Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mother vs. Happiness

Where does it start, our downhill slide -- a slide into serious sin for the most damaged; for the rest. at best, into lukewarmth and mediocrity?

I suppose it begins with our desire to be happy, which is quickly corrupted by our belief that we deserve to be happy. I've known few people who don't secretly harbor this belief, including the very best of men. Our self-regard, our amour-propre, is so deep and intractable that even those of us who strive for holiness find it hard to escape the notion that this holiness, once attained, will curry favor with God and loosen up all kinds of neat stuff for us. It's hard to escape the thinking that if f I, say, pray and work for a sincere conversion, or go to daily Mass, or give lots of money to the poor, or pray for the people that I hate, then God, noticing with approval, will send me a really nice guy, or put in a word with my boss about a raise, or at least make my life just a little less painful and difficult. 

This belief is reinforced by a popular narrative in Catholic writing, which features the protagonist's turning or returning to God, after which everything falls neatly into place. This narrative is (no doubt unintentionally) deceptive, because it implies cause and effect, actions and consequences. It doesn't acknowledge the untold numbers of people who turn or return to God -- who turn or return to Him daily, in fact -- and who strive to orient their lives and wills completely in the direction of His own, but who nevertheless suffer, who continue to suffer, and whose sufferings persist and even get worse. 

We all want the shiny stuff, and to shore up our uncertain futures with the goods which, in a logical and just world, might be purchased by our holiness. But I doubt it really works that way, and am more inclined to believe that, at best, we have our brief moments of triumph and delight, before we're kicked right back down to the curb again, which is, essentially, where we belong: for, as Hamlet said, "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?" 

And why should it be otherwise? I used to know a sedevacantist mother of many children, whom I once overheard telling one of them about Jesus cursing the fig tree. She finished by explaining that the Lord would condemn those who squandered their gifts, adding (smugly, as it seemed to me), "So I had ten fruits." Nevertheless, I think we should probably ponder, and should perhaps shudder, before we assume that anything we've done is actually good, since we're no more than unprofitable servants doing our duty.

When I was a child and later a teen, I would often propose certain activities or situations to my mother, explaining that doing or having something, or becoming something, or going somewhere in particular, would make me happy. I bitterly resented her standard response, which was the sobering "You're not here to be happy. You're here to make the world a better place." But I know now that she was right. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's the only reason we're actually here.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in his poem "God's Grandeur":

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

I believe that, when Hopkins says that the world is "charged" with God's grandeur, he means two things: that God's grandeur is immanent in all things, that the created world is imbued and shot through with it; but, also, that it is the duty of creatures to bear, to maintain, and to reveal that grandeur: that revealing it is, in fact, our charge. It is our duty, as unprofitable servants, as my mother would say, to make the world a better place.

A friend of mine who follows an eastern religion told me his guru compared enlightenment to one's mother being home all the time. I loved that analogy, but it made me wonder whether enlightenment is or is not synonymous with happiness. Is having mother home happiness? Is mother happiness? One would think so; but as the German Romantic poet Klaus Groth put it in his poem "Heimweh II" -- Heimweh meaning, essentially, grief over the lost home, which is not just a house, but is a whole universe: 

O wüsst ich doch den Weg zurück,
Den lieben Weg zum Kinderland!
O warum sucht' ich nach dem Glück
Und liess der Mutter Hand?

In translation:

Oh, if I only knew the way back,
the dear way back to childhood's land!
Oh why did I seek happiness
and let go of my mother's hand?

That image of letting go of mother's hand to seek happiness is so wrenchingly poignant, and it seems not only to suggest that happiness is not a worthy goal, but also to assert that happiness is not mother. Mother is something else, something different -- something more than happiness. In fact, in my own mother's formula, mother, while not happiness, makes the world a better place.

I don't believe that being a mother makes one happy, nor should it. I don't even believe that mother, or children, or anyone else deserves to be happy. But the ethos of having mother -- of having mother home all the time -- is better, somehow, than happiness, is beyond happiness, and I suppose it's what heaven must be like.

Monday, May 26, 2014

In Memory of the Dead

A. E. Housman wrote his poem cycle A Shropshire Lad in 1896, so this excerpt is not really about World War I; but I can't hear George Butterworth's bittersweet setting of it without thinking of it as prophetic of the composer's own death in the Battle of the Somme, and the deaths of so many others in the flower of their youth. 

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair, 
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will neve
r be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.