Divinity and Despair
Happiness is a side effect. We have all seen social media posts about being happy, the smiling faces with generic phrases, captioned “SO HAPPY RIGHT NOW, OMG”, the “inspirational” quotes telling you to look for happiness and stop worrying, the gurus on their yoga mats holding matcha tea lattes and saying something about sunshine and an old Buddhist saying. It always sounds very nice.
No one has ever woken up and willed themselves to be happy. You can will yourself to accept something. You can will yourself to be better. You can will yourself to conquer and move on from life’s tragic schemes. You can will yourself to be miserable, but you can never will yourself to be happy. Happiness happens as a consequence of the pursuit of meaning. It is one of those things in life that we might call a grace because it is freely given to us, unexpectedly and without action on our part, like a gift from God.
It is for this same reason that we say we “fall in love”. When we see another beautiful soul that attracts us as if from different dimensions, the emotional, pure, courageous love that comes upon us is much like the feeling of happiness that so many people fake on social media. It is also what so many people think is the objective of our existence. Happiness happens to us just like falling in love. It is truly incredible how unhappy we can be when we are actively looking to be happy in our lives. In the pursuit of happiness, we are always chasing something that cannot be willed by us.
Jonathan Pageau says that there are some things, like mysteries or the veils of truth, that become false, fake, or nonexistent when they are spoken about or objectified. A just man can be just, and all the people who see him say, “What a just man! He is honorable, he is humble, and he is good!”, but as soon as the just man says of himself, “I am just!” he is no longer just. The truth was true until spoken. The veil that covered it, being the fact that a just man never calls himself just, kept the man’s justice true and real. When we try to seek happiness, we encounter the reality that happiness is so fleeting and often interrupted or totally obliterated by stress, pain, labor, or unexpected tragedy. We chase happiness and find it scarcer and scarcer.
Happiness is a side effect. It is a beautiful, miraculous side effect, but a side effect, nonetheless. Satisfaction is something different. Where children look for happiness, adults look for meaning. In a life as miserable as this one—so full of pain, tragedy, disappointment, malevolence, and destruction—contemporary apologists of sanity, like Jordan Peterson, advocate taking on oneself as much a load of responsibility as one can. It is similar to taking upon our shoulders the heaviest cross we can possibly carry because with responsibility of the cross comes the meaning and purpose of fending off, fighting, and integrating the madness that surrounds us in order to lessen the chaos and malevolence. It is like taking the sins of the world upon our shoulders and bearing them so that we as individuals might be redeemed, and in doing so, might redeem the world around us.
It is within the struggle that we find happiness. A mother of a family may be worn and weary of taking care of her children; a father may be fatigued and drained by the work he does for those he loves. But, if they endlessly struggle against the entropy of character and the entropy of the world upon their families, they might enjoy the passing happiness that is a grace of God. They might have, like Atlas, a moment of happiness and love when they look on their children as they hold up the world on their shoulders. But it is almost certain that they will find meaning and purpose in their sacrifice because it provides the impetus to act in the face of life’s toils.
Why is it that we need to be always fighting and struggling to progress? We need to be in constant battle to appreciate a brief peace. We know something of this process and its ideals inherently when we see athletes compete and practice, musicians train day and night for the coming concert, artists fight with their own conflicts of emotion near their canvas. Without a fight we merely fall further and further into decay like a garden that is untended. Christ bled for his garden as He bled in Gethsemane. His bloody tears watered the ground that grows the true Christians, the true men and women who take the sins of the world on their shoulders. We need to toil to grow anything. This is where the Jordan Petersons of the world fail to find a satisfactory finale.
Pain, or rather separation, in our present state of being, seems to be part of the Divinity which we seek and the Christ which we desire to live in as St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). It is as if a climb to God is not possible, and therefore it was necessary that Christ came because He Is the unity of the highest and the lowest. HE is the criminal and the king, the lawgiver and the transgressor of the law, the sin and the sinless. G.K. Chesterton says that at the moment Christ said, “My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46-49) it was like He became an atheist. “Let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.” (Orthodoxy). Slavov Zizek, a political philosopher, communist, and modernist theologian, says of Christ and life that it is as if the burden of life is so terrible and unbearable that God Himself seemed to be an atheist. This seemingly blasphemous heretic has a point. There was no happiness there for Christ. There was despair at the quality of being. There was no rainbow or sunshine or nonfat lattes. Yet it was not the same despair that drives men mad or the despair that kills the ability of the soul to rise again. There was ultimate meaning. There was the conquering of life and death and in facing it Christ became the unity of that death and life.
