Have a Happy (Yes, I Said Happy) Lent!

“When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites...” (Matthew 6:16)

(photo: Pixabay/CC0)

Every now and then in signing off on an email, one Catholic to another, I have to restrain myself from employing the phrase “Happy Lent!” as a complimentary close.  “Happy Easter” most people understand; but the idea of Lent as “happy” sounds off, at least in modern English.  Since most people would take it as sarcasm, I usually refrain.  But really, Lent is happy.

Mind you, I am not an utter barbarian: I would no more wish anyone a “Merry Lent” than I would express hope for their “merry death.”  That’s not just because “Merry Christmas” has different associations than the more solemn “Happy Easter.”  It’s because “merry” and “happy” actually have different connotations, even different meanings once word detection scrapes beneath the surface.  The first sense that the OED gives for “merry” is “That causes pleasure,” and most of the derivative senses of the word involve “pleasant” or “pleasing.”  The second major sense of “merry” is “Characterized by happiness or joy”—which makes sense, since “happy” and “merry” are sometimes treated as synonyms. 

Similarly, the secondary senses of “happy” “relat[e] to pleasing appropriateness or aptness” (italics added).  But the first senses of “happy” are those “related to good fortune.”  It is under this sense that the Beatitudes are sometimes translated with the word “happy,” even though that leads to some rather curious and (ahem) infelicitous combinations, e.g., “Happy are they that mourn.”  (Or, in the Old Testament, “Happy the man whom God chastises.”)  It is probably better on the whole, modern English being what it is, that “blessed” has been almost universally adopted instead; like “consubstantial,” it has the advantage of being a word that we all know we don’t quite understand, and thus cuts down on more serious misunderstanding.

But etymologically “happy” does suggest what the word “blessed” also aims to convey: the idea that one is fortunate.  It comes from the same root hap that yielded “happen” and “happenstance.”  Originally, all three were relatively neutral words relating to luck, lot, or chance.  But somewhere along the way some bright people (who were almost certainly Christian, and might recently have been discussing Romans 8:28) got the notion that, Providence being what it was, every hap that happened to a man was ultimately for his good.  So “happy” came to mean not merely “eventful” or “having stuff happen” but specifically “having good stuff happen, fortunate.”

Thus, “merry” focuses on first impressions or sensations: on the superficial, the pleasing, the immediately gratifying or enjoyable.  You can tell from someone’s expression whether or not they are “merry.”  Happiness is significantly harder to see and harder to achieve, but it runs deeper and is more satisfying.  The ancients were fond of making observations like “Call no man happy till he is dead,” a rather disappointing suggestion which Jesus does not seem to have followed but which certainly coheres with the Christian notion of heaven as the only place of perfect happiness.

I don’t mean, by the way, to knock the idea of merriment.  The merry who are not happy are pretty hollow folk; but the happy who can also be merry are truly delightful company.  Indeed, if merriment is the outward sign of pleasure, then Aristotle’s description of pleasure resting atop happiness as “the bloom of youth” rests on a young person’s cheek is apropos.  Merriment is the full bloom of happiness, or at least the way happiness manifests itself in certain circumstances.  It is rather like the experience of champagne.  One could simply drink wine, and be solemnly happy (quoaduseque hilaritatem, anyway), or one could drink champagne and have the bubbles of merriment along with the alcohol.  Even in the latter case one would hardly say that the bubbles are the point—if they were, one would be drinking Martinelli’s—but they do add something to the experience.

The analogy of champagne, as well as the connection of “merry” to the pleasing and to the superficial and to sense pleasure, perhaps clarifies why “Merry Lent” would be so much more inappropriate than “Happy Lent.”  There is nothing superficially or sensorily pleasant about Lent (excepting perhaps austere Lenten polyphony, assuming one’s musical taste runs in that direction).  But Lent is fortunate for those of us who are lucky enough to have the chance at it.  Lived rightly, it can make us blessed indeed.

If it still seems contradictory to wish someone a “Happy Lent,” consider the following.  In the Summa Theologiae (III.46.8), Aquinas considers “Whether Christ's entire soul enjoyed blessed fruition during the Passion.”  His answer:

… If it be understood according to its essence, then [Christ’s] whole soul did enjoy fruition, inasmuch as it is the subject of the higher part of the soul, to which it belongs, to enjoy the Godhead: so that as passion, by reason of the essence, is attributed to the higher part of the soul, so, on the other hand, by reason of the superior part of the soul, fruition is attributed to the essence. But if we take the whole soul as comprising all its faculties, thus His entire soul did not enjoy fruition: not directly, indeed, because fruition is not the act of any one part of the soul; nor by any overflow of glory, because, since Christ was still upon earth, there was no overflowing of glory from the higher part into the lower, nor from the soul into the body. But since, on the contrary, the soul's higher part was not hindered in its proper acts by the lower, it follows that the higher part of His soul enjoyed fruition perfectly while Christ was suffering.

Plain English translation:

The more basic elements of the soul, those that human beings share with animals—nutrition, growth, reproduction, exterior senses (taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell), and interior senses (the common sense, imagination, the estimative or cogitative sense, and memory)—are all affected by physical suffering; and to a certain extent the appetites (irascible and concupiscible) are as well.  Thus, Christ in his suffering was truly suffering in these parts (“faculties”) of his soul.  But the intellect and will are not directly affected by suffering, although in most of us, due to our weakness, purely physical suffering does overflow as mental anguish.  But in Christ’s intellect and will, the higher, specifically human parts of the soul, He still enjoyed communion—and thus blessedness, or happiness—with His Father in Heaven.

Still plainer English translation: It is possible to be happy even while it hurts.

Now by all means, go on closing your emails with “Blessed Lent.”  As I noted above, it will probably lead to a lot less confusion (and possibly avoid scandal).  But if you want to give your Catholic friends a little taste of Chestertonian paradox, feel free to sign off with the word “happy,” and let them know it’s a jolly* old English tradition.

*OED V.13.a., “Exceedingly pleasant, agreeable, or ‘nice’; delightful.” …