do with the cross. The Cross which had brought me an incredible amount of joy.
I would suggest that the failure to appreciate the Joy that Christ displays in the crucifixion is a sign of a Church that hasn’t developed its own awareness of the deeper realities of the spiritual life: going beyond mere emotions of happiness, and entering into the realm of Joy.
Interestingly enough, people often insist that you be happy, as a Catholic, as if it were a moral responsibility. If this is the case: Christ sinned. But of course, such heresy is easily dismissed, since Christ is God. On a more profound note, worthy of meditation, Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, which means joy in the soul of a person is not of our own creating. It is impossible, therefore to suggest, without becoming pelagian, that we ought to be joyful. Rather than criticize people we might observe not to experience joy, perhaps we should pray they receive such a grace, and that if possible, we as clay-vessels, become a channel for such a grace in their lives. That is, instead of moralizing people into a spiritual attitude, we become the reason (by the power of the Spirit alone) for their Christian joy. It is true, that once we receive this gift, our good works must maintain such a grace, yet nonetheless, we cannot conceive of joy within our soul by our own insufficient effort.
A sweet tooth makes you sick, and it is the sickly-sweet emphasis on emotional happiness that actually often plagues the Church today. Such an emphasis buys into the Pentecostal tendency to emphasize that if you don’t speak in tongues you haven’t been saved. If you haven’t felt joy (happiness), then you need to be saved. A sweet tooth also doesn’t know how to love – since the emphasis in the soul of such a person is what he or she finds sweet. That is, worship of God is only an option in “my life” because it makes me “feel good.” It no longer has anything to do with what is “truly right and just” in good times and in bad.
There are all sorts of towers we can build to assure us of our happiness. One might be reading scripture passages that don’t challenge us, while ignoring the ones that do. Consider how Christ preached and then ask yourself whether your soft approach measures up to His own. Or vice-versa, perhaps we would prefer to be harsh, and do we recognize the times when Christ was compassionate and understanding. In either case, if we stay where we are comfortable, it is all the more possible that we are really worshipping our own affect rather than God, and perpetually twisting the gospel to keep ourselves within our own comfort. This requires more knowledge than our own affect to become aware of: it requires more than just the intellect as well; it requires knowledge of our own will, the deepest reality within ourselves.
People have been known to replace Jesus with their own happiness. How many of us run away from our crosses? We must all experience such temptation, even Christ didn’t forgo sweating blood in anticipation of such a joyful act of the will, but affective horror nonetheless. To many foolish, they see this as a contradiction – as scripture indicates. And if it remains a contradiction in our minds we might have a difficult time allowing the gift of the cross to be received as a gift – a saving gift.
Emotions and desires do not always line up with reality. People desire things that are not proportionate to their given nature, either in regard to pleasure, hunger, and comfort. Our emotional reactions sometimes spring from the lies we tell ourselves, and therefore do not necessarily represent anything more than a seemingly-justified reaction to what is nothing more than an illusion or assumption on our own part. Part of the process of growing in holiness means that our affect can be aligned to the truth of a situation, yet what God wants us to first understand is that we ought to Love Him even if it seems to have no affectual benefit in our own lives.
This is pastorally important to consider, considering many people often feel the harsh moral-expectation from others to “feel” a certain way. As a result, feelings and desires that are disordered that spring forth compound their own guilt and lead to despair. I am considering people with depression, anxiety disorders, or disordered happiness and pleasures. Making a person feel guilty for what they have themselves not chosen and cannot control only fosters greater discord in their life. Will-powering your way into happiness is another Tower of Babel. Rather, any person who experiences a disorder in their affect can enter into a purification of their own will, where despite how they feel about life, they still can make the choices (through grace) to Love God and as a result, be joyful.
The real presence of Joy is manifest as an attitude and choice – with which no one can do without the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is impossible for a man to crack jokes while being burned alive on a spit, and yet by grace, God can allow St. Lawrence to do so, since he chooses to not give into despair. Just as Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” perhaps from His affect, He still nonetheless abides by the truth of His Father. His Love for His Father is the source of His Joy, a joy with which was unburdened by Power, Honour, Pleasure, and Wealth. While totally stripped of all these things, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us vividly that Christ Crucified is the image of what joy looks like: full of love and devotion to the Father, without even feeling His presence.
St. Paul writes to his followers to be joyful, while he is in prison,
because he lives in freedom. Another contradiction to the foolish, but to the wise who realize that the real prison is sin, and real freedom is living in accord with truth. Joy therefore is an attitude and choice. Perhaps a choice to smile for the benefit of another, the choice to crack a joke to undermine the unjust aggressor who is far too serious about his hate. The choice to willingly die for the name of Christ, reciprocating His love as far as possible.
When the soul puts the affect in its proper place, to the hedonist it takes it less seriously, and to the stoic cherishes moments where our whole being is aligned to the joy of the gospel. But if you are to persist in avoiding real joy by means of emotional-alchemy: you have received your reward.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book Two, Chapter 7, 4-5
– St. John of the Cross
…one’s journey must not merely exclude the hindrance of creatures but also embody a dispossession and annihilation in the spiritual part of one’s nature. Our Lord, for our instruction and guidance along this road, imparted the wonderful teaching – I think it is possible to affirm that the more necessary the doctrine the less it is practiced by spiritual persons – that I will quote fully and explain in its genuine and spiritual sense because of its importance and relevance to our subject. He states in the eighth chapter of St. Mark…If anyone wishes to follow my way, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses it for me will gain it…
Oh, who can make this counsel of our Savior on self-denial understandable, and practicable, and attractive, that spiritual persons might become aware of the difference between the method many of them think is good and the one that ought to be used in traveling this road! They are of the opinion that any kind of withdrawal from the world, or reformation of life, suffices. Some are content with a certain degree of virtue, perseverance in prayer, and mortification, but never achieve the nakedness, poverty, selflessness, or spiritual purity (which are all the same) about which the Lord counsels us here. For they still feed and clothe their natural selves with spiritual feelings and consolations instead of divesting and denying themselves of these for God’s sake. They think denial of self in worldly matters is sufficient without annihilation and purification in the spiritual domain. It happens that, when some of this solid, perfect food (the annihilation of all sweetness in God – the pure spiritual cross and nakedness of Christ’s poverty of spirit) is offered them in dryness, distaste, and trial, they run from it as from death and wander about in search only of sweetness and delightful communications from God. Such an attitude is not the hallmark of self-denial and nakedness of spirit but the indication of a spiritual sweet tooth. Through this kind of conduct, they become, spiritually speaking, enemies of the cross of Christ [Phil 3:18].
A genuine spirit seeks rather the distasteful in God than the delectable, leans more toward suffering than toward consolation, more toward going without everything for God than toward possession, and toward dryness and affliction than toward sweet consolation. It knows that this is the significance of following Christ and denying self, that the other method is perhaps a seeking of self in God –something entirely contrary to love. Seeking oneself in God is the same as looking for the caresses and consolations of God. Seeking God in oneself entails not only the desire to do without these consolations for God’s sake, but also the inclination to choose for love of Christ all that is most distasteful whether in God or in the world; and this is what loving God means.