According to Gregory of Nyssa, the great mystical teacher of the Eastern Church, Moses ascends the mount of Sinai like we all must ascend and grow towards the Divine. He ascended to be closer with God and to receive from Him the Law. He sought the way to live life well to be pleasing to God. He ascended in imitation of Christ ascending Golgotha. When Moses reached the top of the mountain, after the struggle and burden of all that he fought to save among the Israelites and struggle and burden of walking that perilous road he was met with a great cloud once again. Jonathan Pageau says this cloud is mystery, the unknown, the veil, the protection for the mysteries of the Divine like the veil of the Temple or the Tabernacle on the high altar. It is a symbol of the actual and metaphorical separation we have from God. It is the thing we must get past and the thing that must be there to protect and be a layer around mysterious.
Adam and Eve were given clothes of skin to protect them in the world they were forced out into with all its thorns and thistles. They were passions and emotions, symbolic deadness of skin, the animal parts of us, that we possess to guard us against the chaos. It was a preparation, not for a journey into a place where we seek happiness, but rather a journey to a place we find meaning in battle and burden. The skins were not merely a burden. They were a protection from the world and shields against the chaos.
The trials for Moses to Ascend were like the shedding of those garments of skin, those dead layers that protect like when he removed his sandals before the burning bush. It is the disappearance of the passions controlling us and the forces of our nature only to be met with the cloud, another covering and another separation between us and God. It was another place of mystery even after all those trials to see through the veil as St. Paul says we see through a dirty mirror. Sinai was ascended by Moses and Golgotha by Christ. Moses met the cloud and Christ was met with temptation to despair at the separation from God. The highest and the lowest met together as heaven and earth touched for a moment as they did when God created them and the spirit of God moved over the waters. “Be light made”. And then there is the Resurrection and the bright light and the descent of Moses to the people with the horns upon his head shining to all who dared to look.
This is the process. This is the life we ought to live and the Christ we ought to be, where the things that once burdened us and held us down are then glorified and put back on to be a shining crown of glory like a crown of thorns. Moses’ horns of light, animalistic horns now glorified as if the animal skins that clothed Adam and Eve were now inverted. But until then it is separation and a constant conflict for closeness.
It bothered me very recently when I heard the sermon given at the Easter Vigil between all the powerful symbolism and meaning in those rites about this process. The priest, talking of Baptism, said that the ancient rite of submergence was like being submerged in Christ, as if it were a entering into Christ. He left it at that. I was a little disappointed, to be honest, because for most people, that probably means something like a vague admonition to be more Christ-like, and it is, and that is good in its own way. It is a submergence in Christ and much more deeply it is a submergence into the thing (water) which is both the life and the death of many. It is the thing which can destroy cities or cover the earth. It is necessary to have for any life to be present across the whole world, but also it is the cause of so much utter chaos. The ocean is perilous to all and a small stream is a refreshing drink. For a moment when the ancient Christian was being submerged in the enormous baptismal fonts he or she might have felt like they might die, and they were going to die. They might have slightly gasped for breath when brought back up to the surface because for a second, they might have thought it was their last breath. You are put in the water not to be greeted or hugged by Christ who welcomes you to the family, but more like you are there to drown with Christ and die to be reborn. People often talk about the rebirth of the soul, but I would say that sometimes the dying part is forgotten.
You may be happy sometimes. It is a gift. Cherish it. It is a grace. Be thankful for it. But stop looking for it. Bliss is something that comes later, and happiness flees most of the time. Do not going running after it and get lost in the wilderness like the Israelites. The mountain sits and waits for your ascent, and whether you want to call it Sinai or Golgotha the cloud is at the summit, death and life.