Friday 19 November 2010

On joy: twelve theses

A sequel to the theses on sadness.

1. As icons are painted on gold, so the lives of saints are written on a background of light.

2. Evelyn Underhill knew a saintly man, Father Wainwright. ‘He was an indifferent – and in later years an inarticulate – preacher; people came to his sermons, not so much to listen as to look at his face.’

3. Why are the faces of holy people so important, not only in iconography but also in Christian experience and memory? Joy is the physical surfacing of the light of God. As the moon reflects the sun, so joy shines in the holy face.

4. Each thing shines with its own particularity, the irreducible strangeness of its difference. Chesterton speaks of ‘the startling wetness of water’, ‘the fieriness of fire’, ‘the unutterable muddiness of mud’. Joy is the vision of each thing’s shining, an awareness of the unbearably bright difference of every other thing.

5. A painting summons us to relish its lines and colours; a tree invites us to marvel at its roots and leafy shadows; the body of a lover beckons us to draw delight from its hidden wells; young children demand that we face them while they play, so that the miracle of their difference will not be without witnesses. Left to ourselves we shrink inwards, anaesthetised by a drowsy solipsism. Joy is waking to reality; joy is salvation from the self. It is our startled response to the call of another.

6. Joy is itinerant and can be visited in many places, but its regular venue is friendship. Friendship is the love of difference. The face of the friend is the mirror in which the joy of one's own difference shines.

7. The subjective precondition for joy is not earnestness or sentimentality (much less a posture of generic ‘openness’), but attention. Attention is the discipline of active passivity, an intense concentration on what is there. It is what Simone Weil calls ‘waiting’: ‘We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them [attendus].’ This is why Paul speaks of joy not as aesthetics but as ethics. Writing to the Philippians in the chains of Christ, he subjects them to a moral imperative: ‘Rejoice!’

8. Raw materials for a Christian ethics of joy: the distance of prayer; the patience of reading; the veneration of the meal; the delight of friendship; the tenderness of eros; the love of childhood; the obedience of learning; the speed of imagining; the superfluity of art; and the omneity of language.

9. Joy is most intimately related not to happiness but to sorrow, not to fullness but to the void of non-being. Joy is ontological vulnerability, a leap across the abyss of difference. Sorrow is a small hole in the flute through which joy breathes its tune.

10. Happiness is analogous to joy as Facebook is analogous to friendship, or as a brothel is analogous to marriage. Happiness is the gratification of desire. Joy does not fulfil desire but exceeds it so majestically as to obliterate it. Joy is ascesis, the criticism of desire. The criticism of desire is also desire’s purgation and renovation. Joy is the baptism of desire, its drowning and rising again. The fullness of joy is an ache of absence. ‘Our best havings are wantings’ (C. S. Lewis).

11. As that which breaks desire and denies all gratification, joy finds itself in a strange alliance with the tragic.

12. Joy resists articulation and control. It is always vanishing, always beckoning, inconsolable union of memory and hope. It cannot be grasped since its nature is to undo all grasping. What would it mean to possess joy fully, to hold it fast so that it did not vanish away? That would be resurrection: the shining of eternity in a body of death.


Shane from Texas said...

These are beautiful, poetic, and thought-engaging, Ben.

I'm a long-time reader, but first-time commenter. This, coupled with your post on sadness, is far more meaningful a thing than I would have ever expected from a blog. Thank you

Richard Littledale said...

Very interesting. With reference to point #9 - note Dietrich Bonhoeffer's poem "sorrow and joy" which notes that extremes of hot & cold burn us alike.

Jon Coutts said...

Thanks for this. Particularly 4, 5, 7, 9 and 10.

Alex said...

By "distance of prayer," do you mean the distance it creates from man's normal daily routine, or any distance we might feel from God when we pray, or something else entirely?

The Charismanglican said...

I heard a quote (forget from whence it came): "At fifty, everyone has the face they deserve." This meditation on the physical manifestation of joy is great.

Keene Theology (formerly "Student") said...

Hi Ben, I'm at your favorite hotel in Atlanta, attending the SBL conference. I've learned that next year AAR and SBL are rejoining in Annual Meeting; perhaps I'll see you.

