‘Festivitas’ — A Recipe for Joy

Those who refuse joy, who will neither love nor be loved by another, make themselves first cousins to despair.

Adriaen van de Venne, “Shrove Tuesday in the Country,” c. 1625
Adriaen van de Venne, “Shrove Tuesday in the Country,” c. 1625 (photo: Pixabay)

The first time I took a look at Josef Pieper’s In Tune With The World, which is a tiny little thing brought out in 1963 but still in print almost 60 years later, it appeared to be no thicker than a piece of toast. How meaty can this meal be? I asked myself. Well, I’ve been dining out on it ever since, and now it nourishes my students as well.

Open it up and you’ll see that on the very first page Pieper has already set the table, along with the main course staring you straight in the face. It is a dish called festivitas, the taste of which instantly implicates you in the whole of reality. Like death and love, he explains, it is a totalizing experience, which means that the attitude you take up towards it will determine your entire understanding of the world. 

Is the world we live in a good place to be? Can the cosmos actually serve as a setting for celebration? How you answer these questions, and others, says Pieper, will be the result of the stance you take on the matter of festivitas.

So, what does the word mean? Well, says Pieper, it’s a bit like St. Augustine’s take on time: you think you know what it is until some upstart comes along and has the temerity to ask. Which can be rather confounding. Unless, of course, you happen to be St. Augustine, whose response to such impertinence became Book XI of his Confessions. But what the thing itself is, what every festive event evokes, is an experience of joy. Why else have a party unless you’ve got something to celebrate? “Festivity is joy and nothing else,” Pieper insists, citing an early Greek Father. Not happiness or pleasure, mind you, but something far deeper and richer, involving an intensity of gladness that suffuses the whole of your being, steeping the soul in sheer blessedness.

And when the state of that blessedness is finally made perfect, it is because you are looking upon the face of God from the other side of death. Here, says Pieper, is “the utmost perfection to which man may attain, the fulfillment of his being … the highest intensification of life, the absolutely perfect activity,” no greater than which can possibly be imagined. And when it happens, to quote the final lines from T.S. Eliot’s poetic masterpiece, Four Quartets,

…all shall be well and
And all manner of thing shall be well.
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire.
And the fire and the rose are one. 

A festival, then, is simply a day or an hour on which you are moved to rejoice. But, again, it cannot exist on its own unless you’ve actually got something that makes you truly glad. If you’ve nothing to rejoice about, then throwing a party becomes a travesty. “Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves,” Pieper tells us. What that implies, of course, is that if you love nothing, not even the fact of your being alive, there can be no reason to celebrate. St. John Chrysostom has expressed this in a concise and unforgettable text, one which Pieper is so fond of as to have festooned it to the front piece of his book: Ubi caritas gaudet, ibi est festivitas. (Where love rejoices, there is festivity.)

 It is all tied up with time, by the way, whose movements will reveal the shifting sands of one’s joy. For instance, if one is in possession of the thing one loves in the present, in what St. Paul has called the Kairos, or the now moment, then the level of one’s joy will be pretty high — unlike, say, past or future joy which one either remembers because it is no more, or longs someday to receive. Not to have this joy, of course, leaves one feeling sad, bereft even. But not in a way that is other than salutary. That is, if St. Thomas Aquinas is to believed, on whose towering shoulders Pieper gratefully stands. True sadness, teaches Thomas, takes place when the soul finds itself “awakened by an absentee good” — i.e., one which ought to be present but, alas, is not, even as it leaves open the possibility of someday becoming present. The Rich Young Man, for example, who went away sad because he had so many riches, was not really wicked. Had he not kept all the commandments? But his life was incomplete for want of that total gift of self for which Christ was asking; it was precisely his awareness of its absence that left him empty and sad. A good thing, too, as it may yet drive him into the arms of God. 

 The other kind of sadness, however, which is its opposite number and deadly indeed, happens when, notwithstanding the presence of an obvious and spiritual good — for instance, Christ’s unheard offer of salvation — you turn away as if it weren’t satisfying enough. “Is this all you’ve got to give me?” you ask glumly. That sort of sadness may prove in the end damnable. 

 Luigi Giussani describes the sickness this way: “If sadness is a spark,” he writes in The Religious Sense, “which is generated by the lived ‘potential difference’ (to use an electrical term) between the ideal destination and its historical unfulfillment, if this is what sadness is, then the concealment of that ‘difference’ — however it is done — creates the logical opposite of sadness, which is despair.”

 It is the one sin against the Holy Spirit, we are told, that cannot be forgiven since, so long as one is in its grip, one will not ask for forgiveness. And those who refuse joy, who will neither love nor be loved by another, for whom festivitas has no appeal whatsoever, they make themselves first cousins to that despair. 

‘Bread and Water’

The Joy of Fasting

“The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others.” (Catechism 1434)