Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Schmemann on Joy

As you may have noticed from past posts, Fr Alexander Schmemann (+1983) is an author I respect and from whom I benefit. One of the recurring themes in his writings is joy—as an essential and all-pervasive ambience of the Gospel, and therefore of Christian life. This is something that many of us may miss, whether in our own understanding or actual experience of the life of faith. So I will here share some of his thoughts on the subject, taken from his Journals.

“The source of false religion is the inability to rejoice or, rather, the refusal of joy, whereas joy is absolutely essential because it is without any doubt the fruit of God’s presence. One cannot know that God exists and not rejoice. Only in relation to joy are the fear of God and humility correct, genuine, fruitful… The first, the main source of everything is ‘my soul rejoices in the Lord…’ The fear of sin does not save from sin. Joy in the Lord saves. A feeling of guilt or moralism does not liberate from the world and its temptations. Joy is the foundation of freedom, where we are called to stand. Where, how, when has this tonality of Christianity become distorted, dull—or rather, where, how, why have Christians become deaf to joy? … People continually come and ask for advice… And some weakness or false shame keeps me from telling each of them, ‘I don’t have any advice to give you. I have only weak, shaky, but, for me, unremitting joy. Do you want it?” No, they do not. They want to talk about ‘problems’ and chat about ‘solutions.’ No, there was no greater victory of the devil in the world than this ‘psychologized’ religion. There is anything and everything in psychology. One thing is unthinkable, impossible: Joy!...

“I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything—faith and vision. Where there is no joy, Christianity becomes fear and therefore torture. We know about the fallen state of the world only because we know about its glorious creation and its salvation by Christ… This world is having fun; nevertheless it’s joyless because joy (different from what is called ‘fun’) can be only from God, only from on high—not only joy of salvation, but salvation as joy. To think—every Sunday we have a banquet with Christ, at His table, in His Kingdom; then we sink into our problems, into fear and suffering. God saved the world through joy: ‘…you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy…’

“What has Christianity lost so that the world, nurtured by Christianity, has recoiled from it and started to pass judgment over the Christian faith? Christianity has lost joy—not natural joy, not joy-optimism, not joy from earthly happiness, but the Divine joy about which Christ told us that ‘no one will take your joy from you’ (John 16:22). Only this joy knows that God’s love to man and to the world is not cruel; knows it because that love is part of the absolute happiness for which we are all created. Christianity (not the Church in its mystical depth) has lost its eschatological dimension, has turned toward the world as law, judgment, redemption, recompense… finally forbade joy and condemned happiness… the world rebelled against Christianity in the name of earthly ‘happiness.’ The world’s inspiration, all its dreams, utopias, and ideologies (does it really have to be proven?) are essentially an earthly eschatology…

“The world is created by happiness and for happiness and everything in the world prophesies that happiness… To the fallen world that has lost that happiness, but yearns for it… Christianity has opened up and given back happiness; has fulfilled it in Christ as joy… Christianity is divided between the conservatives (longing for a religion of law and recompense) and the progressives (serving a future happiness on this earth). What is interesting is that both groups hate nothing so much as a call to joy, as the reminding of a great joy announced and given at the beginning of the Gospel, which is the life of Christianity (‘Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say Rejoice’), for which Christianity longs…

“If man would see what I call joy, or if man would simply love Christ…and would come to Him, nothing else would be needed. If not, nothing will help. All begins with a miracle, not with conversations. I feel tired of the noise and the petty intrigues that surround the Church, of the absence of breathing space, of silence, of rhythm, of all that is present in the Gospel. Maybe that is why I love an empty church, where the Church speaks through silence… I love everything that usually seems to be ‘in between’ (to walk on a sunny morning to work, to look at a sunset, to quietly sit a while), that which may not be important, but which alone, it seems to me, is that chink through which a mysterious ray of light shines. Only in these instances do I feel alive, turned to God; only in them is there the beating of a completely ‘other’ life… Why do I know with such certitude that I am in contact with the ‘ultimate,’ that which gives total joy and faith, the rock against which all problems crash?”

We would do well to remember that Christianity is a Gospel of joy, which characterizes the abundant life that Jesus came to give us. Joy in the Lord is what ought to make Christians a uniquely enviable people. Yet is that what the world sees? Nietzsche’s trenchant critique is dead on: “The redeemed should look more redeemed.” If God entering this world to bring us the gift of everlasting life does not fill us with joy, we simply have no capacity for joy—or we have become accustomed to taking God’s marvelous gifts for granted. An oriental evangelist once said that we tend to esteem lightly the Lord’s blessings due to the sheer abundance of them! There certainly are plenty of causes of sorrow in this world, but St Peter urges us: “In this”—all that God has done and is preparing for us—“you rejoice” (1Peter 1:6).