Meanwhile, thanks for this post and the photo of Mother Teresa in particular. She is a heroine and mentor to me in compassion, activism, prayer and hard work.

The faces of holy people are important. They shine with knowing, peace, even divine light at times. There's a knowing in the countenance, even a transcendence. Those who want to see auras.

Thanks for another inspiring post.

(Also here at SBL last night a new acquaintance gifted me the WiFi!)

Anonymous said...

P. S. Chatted with Michael Bird after the N. T Wright this evening. Now I've googles him and indeed you know one another. He spoke well tonight and his hair is fabulous too. Nice fellow, smart. Now back to the topic. Thanks.

Unknown said...

This post shook me out of a drowsy solipsism - thank you.

Anonymous said...

Number 10 reminds me of something posted on our bathroom wall:
'Reichtum ist die Kotze des Glücks'

Weekend Fisher said...

It's great to hear serious attention being paid to joy. Very deserving of attention, joy.

But I had a question: If art is superfluous, then explain to me the beauty of the universe and all that's in it? ;)

I'm not quite sure the Creator would agree that art is superfluous. I suspect joy lies very close to the reason for the act of creation, almost itself as the foundation of the universe. Joy is first-cousin to love in that way too.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Ben Myers said...

Hi Anne. Yes, I completely agree about the parallel between the joy of art and the joy of creation. I think both are superfluous: there's no reason for God to create the world (since love is its own reason), just as there's no reason to make music or paint a picture.

The Dutch theologian A. A. van Ruler puts it like this: "Why did God create the world? For the fun of it." In other words, the superfluity of creation is its glory.

jedidiah said...

Thanks for this. I especially appreciate Thesis 2.

I have never been quite comfortable with the contrasting of joy and happiness. I think it's a little misleading. My happiest moments have been joyous, though not all my joyous moments have been happy ones.

Happiness gets a bad rap, I think. The truth is, the happy people I know are saints. I never met a happy sinner.

It is a fair translation of 'blessed' too, right?

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks Ben… beautiful post. Its not that sorrow is in any sense trivial or unimportant, its just that in the end joy is, well, a more serious and enduring matter than sorrow. And, perhaps, a far rarer thing than sorrow, just as deep and sustained goodness is a far rarer thing than the distracted and busy qualitative blandness of much adult normality. It is the children and those who bear the marks of Christ on their face who remind us of how far short of joy our lives typically fall.

Anonymous said...

Afraid of clowns and sure that Christianity shows in the face. You really need an editor.

roger flyer said...

@ Ben's Anonymous friend. I think Ben would agree, but you would not be on the short list of candidates.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that William Blake was the pre-eminent English writer/poet on the topic of Joy and Happiness, especially via Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The message he communicated is summed up in one phrase/statement:

Energy Is Eternal Delight.

It is interesting that Ben does not even use the word Energy in this post. Nor the related words ecstasy (rapturous delight)or Consciousness.

K.M. Delport said...

Great post Ben

I'm not quite so sure about number seven, particularly on the bifurcation between ethics and aesthetics. In "Interiority and Epiphany", Rowan Williams writes that the Pauline ethic has a powerfully "aesthetic foundation"(On Christian Theology, pg. 255). He goes on the write that, "...delight in the beauty of God is the goal of our action, what we minister to each other and to the human world at large." Earlier, he writes, that, “…the rationale for acting so as to manifest the nature of God is ultimately that the nature of God is that which provokes joy, delectatio.”

Regarding number twelve, I believe Blake spoke well in “Eternity” when he said, “He who binds to Himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy;/ But he who kisses a joy as it flies/ Lives in eternity’s sun rise”.

I think that Lewis’ Surprised by Joy can be read as commentary on this stanza.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This post was a gift for me,
a suprise blessing most sorely needed.

Martyn J Smith said...

Thank you for this thought-provoking list. You have now given me something to discuss with my Philosophy and Ethics group at school this Friday lunch-time ;0)

Brian Lugioyo said...

Absolutely lovely. Thank you for this post.


wayne stokeling said...

thank you

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