Sorrowful Joy

Was thinking yesterday – it being 9/11 – about how sadness is necessary. It’s the inverse of something I’ve heard an atheist say, that in an unfeeling, impersonal, chaotic universe, joy is a fleeting thing, so we have to cling to it. G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy that he believed that something of the opposite is true.

It seems weird: how can one be sad if one believes that the universe begins and ends in joy? Because we’re cut off from it.

Joy leaks through; little rivulets of mirth seeping into our daily life, welling up from we-know-not-where. Sunlight streaming in through chinks. I think of the way Tolkien wrote about Mirkwood in The Hobbit, how on the edges of the forest, light only sometimes made it through the layers and layers of leaves, until it stabbed blindingly into the gloom beneath. And when they come through, it’s party time. We rejoice. We see the True Thing that we are dying for and we know, for a little while, that everything will be all right, that all darkness must pass. Sam Gamgee, trapped in Mordor, knowing that the only way out was through the nightmare, looked up as the high air parted the Dark Lord’s stormclouds for just a space, and spied a star. And even though the stars themselves will go out one day, even now they shine whether we see them or not.

But that joy is fleeting. We see it for a little while, the taste is still sweet on our lips, and then it is gone. We are back to the half-life, the half-light, the wrong notes and the broken loves. We go back to a world full of traitors and liars, thieves, and gluttons. And the weeds that choke life out of those we see around us have rooted themselves in the earth of our own hearts, refusing to be torn out, coming back time and again like bindweed.

And we mourn.

I love a keening song. I keep a list of them. The sadness and the longing express more perfectly than my words the theme that my heart knows every day. If the tastes of joy are true, if they are not delusions, then they hint of a glory so profound that I would die in ecstasy to know them. They are the stray, pure strains of a symphony so great that all the voices of the human race could not sing it, nor any instrument perform it, lest they crumble to dust at the first note. But tastes and touches are all I have: the abiding love of my friends, wisdom in the mind of a stranger, art displayed in song and story, generosity beyond measure, and the richness and variety of the natural world.

The tune echoes yet in the depths of our hearts. We are desperately wicked, but we haven’t forgotten completely. Not yet. It comes through, now and again, and when it is loud enough, our world dances to it. At that time, I am the most joyful and yet the saddest. Because then I know for sure, without any wisp of doubt, that the whole of the universe is ringing with song, and I am deaf. Death strikes, and strikes again, in small ways and large. Hatred, greed, cruelty, apathy: these are the death of the soul, and it leads too quickly to death of the body. Even when we resist them, our bodies wither and die. Even the one who lives a life full of years and love must come to grief in the end. We can never be rid of this, so long as this world lasts.

Someday we will all be made whole. Our ears will be opened and our eyes renewed, and we will know that song in full. Until then, all joy is bound with sorrow.

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