Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Rave or Rosary? Pub or Prayer?

If there is one thing that continually amazes me about my students is their capacity for joy. By the time that they've reached the sixth-form they've reached the age where they are able to arrange their own entertainment and their own celebrations.

Of course, the latter teenage years have a reputation for excess - and excess of alcohol, excess of food, an excess of video games and an excess of a certain procreative activity. Sometimes our youngsters learn the hard way that the excess of pleasure leads to much in the way of sadness as they become bored with their experiences and seek greater and greater thrills in more and more dangerous tendencies to self destruction.

One may see the effects of this in the life and death of Ryan Dunn, a daredevil and personality in Jackass. It's one thing to risk one's life for the furtherance of human endeavour, but is it right to endanger one's life just for a thrill? In the former category, we have the achievements of the American and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts who have risked their lives to help us understand our human position in space. On the other, we have those who play chicken on a busy motorway. Both claim to be celebrations of living, of this wonderful feeling of being alive, being human, being brilliant. However, one risks the lives and happiness of others unnecessarily.

I suppose I'm a bit of a curmudgeon now. Certainly in my profession, it is easy to see the worst in an activity, to be conscious of dangers and possible outcomes. Schoolmasters have a reputation for being killjoys.

This does point to another side of humanity. There are people who are almost afraid to have fun. One can think of the Venerable Jorge in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose who fears laughter in the monastery because it threatens a lack of control, a level of lawlessness and irreverence. His thesis is that Christ never laughed thus neither should anyone who follows Christ. These days, the time-ravaged old monk would find himself in charge of Elf and Safety.

One thing the Venerable Jorge is right about is that, for the Christian, the point of life is not the pursuit of happiness but the search for God within our lives and within the world around us. Our true happiness is contingent on finding God.

Is it possible that the Venerable Jorge is not so different from Ryan Dunn? Could Jorge be a spiritual daredevil performing dangerous stunts with his own asceticism in what he can deny himself just for the thrill of knowing that he can control himself physically only to kill off part of his own humanity in doing so? Jorge would see this as becoming more like Christ. However it is also true that some Christians of a more epicurean bent believe themselves to becoming more like Christ by enjoying an exuberant atmosphere.

The Benedictine way is always to strike the middle ground. There are feasts and fasts within the Church year and deliberately so. There are times to be silent and times to be noisy. Provided that one observes both seasons fully there is no real problem.

However, it seems that we have forgotten the art of celebrating well. The tendency is to try and prolong that euphoria, that high, for much longer than its natural length. Many of my older students see the aim of drinking as being drunk because it's fun. It's a loss of inhibition - they find inhibition oppressive and drunkenness is seen as a liberation from always having to be in control. I wonder whether anyone can blame them in a world which doesn't always come across as being a cheerful place to live.

I wonder, though, whether they are trying to run away from themselves a little, that they are dissatisfied with being who they are and with their own humdrum existence so they try and blot it out. I think they do themselves a great disservice by doing so as they have so much to offer society as they are. Learning to become oneself as one is meant to be is more liberating than any amount of vodka.

Our society just doesn't celebrate well and veers from one extreme to the other. We either do it to excess with little regard for those around us, or we do it too little and thus lose a capacity for joi de vivre. Lately, I feel rather in the second category. "You will always find me in the kitchen at parties", as the song goes. Am I the only one who finds themselves most alone at some shindig or other surrounded by many people and lots of noise?

It is important to instruct our children in the ways of enjoying life properly. If that means a split lip, grazed knee and muddy T-shirts because of an accident on a bike, then so be it. They need to learn to appreciate that wonderful aphorism "after ecstasy, the laundry." The routine of everyday life must inevitably be resumed after a celebration, but one can carry the memories of that happiness into the days ahead. Celebration is both an art and a skill that need to be learned and some of us need to re-learn this in order to have our capacity for joy.

The Christian's joy is in God and, unlike Jorge, I believe that this joy can be found in this life as well as the next. It just needs to be measured against the two commandments of God to love Him with all facets of our existence and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Strangely, if you think about these, you begin to realise that God's commandments do actually bring forth a capacity for joy in living.


JamesIII said...

The Name of the Rose of a favorite book of mine but I must take issue with Jorge. I think that Our Lord must have had a divine sense of humor (pun intended). His parables often seem to have a powerful lesson that is sometimes a bit tongue-in-cheek. We are not told much about his personality but great intellegence is usually coupled with a great sense of humor and I can picture him laughing. Joy and laughter are almost inseparable.

The scriptures are filled with references to "joy". "Be joyful in the Lord all ye lands".

That said, much of contemporary pleasure seeking seems more an act of desperation than one of joy.


Warwickensis said...

Absolutely, James.

I know that God has got a sense of humour for creating wasps. The panic that they cause in my sixth-form is priceless.

Still, part of me wonders how Jorge would respond to you. I'm sure he'd have some wonderful argument as to why joy and happiness are not the same.

This modern hedonism is a desparation to fill a silence that has resulted from consistent rejection of all Divine Rule dating right back to an apple, a garden and a serpent. No-one thinks to stand up to put their ear right up against the wall of that silence, do they?

edpacht1 said...

I think this discussion is just what Eco intended in depicting Jorge. There is a certain deep seriousness that cannot be neglected. Sin and human need are indeed so serious as to have merited the ugly and unjoyous sight of a cricufixion.

But the Jorge character (like many religious folk) seems to have lost sight of the Resurrection, of the deliverance, the exuberance, the wild joy of life restored and death defeated, of (if I may be so bold) the cosmic joke played upon Satan in making the worst he could do to be the very instrument of redemption.\

In the light of the Cross and Resurrection, true sorrow always includes the joyful realization that there is an answer, and true joy always includes recognition of the horrors that required such a deliverance.

As in all things, truth is found at the balance point.