At the Core of Reality Is Joy
George Weigel once remarked that it seemed to him Pope John Paul II was the most fearless person he’d ever met. To him, John Paul was fearless not because he’d been through this or that experience, but because he had somehow managed to internalize the reality that the worst thing that could ever possibly happen ... had already happened — and God had brought life for the cosmos out of it.
Most of us don’t think in those terms. There’s a tendency to think that some future war, catastrophe, holocaust or apocalypse will be The Worst Thing That Will Ever Be. But it’s not true.
The Apocalypse, when it comes, will only be an image of the crucifixion. Nothing could be worse than the murder of God.
Everything in us rightly expects that, in response to such horrific and demonic evil, there’s a butcher’s bill to be paid. And there was. But it was paid by the victim. The other shoe has already dropped. And, to our shock and disbelief, it’s called Easter.
For nearly two weeks this spring, we watched the relentless and demonic cruelty of the world doing pretty much what it always does: killing the innocent in the person of Terri Schiavo by the exquisitely cruel and spiteful means of thirst. The world has not changed in 2000 years. It’s the same sort of idiotic cruelty that pointlessly pressed down a crown of thorns on Our Lord’s head out of sheer spite.
All those moronic rubbery faces of sin out of a Hieronymous Bosch painting turn out to be just portraits of what we look like when we are exulting in raw, bullying power. It’s the same thing that made it possible for camp guards to laugh as they slaughtered. That’s us. That’s our race. That is what we do. And hell gloats.
But hell is also nervous, I fancy. It has seen total victory in the past. Killing Terri Schiavo is small beer compared to killing Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was not just dead, but stomped into the ground. You cannot be any more defeated than he was. And yet, something in the grand plan of hell went terribly wrong. And I cannot help but think that, with Terri Schiavo, the lowerarchy, in between the press releases about the “peaceful painlessness of it all,” “the dangers of the rabid religious right,” and so forth, is holding all-night meetings where the hellish politburo are freaking out about the catastrophic breach in security.
For years, stuff like this murder has been happening. But now the hairless bipeds have a face. It has been taken out of the realm of anonymity and theory, and played out in excruciating detail in a way that brought it all straight into our living room. And not just any family confronted us, but a self-sacrificial family of devout Catholics who manifestly wanted nothing but their daughter to know love and care. They torment our conscience and all the attempts to paint them as somehow motivated by selfishness only make the critic look like dirt.
That makes hell nervous.
But most of all, and by far most frightening to hell, was the broadening dawn of realization that what faces us is fundamentally a spiritual war, not a political or cultural one. Terri Schiavo has inspired prayer like nothing since 9/11. Indeed, I would argue that this is our domestic 9/11.
For we have been on a collision course with our cultural schizophrenia for some time. On the one hand, we are the Liberator of the World, bringing our “higher values” to peoples living in darkness. On the other hand, we are the murderers of Terri Schiavo, arresting a kid for trying to give her a glass of water and arresting a mother for trying to keep her 14 year-old from having an abortion.
When this momentary distraction with domestic politics ceases, it will be fascinating to see if we can suddenly revert back from the Assyrian spectacle and, with a straight face, declare once again that it is our manifest destiny to enlighten mankind and remake it in the image and likeness of our culture.
I’m all for America using its power to do good in the world. That’s what power is for. But the Mass starts with the Penitential Rite for a reason. Through Terri Schiavo, God has been shouting “Repent” at a nation laboring to avoid looking at the ugly face in the mirror.
There is some real hope that more people than ever are finally beginning to do that. And when that happens, real healing can begin. There is a chance we might recognize that, at present, the war between the West and the Islamosphere is a war between Carthage and Rome, and that whoever wins will still be the enemy of the Gospel — if our culture does not repent.
So I’m hopeful. And the oddity is that this, too, is offensive to some Christians. Just as the defenders of Terri are counter-cultural, so Easter is even more counter-cultural. God seems to checkmate us at every turn.
The world tells us to be buoyant with bubbly and perky pseudo-fun when we should be wearing sackcloth and ashes. It chatters on about how Terri is “full of peace and euphoria” when it knows that a damned dirty and protracted murder full of torture is being done.
But there is another reality as well: God commands us to enter into the joy when we are tempted to despair. Angry conservative Catholicism is particularly prone to ignoring this command by labeling every command to be joyful as “Kumbaya Catholicism.”
It’s not. Joy is, as C.S. Lewis says, the serious business of heaven. There is such a thing as the sinful will to resist Joy. We are called to be angry, yet sin not. It is perfectly right to be angry at this murder, at the abandonment of Terri by people who should have undertaken her care, at the cruelty, spite and gloating of the enemies of life.
But it is a sin to place anger at the core of our being, to relentlessly practice cynicism, to focus ever and always on what is wrong, to overlook what is white in favor of what is gray, and see gray as black as possible.
Such adamant insistence on being angry, defeated, bitter and hopeless when God is telling us, on the highest authority, that joy is the deepest truth, is to allow hell a completely needless victory.
I’m not a prophet and I don’t know what the immediate future holds. I only know what eternity holds: Jesus Christ has already defeated death.
I have hope that, because of this, Terri’s blood will again be the seed of the Church. But whether or not I see that happen is irrelevant. The simple fact is, Jesus has conquered death and so, it remains permanently true that “joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.”
Therefore, it is not self-delusion or “Happy-face Christianity or “Kumbaya Catholicism” to be joyful. It is cold, sober realism.
Mark Shea is senior content editor
- April 17-23, 2005